Sons of Liberty: An Oscar-Winning Short Film

Claude Rains as Haym Solomon in Sons of Liberty. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Sons of Liberty is an Oscar-winning short film that tells the story of Haym Salomon, the Jewish financier of the American Revolution.

It’s not often that Jewish synagogues were depicted on screen during Hollywood’s early years. The founding moguls didn’t push across their religion on screen. Even in The Life of Emile Zola, a film in which antisemitism plays a strong role, they didn’t even say Jew or Jewish at any point in the film. However, it was during the 1930s when Warner Bros. was pushing their Americanism shorts. There were short films about Patrick Henry, the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln. Maybe it’s because of the Warners being Jewish but they also produced a short film about Salomon, which includes a sequence set at a shul on Yom Kippur of all days. It’s 20 minutes long but it went on to win the Oscar. The short film is airing on TCM with The Adventures of Robin Hood as the network devotes a block to Michael Curtiz.

This film might be two reels but it doesn’t come off that way. By releasing it in Technicolor, one instantly knows that the studio is spending quality money in producing the film. Throw in sets and everything and it is not a cheap production. They did this for all of the Americanism shorts even if they didn’t make their money back. It just proves to show what the Warners were willing to do in the name of the founding American ideals. Principles such as freedom and liberty are a running theme across the short films.

Salomon was born in Poland to Jewish parents that had been forced to leave Portugal. Life took him to England and then he arrived in New York in 1772. It was in America where he was able to build a life for himself. While he served as one of George Washington’s (Montagu Love) many spies, Salomon worked closely with Robert Morris (Moroni Olsen) and helped fundraise for the American Revolution. But for all of the fundraising, Salomon lived was living in poverty when he died at the age of 45 years old in 1785. Forgotten at the time of his death, the film makes sure people know who he is and what he did. Even today, the is included with the Warner Archive Collection release of Dodge City.

Larry Williams portrays an uncredited Nathan Hale. Hale asks Salomon if he remembers the Psalm 23. Salomon starts reciting the psalm before Hale joins in. That’s when we learn that one of America’s first spies is heading to his death at the hands of the Crown. Crane Wilbur is likely doing this for dramatic purposes–same with the sequence at the shul. They work well as set pieces but they likely veer away from how things really happened. Maybe they were in jail together but probably unlikely. Salomon himself escaped jail and certain death to get back to fight for the cause of liberty.

Curtiz helms the film for Warner Bros. He only spent a week directing the film. But even though he only spent a week on the film, everything about it just yells out feature-length budget. Whether it is the sets or cast, the studio really invested its money on the project, more so than any other short film in the Americanism series. There are certainly aspects about the film that don’t age well–I’m looking at you, Montagu Love. Oh yeah, the English-born Claude Rains is also not Jewish to my knowledge. It’s a shame that Paul Muni turned down the chance to star in a feature-length biopic. Hell, even John Garfield could have probably done a good job. There’s a systemic history in Hollywood of casting non-Jews in Jewish roles–unfortunately, this film only plays into it. Gale Sondergaard, who stars as Rachel Salomon is also not Jewish.

Leo F. Forbstein serves as the film’s musical director but an uncredited Howard Jackson composes the moving score. Since the film is one of the Warner Bros. Americanism shorts, the soundtrack has a similar feel. “Yankee Doodle” plays during the opening titles and again later in the film.

Haym Salomon might not have the same level of fame as George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson but Sons of Liberty is an important reminder that his place in American history is right beside them. The 20-minute short is probably as good as it is ever going to get for bringing Haym Salomon’s story to the screen.

DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
CAST: Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard, Donald Crisp, Montagu Love, Henry O’Neill, James Stephenson

Warner Bros. released Sons of Liberty in theaters on May 20, 1939. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.