Cast & Crew
In Russia, in 1913, Czar Nicholai Alexander and Czarina Alexandra opulently celebrate three hundred years of the Romanoff dynasty, unaware that their empire is crumbling. A short time later, Prince Paul Chegodieff reports to the Grand Duke Igor that his brother Sergei has been assassinated. Though he is engaged to Sergei's daughter, Princess Natasha, Paul is against Igor's plans for mass executions of all suspects. When thousands gather in protest at the palace, the frightened Czar and Czarina send their only son, the Czarevitch Alexis Nikolaiovitch "Aloysha," to the people, and the appearance of the brave boy appeases the crowd. Three months later, the czar decides to create a "Duma" for the people, patterned after the British parliament. Meanwhile, Natasha has come under the influence of a charismatic monk named Rasputin, much to Paul's displeasure. When Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia, falls and cannot stop bleeding, Natasha urges the czarina to let Rasputin cure the child. Spellbound by Rasputin and heartbroken by her child's screams of pain, Alexandra sends the child's physicians away and allows the monk to see him alone. Rasputin mesmerizes Aloysha, and he is miraculously cured. Soon Rasputin becomes an honored member of the royal household and exhibits considerable power over the family. The head of the secret police visits Rasputin and offers to give him personal files on wealthy members of society in exchange for political favors. Rasputin uses the files to blackmail the wealthy for money, power and sexual favors. By 1914, as Rasputin's power expands, Paul becomes increasingly concerned. Paul and Natasha are now married, but Natasha's slavish devotion to Rasputin continues. Some time later, Paul goes to visit the czarevitch and sees that Rasputin is controlling the child's mind. When the boy savagely bites Paul, Paul and Rasputin argue. When the czarina arrives, she takes Rasputin's side and orders Paul away. Soon Natasha goes to Rasputin to warn him that Paul has plans to kill him. Later, when Paul arrives, he shoots the monk several times, but nothing happens, because Rasputin is wearing a metal breastplate for protection. In Aug 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany orders Russia to demobilize or go to war. Though the czar does not want to fight the kaiser, who is his cousin, Rasputin advises him to keep his troops, over the protests of Paul. When the war begins, Paul and the czar go to the front. One night, Rasputin tries to force himself on Princess Maria, the czar's daughter. When the frightened Maria tells Natasha, her devotion to Rasputin turns to hate. He tries to hypnotize her back into submission, but is interrupted by the czarina, who finally sees his evil. She tells him that his influence is over, but he merely laughs. Natasha then sends for Paul and they decide that Rasputin must be killed, no matter what effect his death might have on Aloysha. During a wild party to which Rasputin has been invited, he is fed enough poisoned cakes to kill several men, but the poison proves ineffectual. When Paul arrives, he asks Rasputin to accompany him to the cellar. As Rasputin starts to weaken, Paul tells him about the poison, and Rasputin says, "If I die, Russia dies." The two men then fight and end up out in the snow. Paul strangles the monk, then throws him into the river, where he finally drowns. Upon Rasputin's death, the czarevitch awakens from his hypnotic trance and embraces his mother. The Czar then "officially" exiles Paul and Natasha to England, even though he is personally grateful. Some months later, after the Russian Revolution begins, the royal family are imprisoned, then killed before a firing squad.
C. Henry Gordon
Gustav Von Seyffertitz
Louise Closser Hale
Nigel De Brulier
Jean Del Val
Dr. William Axt
Gavin A. Burns
General Theodore Lodijensky
Major John Peters
Best Writing, Screenplay
Rasputin and the Empress
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
Rasputin and the Empress
Dr. William Axt, MGM's musical director, brought together all the Greek and Russian church choirs in Los Angeles to sing at the celebration mass at the start of the movie.
The model for Princess Natasha in the movie was Princess Irina Romanoff Youssoupoff, who filed a lawsuit against MGM in 1933, claiming invasion of privacy and libel in portraying her as a mistress of Rasputin. She won an award of $127,373 in an English court and an out-of-court settlement with MGM, reportedly of $250,000 in New York.
Upon its initial release in 1932, the movie was the subject of a lawsuit issued by Prince Felix Yussoupov, who had actually been involved in the death of the real Rasputin. Although names in the film were changed (Yussoupov's character, as portrayed by John Barrymore, was called Prince "Paul Chegodieff"), Yussoupov recognized Diana Wynyard's character of "Princess Natasha" to be that of his wife, Princess Irina. Yussoupov sued for libel as a result of a scene which suggested that his wife had been raped by Rasputin. MGM lost the suit, and the scene was cut, which rendered Wynyard's character somewhat incomprehensible if the viewer of the film is not aware of this cut - in the first half of the film, Princess Natasha is a supporter of Rasputin, and in the second half she is extremely afraid of him, for no apparent reason. The laserdisc release of "Rasputin and The Empress" includes the original theatrical trailer, which contains a portion of this deleted scene.
The only film in which all three Barrymore siblings - John, Ethel, and Lionel - appeared together.
Irving Thalberg fired Mercedes de Acosta from this picture when she refused to write a scene involving a meeting between Rasputin and Princess Irene Yusupov which she knew did not occur. (Prince Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin's assassins, was a close friend of de Acosta.) After her firing, the scene was put in, and after the film's release, Prince Yusupov sued Thalberg and MGM, as de Acosta warned he would.
The working title of the film was Rasputin. According to Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items, when production began on July 22, 1932, Charles Brabin was the director. On 17 Aug, a Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Richard Boleslavsky was "on the set directing" but that M-G-M denied Brabin was off the picture and claimed that the production had split into two units. After this time, however, Brabin did leave the picture and only Boleslavsky's name appears in the onscreen credits and in reviews. Shortly after Boleslavsky took over as director, screenwriter Charles MacArthur was asked to write additional dialogue, causing a postponement in filming for one or two days.
Although Lenore Coffee, C. Gardner Sullivan, Mercedes de Acosta and John Meehan were mentioned in various pre-production articles as contributors to the treatment, continuity and dialogue, only MacArthur is credited onscreen and in reviews, and the contribution of the writers to the released film has not been determined. According to news items, Helen Freeman and Miriam Goldina were also in the cast, but their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. News items also note that at one time M-G-M wanted to borrow Boris Karloff from Universal for the role of "Rasputin," and that Mabel Marden was tested for the role of "Princess Maria." Ralph Morgan was borrowed from Fox for the film.
A Hollywood Reporter news item states that when Rasputin and the Empress was completed, it set a two-year record for length of the production. A New York Times article on the film states that Dr. William Axt, M-G-M's music director, had brought together all of the Greek and Russian church choirs in Los Angeles to sing during the celebration mass. Although only Herbert Stothart is credited with the score in the onscreen credits, the article states that Axt adapted and abridged "an authentic music score" especially for the picture. Another New York Times article notes that John Barrymore received "between $100,000 and $125,000 per picture," Lionel Barrymore received "$4,000 per week," and Ethel Barrymore "was offered $100,000 for a single film [Rasputin and the Empress] and the offer was raised later." The article noted that "In ten weeks, which is estimated for the completion of the film, the Barrymores will have received $250,000 in salary." The film actually took about seventeen weeks to complete.
Contemporary reviews and modern sources call this film the first in which the three Barrymores acted together; however, the Barrymores had previously acted together in National Red Cross Pageant, a 1917 allegorical film made to raise money for the Red Cross during World War I (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.3140). Modern books on the Barrymores have frequently included stories of squabbling among the siblings and clashes of egos, some of which were fuelled by publicity articles for the film. According to a New York Times article in May 1932, when Ethel, who was making her talking picture debut, and her first film since The Divorcée in 1919, arrived at the Pasadena train station, she was greeted by her brother John and was asked by someone in the crowd if she was going to be nervous appearing with "two such accomplished 'scene stealers' as her brothers. John Barrymore interrupted the questioner and said, 'You need not worry about Mrs. Colt [Ethel's married name] getting nervous. She'll be standing right before the camera in front of us.'"
According to various contemporary news items, Princess Irina Romanoff Youssoupoff, who was the model for Princess Natasha in the film, filed a damage suit against M-G-M in 1933. The princess won an award in an English court in March 1934 for $127,373, then in August 1934, according to a Daily Variety article, M-G-M made an out-of-court settlement with the princess in New York, reportedly for $250,000, which was said to be the largest award of its kind. It is unclear whether the New York settlement superceded the English award, or whether they were two separate cases. According to contemporary articles and modern sources, the suit was based on the princess' contention that M-G-M had invaded her privacy and libelously portrayed her as the mistress of Rasputin. In 1963, the princess and her husband, Prince Felix Youssoupoff [the model for Prince Paul in the M-G-M film] filed suit against CBS for $1,500,000 following their broadcast of the British-made film Rasputin-the Mad Monk (directed by Don Sharp and starring Christopher Lee, see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.4023) claiming that the CBS film invaded their privacy, was partially inaccurate, and was libelous. A 1965 Los Angeles Times article on the CBS suit noted that the princess contended she had never met Rasputin. The article continued, that Prince Youssoupoff and two other men had acknowledged for almost fifty years that they had indeed killed the monk [in a manner similar to that portrayed in the M-G-M film] and the story was therefore in the public domain. The disposition of the CBS suit has not been determined.
For his work on the film, Charles MacArthur received an Academy Award nomination in the Writing (Original Story) category. In addition to the M-G-M and CBS films, events surrounding the rise and fall of Rasputin and the start of the Russian Revolution of 1917 have been recounted in many films, most prominently in the 1971 production Nicholas and Alexandra, directed by Franklin Schaffner and starring Michael Jayston and Janet Suzmanand the 1984 Russian film, Rasputin, directed by Elem Klimoy and starring Alexei Petrenko.