RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (Richard Boleslawski, Charles Brabin, 1932)

Written by a Hechtless Charles MacArthur and directed by Richard Boleslawski, once its arrogant, temperamental star had Charles Brabin (some of whose scenes remain in the film) fired, Rasputin and the Empress testifies to the importance of good acting in a narrative film. An historical drama about the tail end of Romanov rule in Russia, and about “Father” Rasputin, the charismatic “holy man” who wins the confidence of the Romanovs by restoring their dying son to health after medical doctors failed, and who insinuates himself into affairs of state, the film is famous for being the only one to star all three Barrymore siblings, Ethel, John and Lionel. Alas, one of them can’t act, never could, and in the long stretch in which his character, Rasputin, dominates the plot, the effect is deadly, cranking down the film’s pace to a crawl as he flouts his empty histrionics. This is ham-fisted Lionel. John is good as Prince Paul Chegodiev, Rasputin’s nemesis, who is based on Prince Felix Yusupov, and Ethel Barrymore is phenomenal, and sublimely beautiful to boot, as Tsarina Aleksandra. Barrymore may not have been a very nice lady where Brabin was concerned (she referred to him as “Mr. Theda Bara” due to his marital history), but her acting is so elastic, sensitive and full-bodied, especially in its depiction of maternal concern, that quite contrary to my own disposition I was in emotional tatters when the Tsarina is finally dispatched, along with the rest of her family, by a Revolutionary firing squad. One forgets just how despicable the real Romanovs were!

In terms of accuracy, this long, richly upholstered M-G-M production is a hard pill to swallow. The Romanovs, we are asked to accept, were endlessly concerned about the masses they ruled (“We have never hurt them, so they will never hurt us”), while those pesky Bolsheviks cared only about themselves and not at all about Russia. One has to recall that in 1932, when the film was made, the United States still did not recognize the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a legitimate entity. When the U.S. did recognize our future Second World War ally in 1934, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 masterpiece from Gorky, Mother, finally was released in the States, providing a more accurate view of what life was like for ordinary folk under the Romanovs. Soviet films like Mother may have been creating a mythology of the new nation’s own, but they weren’t so far afield of reality as Hollywood, and every image—every frame—of Mother resonates with impassioned conviction. (A brilliant 1928 Soviet documentary to see: Esther Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.)

In any case, Boleslawski’s film intriguingly interweaves Romanov family drama and affairs of state. The film sparkles before Brother Lionel takes over, and, after Rasputin is finally killed (it takes shooting, poisoning, bludgeoning and drowning to accomplish the task!), it sparkles again. Ethel’s exquisitely expressive hands are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.

A low point: under a miscroscope, an ant getting the better of a fly in a battle to the death—an event that Rasputin forces Alexis, the Romanov boy, to observe. It’s a metaphor for something, I guess, but I don’t know what. Perhaps nothing more is intended than to show that Rasputin is sadistic and cruel. Well, at this point the film itself is being sadistic and cruel.

Ralph Morgan (Frank’s brother) is adequate as Tsar Nikolai, while Diana Wynward is superb as Princess Natasha, the Tsarina’s lady-in-waiting and Paul’s fiancée, who first idolizes Rasputin and later, when she realizes that he is a danger to the children, exposes him. Natasha is based on Princess Irina Romanov Yusupov, whose depiction in the film as Rasputin’s mistress led to her husband’s successful lawsuit against the studio. This apparently gave birth to the standard disclaimer stipulating that characters in a film aren’t based on actual persons. In accordance with the judgment against it, M-G-M trimmed the film and rereleased it in 1933.

For her part, Ethel felt scandalized by the brouhaha and retired from the screen, concentrating on her paramount interest, her stage career. When she became too old for the theatrical grind, she returned to films, winning an Oscar as Ernie Mott’s disgraced, dying mother in None But the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets, 1944).

B(U)Y THE BOOK

MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.

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