RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS
(director: Richard Boleslavsky; screenwriter: Charles MacArthur; cinematographer: William Daniels; editor: Tom Held; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: John Barrymore (Prince Paul Chegodieff), Ethel Barrymore (Empress Alexandra), Lionel Barrymore (Rasputin), Ralph Morgan (Emperor Nikolai), Diana Wynyard (Natasha), Tad Alexander (Alexis), C. Henry Gordon (Grand Duke Igor), Edward Arnold (Doctor), Dawn O’Day [later Anne Shirley] (Anastasia), Jean Parker (Princess Maria); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bernard Hyman; MGM; 1932)
“Is memorable only because it’s the one and only time that the Barrymore family appeared together on screen.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This curio depicts the odd relationship of the sinister ‘mad monk’ Rasputin with the royal Russian family during the last days of their reign (covers the years 1913 through 1918) and is memorable only because it’s the one and only time that the Barrymore family appeared together on screen. Lionel gives his usual hammy performance, this time playing Rasputin; Ethel, sister of the other two, is the Tsarina; and John, Lionel’s alcoholic brother, is Prince Chegodieff (Youssoupoff). Its best feature is the great set designs and not the Barrymores, who were only concerned with upstaging each other. The unfortunate film that was dramatically void of tension despite the talented Barrymores, was historically inaccurate and was further trifled with over a lawsuit filed by the real Prince Youssoupoff (the character played by John). He claimed that he did kill Rasputin but his wife wasn’t raped by him. The court ruled in his favor and awarded him one million dollars. Russian-born filmmaker Richard Boleslavsky (“Theodora Goes Wild”/”Operator 13″/”The Garden of Allah”), a former member of the Moscow Art Theatre and a noted Method acting teacher, was a late replacement for fired director Charles Brabin (displeased Ethel and was behind schedule). Boleslavsky directs by being most concerned with finishing the film in the arranged eight week period and Charles MacArthur turns in the dull screenplay that he failed to have ready when the film went into production, working on it throughout the production.
It opens in 1913, Czar Nicholai Alexander (Ralph Morgan) and Czarina Alexandra (Ethel Barrymore) elaborately celebrate in their Moscow palace, while mobs gather outside, three hundred years of the Romanoff dynasty not realizing how their empire is falling apart. Sergei, the uncle of Czar Nicholas and the brother of the Grand Duke Igor (C. Henry Gordon), has been assassinated and a number of suspects have been rounded up, but Prince Paul Chegodieff (John Barrymore), the colonel in charge of the guards and who is engaged to Sergei’s daughter Princess Natasha (Diana Wynyard), refuses to put them before the firing squad as ordered by Igor fearing the people will riot. When Igor brings Paul to the czar, he’s reprimanded. But Paul warns the czar he could lose the people, the reason he stays in power, if he continues with these harsh policies and executions.
Three months later, the czar tells Paul in the Kremlin garden that he wishes to create reforms by instituting a “Duma” for the people, patterned after the British parliament. Meanwhile, to Paul’s chagrin, Natasha has come under the influence of the charismatic but amoral monk named Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore). The charlatan monk is called on to help the royal couple’s critically ill hemophiliac son Alexis (Tad Alexander) and wins the tsarina over when he hypnotizes Alexis and tells the royal family that he has been cured by God. With that, the royal doctor (Edward Arnold) is discharged.
By 1914, Paul and Natasha are married and a concerned Paul is wary of Rasputin’s increasing power with the royal family, his ability to fully control the child and his wife’s fawning devotion to the strange monk. Further trouble comes Russia’s way when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, a cousin of the czar, warns Russia to demobilize its army and stay out of the war. But Rasputin advises the czar to disobey the kaiser and the czar, who never wanted to go to war, foolishly listens to him over Paul’s objections. This sucks Russia into the war, and the czar finds himself losing the love of his people. After Rasputin rapes Natasha, the royal family come to their senses and try to poison the monk at a feast. When the poison doesn’t work, Paul strangles the monk and throws him into the river where he drowns. With his death, Alexis comes out of his trance. But the czar, though pleased with Paul’s actions, exiles Paul and Natasha to England for political reasons. Soon after the Russian Revolution begins and the imprisoned royal family are soon executed before a firing squad.
REVIEWED ON 2/21/2008 GRADE: C+