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MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg thought he had hit pay dirt. Not only did he have a hot story from recent history - the mad monk Rasputin's rise to power in imperial Russia until he was taken down by a noble-minded assassin. He also had signed the most famous family in acting history - John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore - to make their first appearance together in a talking film. It seemed like the perfect project for MGM, Hollywood's house of stars, but in the end the film became an unending headache. There were so many problems during production that studio wags nicknamed Rasputin and the Empress - "Disputin'" - and before the picture could show a profit, a series of lawsuits took it out of circulation for decades.
The Barrymores themselves weren't all that impressed with the idea. John, whose looks and memory were fading from the effects of too much drinking, only really cared about the money, though he was intrigued about entering another upstaging contest with brother Lionel after their work together on Grand Hotel (1932). Ethel openly disdained the movies. She only took the job because she had lost most of her money in the stock market crash and was currently touring vaudeville. And at 53, she was terrified of what the cameras would do to her once legendary beauty. The only sibling to enter into the project with any real glee was Lionel, who was willing to spend two hours each morning and evening to physically transform himself into the mad Russian monk.
After a brief period of film stardom in the teens, Ethel Barrymore had been offscreen for 13 years. When she arrived on the West Coast, John greeted her at the train station and, as he embraced her for the benefit of the press who were there to greet her, whispered two words in her ear: "Billy Daniels." Later, he explained that William Daniels, who had just photographed him in Grand Hotel, was an expert at wiping away the ravages of time. On her first meeting with Thalberg, Barrymore demanded that Daniels shoot the film, and Thalberg agreed.
At that meeting she also learned that they still didn't have a script - despite the fact that she had signed a contract strictly limiting her to eight weeks work on the film so she could meet a Broadway commitment. Thalberg explained that his first choice to write the script, Charles MacArthur, was vacationing in Hollywood and refused to do any work. Telling Thalberg "I'll make him do it," Ethel paid him a visit at the famed Garden of Allah Hotel, where she threatened to tear his vacation bungalow down around his ears if he didn't write the script. When she really started throwing things, he agreed. But he never seemed to get it right, pounding out six drafts during the course of the shoot. Often the actors would arrive on the set having learned one version of a scene, only to be handed a complete revision hastily scribbled on the back of an envelope. Yet for all his reluctance - and hurried work - MacArthur won an Oscar nomination for his script.
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.
When they had started on Rasputin and the Empress, John had asked, "What poor son of a bitch is going to direct this picture?" The first choice was Charles Brabin, a veteran who had started out with Thomas Edison. At first, Ethel was agreeable, even claiming him as an old friend. But as shooting dragged on, the two began to clash over her characterization. Whenever he would suggest a move or gesture, she would refuse it with the excuse "I knew her majesty personally." Eventually, he took so much time over individual scenes that Ethel reportedly called studio head Louis B. Mayer to demand, "See here, Mayer, let's get rid of this Brahbin or Braybin or what's-his-name." In his place, she suggested her friend Richard Boleslavsky, a former member of the Moscow Art Theatre and a noted acting teacher who managed to complete the film with his sanity intact.
One of Ethel's protests went unheeded - at great cost to the studio. To motivate Rasputin's murder, MacArthur had included a scene in which Rasputin rapes the wife of his intended victim. Ethel and Mercedes d'Acosta, a Russian emigre hired to do research for the film, both protested that this was a libelous fabrication. The studio's only response was to change the couple's name from Youssoupoff to Chegodieff. But all that did was double the risk of legal action. The film opened to strong reviews and box-office receipts, only to be hit by libel suits from Prince Youssoupoff, his wife and Prince Chegodieff. Ultimately, settling the suits cost MGM over $1 million, almost matching the picture's production cost. To avoid further suits, they withdrew Rasputin and the Empress from distribution for decades.
Ethel had been too busy with stage work to attend the picture's premiere; she would also not make another movie for 12 years. She finally caught up with Rasputin and the Empress in the early '50s, when it aired on television. After finally watching it, she called her friend George Cukor to tell him she was surprised at how much she liked it, then added, in reference to her brother's scene-stealing antics, "My, my! Wasn't Lionel naughty?"
Producer: Bernard Hyman
Director: Richard Boleslavsky
Screenplay: Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Alexander Toluboff
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: John Barrymore (Prince Paul Chegodieff), Ethel Barrymore (Empress Alexandra), Lionel Barrymore (Rasputin), Ralph Morgan (Emperor Nikolai), Diana Wynyard (Natasha), Tad Alexander (Alexis), Edward Arnold (Doctor), Dawn O'Day [later Anne Shirley] (Anastasia), Jean Parker (Maria).
BW-121m. Closed captioning
by Frank Miller