Ra Ra Rasputin

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.

27 Responses to “Ra Ra Rasputin”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Charles Brabin had a history of getting himself fired from big movies. He was the original director of the 1926 BEN HUR, only to be replaced by Fred Niblo.

    The ‘real-life Chegodieff’ was in fact Prince Felix Yusupoff, a fascinating figure who more than deserves his footnote in Russian history. A flamboyant homosexual who swanned around Oxford in jewelled robes and turbans, he originally met the Mad Monk in an effort to cure his sexual preferences through hypnotism. Unsurprisingly, these efforts were not successful.

    Married (platonically, one assumes) to the lovely Princess Irina, Yusupoff took it on himself to assassinate the Mad Monk. Some say he lured him to his house by promisimg an assignation with Irina – others that he offered Rasputin a date himself (as the monk’s tastes were known to swing both ways). After the assassination, the Yusupoffs did indeed flee to Paris, where their kindness and generosity to fellow White Russian emigres became the stuff of legend.

    Of Course, very little of this story could be put into a film with any accuracy. But did the Tsar (and the rest of his family) really ‘deserve’ such a ghastly fate? Frankly, I don’t think anybody in Russia deserved what followed…but then I’m a sentimental royalist, so I would say that, woulnd’t I?

  2. The opening of the film stopped me cold, too. I pitched the disk into the “to be watched later” folder after maybe 5 minutes where it’s still sitting after three years. Whole lotta MGM from around the same period in that folder, now that I look at it. I think TCM was overdosing us with it at the time.

    It would be like you to remind me of the nadir of disco songs heard in my teen years.

  3. Great fun watching the Barrymores out-ham each other. Ethel wins, IMO.

  4. This post was supposed to run with some YouTube clips, but they vanished — am attempting to replace them on Vimeo so you can see what you’ve been missing.

    I’m not saying I’d personally kill the Tsar, though he did preside over a brutally oppressive regime. But by normal movie logic, the doofus in this movie deserves what’s coming to him. Only MGM’s traditional respect for authority makes them wish for a happier outcome.

  5. History tends to whack the wrong kings. Louis XVI(as seen in Renoir’s LA MARSEILLAISE) was mostly just a big dumb guy who was fairly ordinary. Killing him was just pettiness. As for the Romanovs, they probably should have been given the re-education we see in THE LAST EMPEROR(a movie that deconstructs “executing the royalist” mindset).

  6. And then there’s —

  7. And as for Musical Ham, who can beat Alfred Newman at his most overwhelmingly melodic?

    “Beautiful stranger,
    step down from your star
    I only know
    that I love so,
    whoever you are”

  8. I haven’t yet seen this film, though it certainly has a legendary status because of the presence of the 3 Barrymore siblings. I agree with your point that John should have played Rasputin, and that he even looks like Rasputin in ‘Svengali’; as ‘Twentieth Century’ showed, he has the right kind of mania. Quite impressive cinematography in the basement-scene-battle clip you included, especially when Rasputin rises, like the proverbial movie monster that can’t be killed, his face streaked with blood. Lionel plays it, though, in that cranky-old-geezer style of his, like he was Gabby Hayes confronting the rustlers; I half-expected him to snarl, “Dance, ya varmint!,” when shooting at John. The sequence also has a weirdly extra-diegetic intensity since you’re aware the actors are brothers; watching John whip Lionel, I had the disturbing feeling that he was discharging a deeply buried childhood venom.

  9. any chance of you watching the Hammer RASPUTIN with Christopher Lee? I’d love to know your thoughts. Lee is definitely pitching his performance to the cheap seats, but his sheer lust for life makes him strangely sympathetic.

  10. I’ve always intended to watch Rasputin, I saw a rather intense clips dissolving into closer views of Lee… then was disappointed when I first tried to watch it. But then, this film disappoints at first too, and then it all goes crazy/magnificent.

    Killing deposed dictators is probably done largely for practical reasons, to stave off counter-revolution… though there was obviously more than that going on with Gadaffi. Talk about discharging buried venom…

  11. Such is the warp and weft of Christopher Lee’s life that in his autobiography he recounts meeting Yussopov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich as a child. Years later Rasputin’s daughter complimented his turn as her father. I thought it was hearty stuff that deserved a better film. I suppose these are the kind of things that just happen to you when you are Christopher Lee…

  12. Grand Old Movies writes: “watching John whip Lionel, I had the disturbing feeling that he was discharging a deeply buried childhood venom.”

    That reminds me of a passage from Hollis Alpert’s The Barrymores, on the filming of Rapsutin’s demise:

    ‘Lionel writhed from his grasp, and John took up a poker and gave him a whack across the nose. Bending over the writhing Lionel on the floor, John departed from the script and muttered: THERE, you son of a bitch.” Lionel murmured back promptly, “Whoever calls his brother a son of a bitch is speaking autobiographically.”‘

    Thanks to David for putting up these clips–though I love watching John B., I’ve always been put off by RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS’s reputation. But Rasputin’s murder is certainly light years ahead of the equivalent scene in NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, which seemed to slog on forever and ever (like the rest of the film actually). Alpert says Charles MacArthur was brought in by Ethel to punch up EMPRESS’s script (he was married to her friend Helen Hayes).

    One of the Barrymore brothers’ more underrated outings is ARSENE LUPIN. The pacing is indeed slow, and the direction is the polar opposite of flashy, but there’s suaveness in the settings, capers, and Lionel and John’s performances, which are relatively low on ham. Nothing major, but a pleasant time-filler.

  13. It seems to have been Ethel who got Brabin fired, with Bolesawski brought in to make things statelier and more respectable. I think he kept his job by letting the Barrymores do whatever they felt like.

    Arsene Lupin is fairly entertaining, is rather staid.

    Nicholas and Alexandria is another one I can’t make it into. I start with enthusiasm (Tom Baker! Jayston!) but I just can’t stand the pace… the turgid, meandering pace. But I appear to have acquired a couple more Rasputins, so an all-nighter beckons. Or maybe RASPUTIN WEEK.

    Was just saying I must watch Counsellor at Law again… one of Barrymore’s very best perfs, and also the start of his slide.

  14. Christopher Says:

    Lee’s Rasputin is a pretty fun watch..and yes on the commentary track on the dvd he goes on at great length about his meetings with people connected to the real deal and the theories or facts about Rasputin’s death..

  15. david wingrove Says:

    Near the beginning of NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, the Dowager Empress wonders aloud…”Is there anything more boring than a roomful of Romanovs?” After 4 hours of this 1971 film, one is tempted to answer…”In fact, no!”

    Still, the film traumatised me completely as a child – as I had not expected the family to be executed, but to escape across the mountains like the von Trapps at the end of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. That and ANASTASIA converted me at an early age to a lifetime of Romanov worship.

  16. Sir Christopher seems able to talk at great length about anything. A young actor I heard of escaped one story in midstream only to meet Lee again, months later. Without a blink, the Great Man picked up where he had left off, suggesting that people are just a series of mnemonics to help him keep his anecdotes straight…

    Anyone seen The Night I Killed Rasputin, AKA Les Nuits de Raspoutine? Edmund Purdom as the Mad Monk, anyone?

  17. I did watch Nicholas and Alexandra last winter, solely because Tom Baker seemed like a great person to play Rasputin. It’s pretty awful: David Wingrove’s right with “turgid.” Baker is fun, simply because he simultaneously looks right (I. e., completely mad) and looks completely from the wrong time period–he can’t shake that 1970s vibe. Oh, and there are a number of dramatic zooms.

    Fun fact: the label on Old Rasputin Ale features Rasputin as played by Baker.

  18. I’m sure old Tom would appreciate that!

    I’m convinced I’m going to watch that movie one day. I generally rather like Franklin J Schaffner films, and he has the world’s best movie director name. But I have a suspicion he was trying to be David Lean here, and unfortunately interpreted that as meaning “boring and respectful” rather than “flamboyant and operatic” as he should have.

  19. kevin mummery Says:

    Having only seen C. Lee in “RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK” (2nd billed as a double feature with “PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES”!) I’m now looking forward to Lionel Barrymore’s performance as the durable fiend. I wonder why no one in Hollywood ever thought to cast Karloff as Rasputin, having the Russian name and all…I seem to remember he was in another film around the time “RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS” came out and I believe John B. was the star, although I’m damned if I can remember the name of the film right now. Very impressive indeed that Mr. Lee met Count Yusupov and Duke Pavlovich as a child…as I recall he was also Karloff’s best friend after having approximately 3 scenes with him in “CORRIDORS OF BLOOD”, and may have also nearly prevented the Profumo Scandal if only he hadn’t been otherwise engaged.

  20. The Karloff-Barrymore connection must be Curtiz’s The Mad Genius, anothe Svengali variant.

    My favourite Lee interview (of so many!) is on the Three Musketeers disc: “The producers came to me and said ‘We want you for this role because you know more about swordfighting on the screen than any other actor alive,’ — which is TRUE.”

    He also knew Ian Fleming and met Mervyn Peake… did he know Tolkein? I’m sure he must have.

  21. Lee and Karloff were next door neighbours in London. And Ray Harryhausen lived a couple of doors away too. It must have been like a Grand Guignol version of Stella Street…

  22. Christopher Lee and Ian Fleming, if I remember correctly, were cousins by marriage. Lee claims Fleming wanted him for the role of Dr. No, though no one else has corroborated that and I suspect Lee’s memory of playing tricks. In any case, when Lee finally got play a Fleming villain, the character had nothing in common with Fleming’s beyond the name. Lee’s Scaramanga also had the misfortune of being in one of the worst Bond films and suffering from one of Lee’s least memorable performances.

  23. I enjoy Scaramanga’s boyish smile after shoving Britt Ekland into the boot of his car, though. That’s what the movies need: characters you can identify with.

  24. I admit to identifying with him there. Ms. Ekland’s character was enough of a ditz to seem incongruous even in a Bond film, where the woman are often sex objects but rarely outright stupid. Unfortunately, all three of the Bond films written by Tom Mankiewicz prominently feature bimbo characters, a blot later repeated in Roger Moore’s swansong A View To Kill, wherein Tanya Roberts is snuck up on by a blimp.

  25. At least Ekland kind of HAD a character, which seemed an improvement in some ways on the blank glamour dolls, but as a repeated trope it quickly gets tiresome. There might not be any way to really elevate a Bond girl to the status of equal partner, but ditziness is a gambit I hope we never see again.

  26. I’ve been meaning to treat myself to this film for years and finally got round to it yesterday, and I have to cheerfully admit that I liked it a lot. Being forewarned about the long stretches of pageantry at the start of the film did help maybe but I actually think they make a bit of sense in the context of the film. All the ceremonies create oppressive atmosphere of religious destinism that prepares us for the ease with which Rasputin dupes Alexandra with his talk of the power of God. We’re even treated to a few shots of an Orthodox priest (with an impressive basso singing voice) who’s made up similarly to Rasputin with long black hair and beard–coincidence?

    I love John Barrymore’s entrance into this scene, too. He almost looks as though he’s going to roll his eyes.

    It really is Lionel’s show, though. Maybe John would have been more appropriate for the part of Rasputin but I think they were going for an ascetic, “lean and hungry look” for Rasputin that Lionel better matched than the slightly puffy-looking John. John’s demeanor in all the scenes where he squares off against Lionel (until the final explosion) reminded me of nothing so much as fellows who think they can win arguments with Internet trolls with elaborate sarcasm and a posture of detached erudition. It doesn’t really work, though; Rasputin’s wheedling and snarling is so much more entertaining than Chegodieff’s little smirks and arch mannerisms. But I guess John finally tired of getting all his scenes stolen from him and when he snaps, it’s epic. WHY DONTCHA DIE?!

    Ethel Barrymore seems to be in a slightly different movie than everyone else, or maybe on a slightly different plane of existence, not on screen so much as floating somewhere above it. At times this is oddly effective, adding force to the scenes where Alexandra is swaying trancelike, eyes bugged out in a thousand-yard stare, under Rasputin’s spell. The difficulty is that she comes across a bit like that even when she’s *not* under Rasputin’s spell.

  27. Agreed: neither director has his Barrymores under control, fully. But I think Brabin is trying while Bolesawski is on auto-pilot. “If you run out of gas, get Ethel!”

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