|Released by MGM | Directed By Charles Brabin and Richard Boleslawski
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Rasputin, the charmer, is clearly blackmailing women into having sex with him.
- Rasputin invokes God quite often, saying that his powers derive from a heavenly mandate. Even though the film doesn’t have him speaking to angels, there’s clearly something mystic about him that the film refuses to explore.
- There’s a rape– only there’s not. It’s apparent it happens, but it doesn’t. More on that in the ‘Trivia’ section.
Rasputin and the Empress: Quit Russian Me
“Power is the only thing that matters in the world, but you must know how to use it.”
This may come as a surprise, but I studied Russian history in college. I took pair of courses in one semester, one about imperial Russia and the other about Soviet Russia. It was a fascinating pair of classes, even if both involved the last Russian professor on campus going down a checklist of his own notes and telling stories of his own travels to Russia. (“Siberia is actually quite pretty. I have no idea why it was considered a punishment to be sent there.”)
It’s hard to imagine, after decades of being taught the inevitability of America’s victory in the Cold War and the structural weakness of the Soviet, just what a colossal paradigm shift the Russian Revolution was at the time of its occurrence, both to the country itself and the world at large. Only the French Revolution, with its blood-soaked upheaval of the class structure that has served Western civilization so grossly over the centuries, could be held to compare. Of course, the reasons why a godless communist Russia didn’t work out is all too apparent now– why an industrial workers revolution in a country that was barely industrialized?
But, like a lot of things, there was more to it than that, including a hodgepodge of Russian Czars who’d led the populace of Russia for three centuries of whiplash, from one terrible ruler and bloody upheaval to another not-quite-as-bloody-as-the-last-one bloodbath and then back to the oh-god-look-at-all-this-blood upheaval just to put the cycle back on its feet. In studying the Romanovs, it’s much easier to count the incompetent, backwards leaders than those who strove to modernize or help Russia in any way. (For example, in the latter camp, I count two.)
It also helps to know that there was no equivalent to the Renaissance in Russia, no period where the arts and sciences flourished against the mammoth state religion. Russia was a sprawling empire with limited communication and a large class of poor working farmers. When called upon to die en masse for a monarchy flush with wealth and greed for no reason other than to satisfy their own ambitions, it’s not a surprise that a revolution happened– though the brutality and the cold dictatorship that replaced it weren’t exactly improvements.
I mention all of this because you will get absolutely none of it from Rasputin and the Empress, a mix between high horror and slovenly dramatics. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who assembled the film to cash in on the success of Grand Hotel, has a weird issue with imperial monarchies which you can see clearly both here and in their 1938 version of Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer: they fetishize them. In both movies, these historically brutal regimes are shown to be happy families, ruined not so much by greed and depravity than by a few ‘bad apples’ who are so power hungry that they ruin the heroic leader’s opportunity’s to create real reform which they were totally getting to in just a minute. Let them just finish starving everyone first.
The Russian Revolution was still recent history to many of the people involved in making Rasputin and the Empress, so the fetishization is unsurprising since, even in the early 1930s, everyone was mortified about what had happened. Thus the Romanovs were a saintly family, led astray by one greasy madman and on the cusp of making Russia a beautiful utopia until those rapacious Bolsheviks mucked along.
The story proper: it’s a time of great political upheaval in the empire, with assassinations and reprisals threatening to send the government spinning out of control. The young Czarevetch (Tad Alexander) is discovered to be a hemophiliac, and, as he lay bleeding to death in the bed, is approached by a monk named Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) with promises of hope that no doctor can believe. He cures the boy, but crafts a strange hold on him at the same time.
The Czarina (Ethel Barrymore) is deeply thankful to Rasputin for saving the future Czar’s life, instantly putting the shady man into the highest echelons of power. The noble Prince Chegodieff (John Barrymore) knows that Rasputin seeks to upend the monarchy for his own ends, but finds himself outmaneuvered by Rasputin’s quick manipulations of the nobility and his ability to bend the royal family with the trust he’s earned.
Rasputin himself in the movie is an interesting character, a fascinating Freudian mess who whiplashes between bacchanalia and madness. Once he has the young Czarevitch in his grasp, he teaches the boy ugly lessons about power and control, all demonstrated with a microscope and a fly and an ant who battle to the death. His manipulations go even further, using hypnotism to force the boy to bite Chegodieff and get the prince exiled from the palace, leaving Rasputin able to push the royal family into the first World War and, as he’s planning, into making him the next ruler of Russia.
The legends surrounding the death of Rasputin are ludicrous (and thus why they remain retold legends), and the movie doesn’t try to replicate it wholelsale– after all, how could it? Instead, after a night of slowly poisoning Rasputin at what appears to be a manic orgy, we’re treated to a physical confrontation in a secluded basement between Chegodieff and the desperate monk who just won’t seem to die.
The action in the scene is intense, to be honest. While it obviously won’t hold a candle to modern action films, shots like John’s running tackle or his frenzied beating of Rasputin’s body (which goes on for far longer than the .gif would allow) are filled with kinetic energy, an anger and frustration that had been building for two solid acts and usually unrealized in talky melodramas of the early 30s. It’s more Murders in the Rue Morgue than Dinner at Eight for damned sure.
If the guignol sense of Rasputin’s death is a masterful explosion of frustration and anger, both at Rasputin’s manipulation and cruelty and the ugliness Russia had suddenly embodied, then it’s entirely at odds with the film’s stretched out ending, which takes the aforementioned fetishization of the Czar’s to new heights, as well as heaping doses of foreshadowing the Revolution in case audiences at the time had forgotten that that had happened.
It’s more funny than not, like when the effete Czar Nicholas (Ralph Morgan) says that the Romanovs will be safe because ‘the people have never hurt as and we’ve never hurt them’– which brings to mind the assassination and massacre but three acts earlier. Alas, the Commies take over and ignore the gentle kindness of Nicholas and instead take his family out to a yard and gun them down. The massacre of the Romanov family is met with the appearance of a cross and strings of holy holies played to the hilt while the words ‘The End’ appear. MGM making the Romanovs into Christ-like figures is a pretty big insult to millions of people who chafed under their rule, but reflected the general Western belief that Communists were godless heathens out to destroy religion more than help people.
As preachy and unconnected that Rasputin is, the truth is that its focus is simply too lopsided to work smoothly. Ethel’s part as the Czarina, while imbuing in her a definite burden as the leader of a country, never gives her that religious fervor needed to convince us that she really believes and trusts in Rasputin– and Lionel never comes across as a subtle schemer. In fact, the film’s Rasputin in some scenes feels like a John Belushi character from several decades hence, stuffing his stomach, leering at woman, and mincing about with a feverish glee. Perhaps a better title would have been National Lampoon’s Rasputin House.
Of the Barrymores, John probably comes off the best, though truth be told it’s more from his climactic desperation and straitlaced role as opposed to his brother and sister. One thing I’ve noticed during the collaborations between John and Lionel is that John really can’t ever hide his bemusement when Lionel does something to try and steal the scene from him– every time, a little smirk pops up, a genuine appreciation for his older brother’s ploys. It’s bad for the movie’s immersiveness, for sure, but it’s cute to take note of.
Diana Wynyard, who unfortunately gets the brunt of a weak role here, does nothing with it; her Natasha, who is supposed to transition from devoted fanatic of Rasputin to horrified victim never changes, and instead looks constantly either horrified or wide eyed and bored. C. Henry Gordon makes an appearance as ‘the guy who is always wrong about everything’, a role that would become more common as the 30s wore on. Edward Arnold has a nice part as the Czar’s physician who helps Chegodieff try and poison Rasputin to no avail.
The film is fun if just for watching everyone bounce off one another and some great camerawork. Besides the pieces outlined above, directors Brabin and Boleslawski make Rasputin seem well ahead of its time by foregrounding elements to create a sense of unease. This works especially well in the hypnotism scenes, creating a visible sense of disorientation and serve as the few times that Rasputin comes across as menacing rather than silly. And, again, the action scenes are beautifully wrought.
So if you don’t mind watching three Barrymores battle each other for generous portions of scenery, Rasputin and the Empress is a fun time. It serves as both a celebration of Russian excess and a warning against charlatans, though coming from an MGM puff piece about a royal monarchy, it’s hard to take terribly seriously.
In the end, it’s a version of the Russian Revolution where Czar Nicholas was just a nice mug trying to do his job. Which only makes the movie funnier.
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Trivia & Links
- This film is rather infamous for inspiring the hallmark movie notification, “This motion picture is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” That’s because the inspiration for the characters of Prince Chegodieff and Natasha, Prince Felix Yusupov and Irina respectively, were still alive in 1932. The original cut of the movie included a much more explicit scene indicating that Rasputin raped Natasha, and so Irina sued MGM for libel and won to the tune of over a million dollars. The book Rasputin in Hollywood by David Napley goes into the trial further.
- Glenn Erickson explains how the painful financial settlement wasn’t the only repercussion of MGM’s artistic license:
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.
- If you want to read Yusupov’s memoirs, you can do so here. Chapter XXI has him discuss Rasputin, while chapters XXII and XXIII concern the fateful night of the mad monk’s murder.
- The entire TCMDB article is well worth your time as it focuses on the madcap behind-the-scenes action.
In the midst of this furor, Ethel had to learn how to act for talking films. After one scene in which she moaned, flailed about and pulled on the curtains on the set, John asked her, “What the hell are you doing?” “I haven’t the faintest idea,” she replied. Finally, Lionel gave her some advice that worked. He told her to whisper so that her stage-trained voice wouldn’t overpower the sensitive microphones. She whispered so effectively that most critics praised her for her subtle underplaying and the sense that there was always something she wasn’t saying. Ethel was also distracted by all the activity on the set. For intimate scenes, she insisted that black screens be put up so she wouldn’t have to see anybody working behind the scenes.
But nothing could distract the three Barrymores from their favorite pursuit – upstaging each other. Ethel had a knack for finding just the right moment to handle a prop or costume piece so as to draw focus from her brothers. John spent most of his scenes refusing to look at Lionel. But the latter came out the winner, thanks to his makeup job. One critic even commented that he played so much with his beard in the film that it almost became a fourth Barrymore.
- Reading through the New York Times review which is mostly fawning, I liked this end note, which opens a whole world of possibilities to which Mordaunt was referring to:
Lionel Barrymore leaves no stone unturned to give a vivid idea of the repellent monk. Yet he never overacts. In fact, his interpretation is far more restrained than the foreign pictures concerned with Rasputin.
- Cin-Eater disagrees with my assessment of Ethel’s part as the Czarina here. To wit:
It’s Ethel herself that saves the role — and in some ways the film itself — by imbuing her character with such a powerful sense of melancholy that you intuitively understand her to be the worried mother of not only a terribly fragile child, but of an equally troubled country. More than either of her brothers, it’s Ethel’s performance that serves of a constant reminder of the socio-political tumoil that serves as a backdrop for the movie’s smaller human dramas
- The Acidemic Film Blog spends most of their review talking about how great Svengali is (I won’t disagree), and then ponders a bit more about the cast and the casting:
But man, how much better it would be if Lionel had switched roles with brother John, who’s more or less wasted as the straight man? Was Rasputin too much like Svengali, who John played so ham-finitively the year before at Warners? Meanwhile sister Ethel Barrymore is pretty underused, looking the most hungover, which is saying a lot.
- Ethel Barrymore, who stuck to the stage for this period of her life, made this movie after a 6 year gap between films and wouldn’t make another one until 1944. This is the only film the three Barrymores made together. John and Lionel can also be seen together in (from best to worst) Arsene Lupin, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, and Night Flight.
- This post is part of the Russia in Classic Film blog-a-thon hosted by Movies, Silently. Click here to see more cool entries about Russia on film!
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