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One of the very first Warner Archive Collection releases, Rasputin and the Empress is being reviewed here roughly one year after its initial release on burn-on-demand video. This prestige MGM picture from the Thalberg reign comes with a back story as interesting as anything on screen.
Touted as the first (and only) movie starring the three famous Barrymore siblings, Rasputin and the Empress was part of MGM's campaign to emphasize their royal position at the top of Hollywood glamour -- like their Grand Hotel, which put all of their top stars into one glamorous basket. This earnest retelling of (then) recent Russian history plays fast and loose with the facts with the result that the Hollywood version has taken precedence over historical reality. The known data about Grigori Rasputin can't touch the legends associated with his name. His influence was so great that official records and personal remembrances barely separate fact from rumor. MGM dramatized the conflict in the palaces of the Romanoffs by inventing characters and thinly disguising others, a decision that they would later regret. More on that below.
The story shows itinerant monk / shaman Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore, wearing an enormous beard) gaining access to power by convincing the Czarina Alexandra (Ethel Barrymore) that only he can protect the health of her sickly son Alexis, aka Aloysha. The child's doctor (Edward Arnold, mostly recognizable by voice) is dismissed. When various ministers in the Romanoff court ask him to use his influence on their behalf, the scheming Rasputin turns them against each other. Within a few months he has control of much of the court. Rasputin makes sure that nobody else has contact with the young Aloysha, not even his teachers, and warps the boy's personality with lectures about power and cruelty. Realizing that Princess Natasha (Diana Wynyard) and Prince Paul Chegodieff (John Barrymore) also threaten his plans, Rasputin seduces Natasha and plots to undermine Paul's standing with Alexandra. He advises Czar Nicholas II (Ralph Morgan) to enter the World War, secretly hoping to bring down the monarchy and take over. The monk boasts that he alone is the spirit of Russia. Alexandra eventually realizes that Rasputin has compromised Natasha and wants to molest Princess Maria (Jean Parker of Bluebeard). At a party Prince Paul seizes an opportunity to assassinate the "mad monk".
Rasputin has been a favorite character for film adaptations. The necessity of fronting an obviously expensive Russian court setting has kept all but a few full-scale movies from being made. Franklin Schaffner's expensive 1971 Nicholas and Alexandra slighted other themes to focus on the Rasputin angle, throwing an already dull movie off balance. Ex- Doctor Who Tom Baker played Rasputin. Even Hammer got into the act, nominating Christopher Lee as Rasputin, the Mad Monk. The laughably constricted show plays out mostly in Hammer's tiny sets. MGM's (for 1932) super-production has some large crowd scenes and employs silent footage of real Imperial gatherings pre- WW1. The Barrymores carry the picture nicely, although Ethel never communicates the kind of blind emotionalism needed to make Alexandra abandon rational thought and common sense. Lionel's Rasputin is so obviously verminous from the get-go that Alexandra comes off as a class-A dolt. While the Czar fumbles ineffectually on the sidelines, it's up to the romantic Paul Chegodieff to do something. This allows John and Lionel Barrymore to have a field day upstaging each other, flinging the theatrical insults written into the script.
Said script allows Lionel Barrymore to play Rasputin as a ripe Victorian monster. He's basically a charlatan turned lobbyist / power broker who eats like a pig, indulges in sexual excess and molests small children. Think, "U.S. Congress". This was the year that Hollywood horror reached its perverse peak, with Charles Laughton vivisecting manimals and Thalberg going carnival-crazy over Freaks. This Rasputin "compromises" the virginal princess Natasha, hypnotizing her to his will like a Dracula on the Volga. He forces an unwilling Aloysha to watch through a microscope as an ant chows down on a luckless fly ("Help me!"). Rasputin's lesson about the reality of power isn't very convincing, as, across a single cut, Aloysha transforms from squirming discomfort to a grinning Dwight Frye, Jr.. Only the princesses seem to know something's wrong with this robed pervert; Maria excuses herself quickly from Rasputin's presence.
Rasputin and the Empress has a terrific Guignol finish. Paul uses poison, an iron poker and a freezing river to put paid to Rasputin's career. Director Richard Boleslawski's fairly stiff staging picks up energy whenever Rasputin is front & center, and the violent finale in Paul's cellar is a riot of extreme angles and shadows. It's cold-blooded murder "justified" by a two-hour laundry list of crimes and offenses. One hard smack with the poker looks really painful -- I can see John taking advantage of the filmic opportunity to give his brother a solid whack.
The movie reeks of MGM's pro- monarchy bias; the studio seemed to make a policy of promoting the idea that certain aristocratic elites (think MGM brass) have a divine right to rule. The starving peasants are only given lip service. One peasant woman seems designed to imitate an Odessa Steps victim from Eisenstein's Potemkin. The script assures us that Nicholas planned a lot of reforms and really wanted to do right by his citizens, if only those accursed Bolsheviks hadn't interrupted his march toward democracy (choke). Curiously, the revolutionary Kropotkin shows up in a bearded walk-on, trying to win Rasputin's favor with all the other court leeches. Kropotkin does take part in the assassination attempt, however, helped by a butler played by a young Mischa Auer.
Hollywood frequently made mincemeat of history and Rasputin and the Empress is one instance in which history bit back. The events of the story were less than twenty years old 1 and a number of White Russian royals with first-hand knowledge of the insanity in the Romanoff court had become expatriates living in places like Paris, either flush with funds or down on their heels. "Prince Chegodieff" and "Princess Natasha" are fairly obvious ciphers for real personalities already familiar from accounts of the murder of Rasputin. Tipped off that Rasputin and the Empress contained scenes in which Princess Natasha is raped by Rasputin, the real Princess Irina Romanoff Yousoupoff sued MGM for defamation of character simultaneously in three European capitols as soon as the film was released. The studio settled quickly for what was reported to be an enormous sum. Savant wrote up this story in an article from 1998, Rasputin and the Libel Lawyers.
The lawsuit had two major effects. Rasputin and the Empress became the source of the familiar credits disclaimer stating that "the characters represented are fictitious and bear no resemblance to persons living or dead" etc.. The issue must be a complicated one, because I've never figured out how moviemakers can take real living people and put fictitious words into their mouths, etc.. The practice is very annoying-perplexing in certain movies by Oliver Stone.
The other consequence of the lawsuit is right here on Warners' disc. The Princess also demanded that any reference in the film to Princess Natasha's rape be excised. That left MGM with no choice but to shorten one pre-rape scene, and then snip out other speeches later on: when Rasputin discusses his hold over the Princess; when the Princess tries to explain that she's damaged goods and cannot marry Paul; when Alexandra finds out. Without knowledge of the lawsuit, viewers can't be expected to understand what's going on ... Natasha is all brightness and light in the first half of the film, and for the second half stares into space like one of the Brides of Dracula. This Rasputin must be a real Dastard, I kid you not.
Confirmation of this comes in the trailer added as an extra on MGM's disc -- one of the scenes excerpted is a snippet of Rasputin grabbing Natasha and manhandling her in his apartments. In the film itself, Rasputin re-enters his room and barely says one line as the image fades out, cutting the scene short. If the film hadn't been mangled, the fiend would presumably drag Natasha off-screen with some kind of sneering dialogue line like, "I'll show you how we do this in Tobolsk!"
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Rasputin and the Empress is a quite good transfer, much better than a hissy, fuzzy copy I worked with twenty years ago. The picture is stable and the audio quite clear, which is all we need to appreciate the thespian Battle of the Barrymores. We can also appreciate MGM's stiff approach to an orgy scene, even in the lax Pre-code years: Rasputin mostly drinks and eats with his bevy of Russki babes, most of which are semi-clothed in Jean Harlow-type silk "nothing-gowns" with bare backs. One writhes on the floor for 2.4 seconds to provide a provocative trailer moment, and that's it.
The added trailer mentioned above inter-cuts brief glimpses of scenes with static art cards. Some of the cards are adorned with painted spider webs, perhaps added with an eye on associating the fiendish Rasputin with Universal's Dracula.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rasputin and the Empress rates:
1. Think of that, that's no more remote than if you or I were to make a movie about the First Bush or Clinton White House today.
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.