For the Good of Russia:Rasputin and the Empress (1932)
This article was originally published on May 19, 2011.
Here’s the first thing I’ll say about Rasputin and the Empress: this film is not factually accurate. There was a Russian Royal family known as the Romanovs, there was a confoundingly enigmatic mystic named Rasputin, and everyone did die. That’s roughly where the similarities end. Let’s agree to forgive this film its historical inaccuracies. After all, the movie was released in 1932, a mere 15 years after the October Revolution which destroyed the tsarist monarchy and information trickling out of Russia was sparse at the time. The question of whether the filmmakers even intended historical accuracy is moot because so many facts are skewed in this movie. So let’s leave the history to the historians, and think about this film as a drama.
Rasputin and The Empress is a fairly good drama with a few bright points, if deeply flawed. For classic movie aficionados, it’s probably a must-see for the simple reason that this is the only time the Barrymore Trifecta of Lionel, John, and Ethel appear in same film. There’s much tertiary chatter about the difficulties present by the Barrymore’s in making this movie – John on the booze, Lionel on drugs, Ethel a stage snob who felt movies were beneath her – but little of that is evident. Lionel and Ethel, as Rasputin and the Empress respectively, are two bright points in this rather confused melodrama.
The basic story here is a well-trodden and familiar one. The Romanovs are beset by woes on all sides, torn between political disagreement, possible peasant revolution, and most pressingly, the plague of hemophilia on the young Czarevitch Alexis. Rasputin, in this iteration, is an ill-manner, boorish mystic intent on the accumulation of personal power. Via hypnotism and mind control, Rasputin appears to cure the Czarevitch and insinuates himself into the Czar’s family. Rasputin is also not above a little old-fashioned back room dealing when he secures the secret police dossiers of his political rivals. After a (thwarted, thank God) late night visit to Maria Romanov’s bedroom, Rasputin is exposed as a fraud, and the Czarina plots his murder with Prince Paul Chegodieff. Rasputin is murdered, and then the entire Romanov family is executed.
Rasputin and the Empress makes a passing attempt to examine the philosophical conundrum of measuring one man’s life against what’s best for the whole. In the opening sequences, it’s Czarevitch Alexis that must be sacrificed for the good of Russia when he’s presented to an angry mob to quell possible violence. Later the Czar and Czarina opt to value the health of Alexis over the good of Russia by opening the door to chaos via Rasputin. Ultimately, the Czarina, so opposed to execution previously, is all for the murder of Rasputin – for the good of Russia. The plot lets Alexandra off easy on this point. By the time she embraces this difficult line of reasoning, Alexandra knows that Rasputin is harming her son rather than helping. She is spared the ambiguity of choosing between the two most important things to her and left with the simple choice of choosing between country and mad man. This lost thematic thread is an excellent example of arts treading a fine line between dramatic narrative and the (perceived, at least) hewing to historical fact. While the plot tries to address the prevailing conflicting forces between political pressures, personal emotions, and grander ideas, larger thematic ideas are lost in the minutia of detail.
Being a fan of the tragio-romantic (yes, I just made that term up), I do happen to know a little bit about this historical subject of the Romanovs, Rasputin, and the Russian Revolution. The element of this movie that I like, that I feel is accurate emotionally, if not historically, is the depiction of Czar Nicholas. By some accounts, the historical Nicholas II was an easily influenced, sway-able, perhaps weak man. He was acutely aware of this dynastic legacy (all those “The Greats”) and conscious of his own shortcomings and was often paralyzed by the fear of failure and the possible dissolution of his dynasty. I think we can cut Nicholas some historical slack. It was a tough time for him personally and professionally, not to mention a tough time for monarchs in general. Rasputin and the Empress does a fine job of conveying Nicholas’ petrified and tenuous position in a maelstrom of conflict. We often seem in the center of a bickering hoard of politicians and military leaders, obscured and unable to respond in the cacophony of dialogue that swirls around him. Ralph Morgan adequately portrays a sense of “little boy lost” that I find oh so appropriate for The Last Czar.
I also find Ethel Barrymore’s performance as Czarina Alexandra on point. One could say that she is way to stiff and melodramatic, but again this makes emotional sense for this character. No one’s claiming the historical Alexandra wasn’t a lovely woman, but she was certainly loathed and despised by her subject. Many of the reasons for that are politically complicated, but Alexandra was perceived as cold and distant. In actuality, Alexandra may have really been more concerned about this family life, the well being of her children and husband, than being a “great” Empress of Russia. Ethel Barrymore’s distant and overly dramatized performance, while perhaps a result of her snobbish feelings about movies, rings true for Alexanadra and our historical perceptions of her.
For me, the real payoff to watching this sometimes turgid and sometimes slow melodrama is the incomparable Lionel Barry as Rasputin. The real Rasputin today remains as indistinct and obscured as he was in 1932, as he was in 1917. Rasputin the man occupies the rarefied space of the purely symbolic and he moved into that pad while he was still alive. Just as Nicholas the II was pulled in different directions, Rasputin was read through the lenses of multiple but distant conflicts while he still roamed the earth. And Lionel Barrymore brings that ambiguity and wide-ranging interpretation to the table. His Rasputin is a charmer and a boor, an uneducated peasant and a master manipulator, a kindly priest and a creepy sexual predator, a steely, goal-drive psychopath and a lunatic madman – all at the same time. The skill of Lionel Barrymore is that you believe each one in turn, which, at least in my opinion, seems to have been in the tool kit of Rasputin himself. If you walk away from this movie thinking you have no idea who or what Rasputin was, join history’s club. If you can get past what is quite possibly the phoniest beard in cinema history, you can let Barrymore dazzle you as the mad monk.
As far as film-craft goes, Rasputin and the Empress is fairly straightforward. There are a few interesting shots that play with light when Rasputin hypnotizes Alexis with his pocket watch and Princess Natasha with a candle, but other than that its standard stuff for 1932. The costuming is serviceable, and the makeup is fair (excepting the aforementioned fake beard). But one detail that begs mention is Rasputin’s hands. Lionel Barrymore was of average size, maybe bordering on the slight. But in this movie, his hands appear to be huge – like huge, field plowing, Russian peasant huge. Whether by some trick of lighting, camera angle, costuming, or sheer trans-formative power of Lionel’s acting skills, the detail of Rasputin’s hands are dead-on.
While the pacing of Rasputin and the Empress is sometimes slow and there’s more talk than action, the climax of the film is a dramatic and, for the time, violent murder of Rasputin. Famously, Rasputin proved difficult to out down, though as much mystery shrouds his death as does his life. In the end of this movie, after massive doses of poison, it’s just Rasputin and Chegodieff alone in a basement. While Chegodieff has the vigor of righteous vengeance on his side, Rasputin proves almost unstoppable. Several bullets and a beating with a fire poker later, the viewer is left breathless and wishing for the brutality to be done. The film ruses with a drawn out falling action and the ultimate anti-climatic execution of the entire Romanov family. This is another unfortunate side-effect of attempting to hew to history. We know they die, so it’s hard to step around showing it, but it serves no dramatic purpose in the film.
Interesting side note…Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin’s actual murderers, was the model for John Barrymore’s Prince Paul Chegodieff. In 1933, Yusupov sued MGM for libel and privacy of invasion. The result of that lawsuit brought us the familiar disclaimer, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”