RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS is a weird one. I tried watching it once, figuring “Pre-code Rasputin movie with the Barrymores — must be exciting!” But the beginning was such a total snooze, like somebody at MGM decided that what an audience attending a pre-code Barrymore Rasputin movie wanted was lots of PAGEANTRY and PROCESSIONS, so I zoned out and switched off. Plus it seemed kind of a shame to have Lionel Barrymore as Rasputin, instead of the disreputable Jack, who had form playing hypnotic masterminds (his SVENGALI, and even his later role in TWENTIETH CENTURY).
Then Shadowplayer Randy Cook advised me to try again, using the fast-forward if necessary, because of the good stuff later on.
Quite apart from the tedious parades, some of which are augmented by jerky stock footage of pre-WWI Moscow, there’s the criminal incompetence of beginning the story with an assassination that happens entirely offscreen, while we’re watching the drones with flags trudging through a palace. Then everybody talks about the assassination for a while, and then things come to life as John Barrymore, as heroic Prince Paul Chegodieff, has to stop an out-of-control General from ordering summary executions of a dozen suspects. We start to get a picture of the situation in Tsarist Russia, where opposing urges to modernisation and imperialist conservatism are at war. The Tsar is admirably embodied by Ralph Morgan, with a hairpiece that looks like it’s been inserted by traveling matte, using all his anti-charismatic sincerity as a fundamentally weak man with plenty of good impulses but zero political nous. Ethel Barrymore is the Tsarina, in a rather mannered performance, but with a core of reality that stops her being utterly ridiculous.
John B is keeping his ham tendencies well in check, ready to unleash them when the time is right. The movie is trundling along agreeably enough.
Enter Lionel. Wisely, he makes Grigori Rasputin not too obviously sinister at first — he has to be able to inveigle his way into the first family’s confidence, and though they’re not exactly bright, they’re not complete idiots. So Lionel B dials it down a little, although he’s still the biggest performer thus far, apart from Ethel of course, who’s resolutely weird throughout.
Charmingly, John B’s hero appears to be an atheist or freethinker — he congratulates his sweetheart (Diana Wynyard, from the original GASLIGHT) on her religious faith, saying words to the effect of, “It must be a wonderful thing, or I suppose it must.” Although he’ll later use more religious language himself when battling Rasputin, hinting at a reconciliation with the Church, this is by no means explicit. It sets him up as the one man who can see through the mad monk’s mask of kindliness. As Dennis Potter attempted show in BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE, the man of sin knows the Devil when he sees him, whereas the truly innocent often do not.
Lionel got his bedside manner from Bob in Twin Peaks.
The first bravura scene is Lionel’s hypnotizing of the little hemophiliac Tsarevich, well-played by young Tad Alexander (according to the IMDb, Tad may still be with us. Well done, Tad!). This might be the best hypnosis scene I’ve ever witnessed. Although Lionel does get his pocket watch out for some wide-eyed dangling, he doesn’t waste time saying “You are getting sleepy,” or any of that stuff, he just bangs on about elephants and stuff, making up childish tales while stunning the anemic lad with the full force of his overwhelming personality.
The movie staggers along from style to style, apparently a by-product of its having had two directors. Ethel seems to have had the first helmer, Charles Brabin, fired and replaced with Richard Boleslawski. Most of what we see is R.B.’s, but I’m tantalizingly uncertain about who did what. Brabin was a Liverpudlian who married Theda Bara and directed the Gothic camp MASK OF FU MANCHU and the searing pre-code gangster flick BEAST OF THE CITY, which combines a Revengers’ Tragedy savagery with neo-Fascist tendencies. Given his strengths and weaknesses, he COULD be responsible for the four or so hyper-intense, noirish and expressionist sequences, of which the hypnosis is the first. Or he could be responsible for the stilted ham. Reviews of some Brabin movies I’ve not seen, like a silent film of Poe’s THE RAVEN (1915), suggest he was equally capable of both approaches.
Boleslawski was more of a typical MGM man, with an unfortunate tendency towards good taste, but his LES MISERABLES serves up some striking period drama, with dynamism and plenty of shadows, so this gets very cloudy.
Ham — John and Lionel get one atrocious scene where each tries to trump the other in showy awfulness. Talk about sibling rivalry — if they tried to upstage each other like this in a theatre, one or other would be backed into the orchestra pit. Fiona started translating their performances into English. “I’ve got a sword and a cigar!” cries Jack’s body language. “I’ve got a beard!” screams Lionel’s. “Yes, but when I smirk for no reason like this, nobody cares about your old beard!” retorts Jack’s face. “That’s not fair,” shrieks Lionel’s face, “My face is under a beard!”
This leads straight into another GOOD scene, with Rasputin and the Tsarevich and a microscope. Giant closeups of bugs! Lionel Barrymore channeling Hades itself into his perf! A terrified child who inexplicably becomes very happy for no reason! Historical drama doesn’t get any more savagely fruity. Note that MGM have decided that Greg Rasputin is basically a revolutionary, rather than a symptom of the status quo’s corruption. On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid feeling that, in spite of the whitewashing they try to give him, the Tsar deserves his fate. He carries on believing in his divine right to rule despite his demonstrable lack of leadership abilities. It’s not my socialist side that wants him dead, it’s my meritocratic instincts.
Chegodieff’s first assassination attempt against Old Greg is a suitably shadowy, sombre affair, leading us from the clammy mystic’s dining room full of women, into a darkened back room where he survives the assassin’s bullet via a metal breast plate of the kind later worn by Clint Eastwood and Michael J Fox. Despite the scene’s intensity, Jack B has wrestled his perf under control again and is effectively stoic as he’s thwarted by henchmen. “Next time I’ll aim for your head.”
This loses him his job at court, and things snowball further out of control, with Raspy buying power and turning the Royal Family into prisoners of their own palace. This is something that never happened, but it’s necessary to justify everybody deciding that Chegodieff was right after all, and arranging a second assassination attempt.
Somewhere in there, Diana Wynyard’s attitude to her spiritual guardian has chilled noticeably, which is due to a scene deleted at the behest of the real-life Chegodieff: Rasputin’s fictitious rape of Princess Natasha. This scene was removed as a result of a lawsuit and has never turned up — without it, her character makes no sense, and her progressive marginalisation in the story is increased.
“I know your face!”
“Yes, I’m noted character comedian Mischa Auer. I’ll be your poisoner tonight.”
The real show-stopped is the final assassination of Rasputin. Rather implausibly, he’s lured back to Chegodieff’s house: to fall for that, he must’ve been VERY drunk. We get a great number of sexy blondes in lovely gowns by Adrian, rolling around drinking champagne while he scoffs poisoned cakes served by an uncredited Mischa Auer. But Greg recognises M.A.’s very distinctive face, and his men take over the household and find Chegodieff. In a bit of dramatic contrivance, the now very-mad monk takes his enemy alone to the cellar at gunpoint to finish him off.
This has all been worked out to make the murder of Rasputin seem more justifiable. Rather than giving Chegodieff the upper hand, as was the case in reality, he’s now a man alone against a bloodthirsty enemy. Whoever’s directing at this point milks curdled buckets of suspense from the scenario of the maniac with a gun slowly losing his senses due to the envenomed confectionary he’s devoured, while the hero just hopes he won’t be fatally shot before the drugs take full effect.
Kind of a spoiler…
And then the excrutiating violence begins… I really want to say that Brabin is responsible here, but it’s still quite possible that Boleslawski rose to the challenge, egged on by the excellent script and the extremity of the situation.*
“Get back in Hell!” strikes Fiona as the best line ever. Now we see why Jack’s been holding back so long: so he can let rip here and tear the film from its sprockets. The whole “unkillable Rasputin” thing is a myth, but they really sell it here.
Unfortunately, the film then trundles past what could have been a very poignant false happy ending — Jack, the hero, goes into exile, which saves him from the Revolution, so the irony is pretty rich. A fine ending, if the film stuck to it, but I guess somebody at MGM didn’t trust the public to know what happened to the Tsar next, so they spell it out, which leads to a rather strange fade-out. Appropriately enough.
“These part-works don’t interest me at all,” said Douglas Sirk, talking about the movies he’d directed bits of, and he’s largely correct. The Auteur Theory has this going for it — typically, only the director of a movie is in a position to have an overview which includes not only the planning and final shaping, but the performances. Despite the micro-managing of a Selznick, even the strongest producer doesn’t have the kind of direct communication with the cast during the creation of scenes that would allow the film to have a dramatic and artistic unity. You can only get that by allowing a director to direct. What’s great about RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS is individual bits of colossal power and style, but without a single mind in charge, it can’t achieve overall greatness. But those stand-out scenes are terrific lessons in expressive cinema, whoever was responsible.
*A bit of research seems to confirm that Brabin is responsible for the exciting bits.