Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Anastasia is a cleverly written and sumptiously-mounted fantasy version of one of the 20th century's
more persistent mysteries, the idea that one of Czar Nicholas'es children, Anastasia, could have
been spared execution with her family, and somehow end up a lost amnesiac on the streets of Paris.
Taking liberties with reality, master playwright Arthur Laurents has great fun with a story
about conspirators constructing a big-scale theatrical fraud, sort of an off-Broadway confidence game.
More famous than the movie itself was the confident return to bigscreen stardom by Ingrid Bergman, who
had been the subject of a media lynching six years earlier for leaving her husband and family to
run off with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Part of the religious-moral hysteria that
accompanied the cold-war blacklist years, the demonizing of Bergman amounted to something out of
The Scarlet Letter, and her return sparked the beginning of a cultural 'separation between
church & celebrity' - future stars wouldn't be subject to the damning scrutiny leveled at Fatty
Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn.
Fox presents Anastasia as part of its Studio Classics line, with a surfeit of extras
that place Laurents' fanciful version of events in historical context.
Paris, 1928. A small group of White Russian swindlers led by ex-general Prince
Bounine (Yul Brynner) finds what it is looking for, a woman to pass off as Anastasia Romanoff,
the only survivor of the royal family murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The lost, amnesiac
woman (Ingrid Bergman) has the necessary superficial qualities to impersonate the princess. As their
aim is to access millions in frozen Romanoff funds, Bounine and his cohorts
Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) and Petrovin (Sascha Pitoeff) know that most survivors who knew the
Romanoffs will approve of any woman whose existence will open the bank vaults. The newly-dubbed
Anastasia, who once claimed
to be the princess while in an asylum, now begins to reveal information that makes her trainers wonder if
she's authentic. Boudine uses snotty socialite Lissemskaia (Natalie Schafer) to
debut his discovery, all the while preparing Anastasia for the final acid test - her grandmother, the
Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes). Meanwhile, the confused woman and the general are falling in love.
The early 50s had its vamps and tramps, but the women's magazines tended to acclaim stars like June Allyson,
who promoted (mostly fictional) illusions of domesticated perfection. Even Joan Crawford, whose personal
life was a promiscuous farce, had the sense to maintain an elaborate charade of ladylike dignity. It now
seems ridiculous that Ingrid Bergman, the romantic beauty of Casablanca and For Whom the Bell
Tolls could scandalize anybody just by ditching her husband, but in 1950 it was true. At a time when
newspaper columnists were finding daily excuses to attack Charlie Chaplin, and using Americanism as an
excuse for all kinds of intolerance, Bergman was given the works. The European films she made with Rossellini
either didn't do well in the states or didn't get released; by 1955 Bergman was becoming a memory to
American audiences. This picture was one of Hollywood's bigger comeback stories.
Anastasia hasn't much to do with history. The Biography episode included
on the disc does a great job of explaining the even weirder history of the real woman who claimed to be
the Russian princess. But the return of a mystery woman was the perfect parallel theme for Bergman
to reclaim her place in Hollywood. When Bergman came back on the scene, with no memory of what
had happened to her (in the movie, that is), movie fans greeted her with open arms. She was an honest
soul whose only crime had been to follow her heart, and in the post- Peyton Place climate, was now
considered the victim of her own celebrity. A few wags might have needed wooing by the Fox publicity
department, but by the time Anastasia came out, the editorial spin on Bergman had reversed itself.
With Ingrid looking better than Garbo on a sunny day, the hypocritical talk of outraged morals evaporated.
Anastasia is a slick and well-structured film; 1956 audiences more likely than not didn't know
Anastasia from anaesthesia, and screenwriter Laurents could have gotten away with even less authenticity.
Although she's about fifteen years too old for the role,
Bergman does a fine job appearing lost and confused. When it seems possible that she actually might
be the Czar's daughter, Bergman handles the doubt perfectly - she's so naturally regal a personality,
we know she has to be some kind of royalty.
Yul Brynner's bald head and unplaceable accent didn't prevent him from finding a string of impressively
appropriate roles after The King and I. He's very convincing as a general-turned nightclub owner
who plays guitar while
engineering the con of the century. Laurents saddled him with two vaguely clownish assistants
to carry the exposition. Even though the engaging Akim Tamiroff is one of them, they're the weakest
part of the picture. It doesn't affect Brynner's performance a bit.
The surprise ending is cleverly prepared, and Anastasia wraps up as a story-driven picture -
the two stars make early, fairly low-key exits and allow Helen Hayes to hold the final curtain on
her own. Hayes' appearance in Anastasia was a quieter but equally important show-biz comeback
after several years of inactivity - apparently instigated because an actress who played the Empress
on stage was named Helen Hay. Hayes was contacted for the film, by mistake!
There's one key scene where the doubting Empress suddenly decides for herself that Anastasia is genuine,
and they share a tearful embrace. As the clue that convinces grandma is just another detail
a faker could have memorized, Laurents' theme becomes clear: the
Empress believes in Anastasia because she wants to. Bergman does well maintaining credibility
for a woman who has interior feelings but no interior identity. This woman is either an amnesiac
real McCoy, or a self-deluded innocent who has forgotten her own deceptions, and internalized them.
Again, Laurents gets to suggest these ideas without resorting to dimestore psychology. His
decision to stick to the theme of reality vs. storybook fantasy is what makes the film work - anybody
can write a depressing movie about a miserable fraud.
Is Anastasia a great film? It's certainly an engaging movie, but there's little visual
going on here beyond Fox's standard CinemaScope trappings, and some nice location work, night scenes in
Paris difficult to do with the slow 'Scope lenses. I personally
find the basic setup and trimmings to be highly entertaining (a pre-Gilligan's Island Natalie
Schafer is a ditzy matron who helps promote General Bounine's discovery) with the third act a bit
lacking in fireworks. Bergman and Brynner's smouldering romance doesn't ignite sparks - something
Bergman previously made extremely convincing with all of her leading men - and the tale relies on
the authority of Helen Hayes to make the ending go in the right direction. Hayes' empress is really a
down-to-Earth dame, see, with a keen intuition about people. By steering Bergman's princess to an unexpected
choice, Hayes and Laurents give Anastasia a conclusion that neatly dodges the pitfall of
deciding whether or not Anastasia is a fake.
Fox's DVD of Anastasia is a regal presentation of yet another romantic favorite (to Fox,
Women's Film + popular = Studio Classic) with enough good added value material to firmly buttress
the picture's reputation. The abovementioned tv bio on the woman who spent 60 years claiming to be
Anastasia is fascinating in its own right, and even in the stuffy docu format has enough surprises
to send one to the library for more reading. The historical Anastasia claimant couldn't even speak
Russian, but she had half of Europe and a lot of gullible Americans convinced she was the genuine
article. For the record, DNA tests in the early 90s finally settled the question against her. But
the Anastasia hysteria persists still. Thus we understand why killing the Czar's family was such
a political imperative for the Bolsheviks. So long as any Romanoffs were alive, there'd be people
trying to restore them to power.
A commentary is split between several speakers. Author John Burlingame talks about Alfred Newman's
score, and James MacArthur (misspelled on the back cover) provides background on his mother, Ms.
Hayes. Arthur Laurents is the best raconteur - actually having been a key participant in the movie -
even though by his version of events he seems to have been a main decision-maker on a few too many
key points. Only Sylvia Stoddard seems out of place. Her historical background is good, and she's done
her homework on the production, but she's too chatty and she discusses technical issues like she doesn't know
what she's talking about. I found myself scanning past her after a few patches.
The transfer is luminous; Fox's Video restorers are almost guaranteeing great discs these days, even with
the image enhancement arguments I hear. As the restoration comparison is really just between different
video transfers, we'd really like to know if Fox is doing full Film restoration as well. The film is in
4.0 surround and is accompanied by short newsreel clips and silent Romanoff family footage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very good
Supplements: Commentary, Biography on the Anastasia phenomenon, newsreels, silent shots
of the Romanoff family, restoration comparison, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 30, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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