ETHEL BARRYMORE MONTH
RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS ( 1932 )
When I first became an avid fan of the Barrymore’s, one of the films I collected was “Rasputin And The Empress”, a lavish landmark film featuring the Barrymore trilogy, Ethel, John and Lionel. It’s a very enthralling movie, and a movie not to be missed, especially for the fact that it’s the whole three siblings appearing together.
John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore star in this extravagant landmark production about Imperial Russia. Superbly directed by Richard Boleslawski, and produced by Irving Thalberg and Bernard H. Hyman. The film was written for the screen by Charles MacArthur, with music by Herbert Stothard, and distribution by MGM. Today the film is known as the only existing vehicle in which the three Barrymore siblings appeared together.
The royal family of Hollywood illuminate the screen in this compelling story about the Russian Empire. During the final years of the reign of Czar Nicholas II and the Czarina Alexandra ( Ethel Barrymore and Ralph Morgan ), Prince Paul Chegodieff ( John Barrymore ) is concerned about the plight of the common people, and is cognizant that a revolution is brewing, but Prince Alexei, the heir to the throne is helping holding it up with his growing populace. When Alexei has a slight fall, he is diagnosed with Haemophilia, a life threatening illness which is causing the boy to bleed heavily. Just when royal physician Dr. Remezov and other doctors have given up hope, along enters Grigori Rasputin, who convinces Empress Czarina that he can heal the boy by promising that he has been sent by God to cure the child. The Empress accepts his offer, and while he is left alone with Alexei, he rehabilitates the boy, but he slowly hypnotizes him and makes him a slave to his will.
Shortly after, the head of the secret police is fearful that he may lose his job so he turns to Rasputin for help to prevent the assassination of a nobleman close to the Czar, but with police dossiers at his disposal, Rasputin is able to use blackmail to increase his power even further, and as a backing, he holds influence over Alexei’s parents in which he uses that to replace those loyal to them with his own men.
Complications ensue when Germany issues an ultimatum and demands that Russia cease mobilization over the crisis happening in Austria, Hungary and Serbia. Nicholas and his advisers are divided, but Rasputin causes dilemma when he demands that he rejects the ultimatum, and as a result, Russia is on the brink of World War 1.
Paul has never liked Rasputin, and is certain that his actions will cause debacle to the Empire. The only problem is that Paul’s fiancée, Princess Natasha and the Empress still have faith in Rasputin, and warns him to stay out of danger as Paul wants to shoot him, which he does, but Rasputin is free of any injuries and is completely unharmed. When Nicholas finds out that he tried to assassinate Rasputin, he is abdicated from his position.
Eventually Rasputin loses respect from the Czarina and Princess Natasha when he begins making advances on Grand Duchess Maria, Alexandra’s daughter. Natasha finds out what he has done, and bursts out in fury, threatening to tell the Empress. To ensconce his behavior he hypnotizes Natasha and puts her in a deep trance. Fortuitously the Empress enters the room in time to enable Natasha to recover her wits, and annunciate to Czarina what had happened. Unable to shake Alexandra’s faith in Natasha, Rasputin boasts of how he is now effectively Czar. The Empress is despondent and sends for Paul, where he assures her that he will take care of things.
during a party where Rasputin is guest of honor, he takes Paul into the cellar and holds him at gunpoint. Once they are alone, Paul taunts Rasputin, telling him the cakes were filled with poison. He then leaps at Rasputin and beats him into unconsciousness. However, Rasputin refuses to die. Covered with blood, he rises and walks toward Paul, shouting that if he dies, Russia will die. Paul finally drags him out into the snow and throws him into the river to drown. Nicholas now exiles Paul for the murder of Rasputin. Even though Rasputin is dead, his minions are still in power, so the Empress and her entire family are under threat.
“Rasputin And The Empress” is a poignant tale of Russian history with Lionel Barrymore taking on the plum role of Rasputin, and delivering an exceptional performance. His portrayal of the truly diabolical villain was so convincing and so believable that he should have been recognized by a plethora of accolades or an award for his performance.
After a long hiatus from movies, Ethel Barrymore returned from the stage to appear alongside her brothers in this picture. This was her first talkie, and Ethel appeared to be equally adept at the art of talking pictures as were John and Lionel. Here she played Empress Czarina Alexandra, delivering a commendable rendition of the historical figure. She was every inch the Empress and giving a convincing portrayal of a woman concerned for the welfare of her very ill son.
John Barrymore once again is copacetic in the role of Prince Paul Chegodieff and delivered an outstanding performance. His character was fictional. The real figure who assassinated Rasputin was Prince Feliks Yusupov, who was distressed by the damage that Rasputin was doing to the public image of the royal family). Even though John was one of the only ones that had a fictional character, he still gave a thoroughly convincing portrayal, really making the character life like.
All three Barrymore’s transmitted meritorious performances to the screen, but sadly they have been overlooked, and lacking the encomium that they deserve.
While the historical accuracy is not withstanding, it’s still a great film, and serves as a distinguished piece of Hollywood history featuring the Barrymore siblings in the same film, which makes it all the more reason for viewing.
Ethel Barrymore’s first starring role in a motion picture with sound.
Upon its initial release in 1932, the movie was the subject of a lawsuit issued by Prince Feliks Yusupov, who had actually been involved in the death of the real Grigory Rasputin. Although names in the film were changed (Yusupov‘s character, as portrayed by John Barrymore, was called Prince Paul Chegodieff), Yusupov also recognized Diana Wynyard‘s character of Princess Natasha to be that of his wife, Princess Irina. the Yussoupovs 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 from later releases. It rendered Wynyard’s character somewhat incomprehensible if the viewer of the film is unaware of the cut – in the first half of the film, Princess Natasha is a supporter of Rasputin, and in the second half, she is inexplicably extremely afraid of him. The laserdisc release of this film includes the original theatrical trailer, which contains a portion of this deleted scene.
Annoyed that his brother John Barrymore was trying to show him up by placing his hand on him while he was finishing a scene (an ancient actor’s technique for drawing attention to oneself), Lionel Barrymore excused himself from the set and went to the back lot to find a telephone. He then phoned the set and told director Richard Boleslawski that “he’d better advise Mr. John Barrymore to not place his hand on me at the close of this scene, lest I lay one on him!” By the time Lionel returned to the set, John has been advised to keep his hands to himself.
Rasputin: “Where is the boy?”
Czarina ( The Empress ): “Who is this man?”
Princess Natasha: “Rasputin”
Princess Natasha: “Grigori Rasputin. He’s a man of God. He can cure him. He’s cured many.”
Rasputin: “In less then a year I will be Russia. Do you hear that. I Rasputin.
Prince Paul Chegodieff: “Do you know people with ambitions like yours my dear father are sometimes rather unlucky.”
Ethel Barrymore: Born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
John Barrymore: Born John Sidney Blythe on February 15th, 1882 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: May 29th, 1942 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 60.
Lionel Barrymore: Born Lionel Herbert Blythe on April 28th, 1878 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: November 15th, 1954 in Van Nuys, California. Aged 76.