Here at PEPS we have declared August to be #AMonthWithoutTheCode. In contrast to the month of wholesome entertainment which we found in July’s #CleanMovieMonth, we aren’t watching any Code films during August! It’s a much tougher assignment for us, since we mainly watch Breen era films on a regular basis. So far, I haven’t published any film reviews during this month. However, all that is changing with this article. This is my first review of an un-Code film.
August 13 would have been the great Ethel Barrymore’s 139th birthday. She was a member of the famous Barrymore family, called the royal acting family. Last week, Crystal Kalyana of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood hosted her fourth annual celebration of the three peerless Barrymore siblings around Miss Barrymore’s birthday. The celebration was the three day event, The Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. I enjoyed participating in her blogathon last year with articles about three separate movies which the siblings made, Captains Courageous from 1937, Maytime from 1937, and Just for You from 1952. This year, I decided to write about a pre-Code film with Barrymore talent, since this is #AMonthWithoutTheCode. My topic choice is Rasputin and the Empress from 1932. This MGM film is singular in being the only film ever to feature Ethel, Lionel, and John Barrymore together. It’s an interesting study-piece in terms of its acting and its pre-Codeishness.
Rasputin and the Empress is an appropriate title for this film. It really is about the relationship between Father Grigori Rasputin and the czar’s family in the last years of the Holy Russian Empire. It begins in 1913 at the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the monarchy’s reign in Russia. The celebration is joyous for Emperor Nicholai, his wife, Alexandra, and their sole heir, their beloved son, Alexis. However, the events take a sinister turn when Prince Paul Chegodieff, a famous lieutenant and dear friend of the royal family, arrives with the news that the czar’s uncle has been assassinated. The victim’s brother, the disagreeable Grand Duke Igor, demands that all the suspects who have been arrested be executed without a trial. Prince Chegodieff disagrees with him strongly on this point, feeling that such brutality will endanger the monarchy’s popularity and safety. Meanwhile, Paul is engaged to Natasha, the daughter of the assassinated nobleman who is very troubled in the wake of her father’s death. Paul is concerned that Grand Duke Igor’s harsh, unjust punishment will endanger the safety of the monarchy by angering the people. He disobeys his orders to have them shot, but Igor ultimately accomplishes her purpose. The czar agrees with Paul after the execution has taken place, but the people’s love for their rulers saves them from any ill-feelings which may have been created. After her father’s death, Natasha finds a solution to her grief and a new purpose for her life in religion, being guided by Father Grigori Rasputin. He is not an ordained priest in the Russian Orthodox Church but a man of God who has many followers. Natasha believes wholly in this man, whom she thinks is like a saint. Paul is glad that Natasha has found such peace and happiness through Father Rasputin, but he doesn’t like that her newfound faith is coming between them and making her delay their wedding. One day, while happily playing with one of his sisters, Alexis falls and cuts his leg. What would have been a minor injury becomes a life-threatening condition when it is realized that Alexis has the hereditary hemophilia. This condition, which prevents blood from coagulating, causes sufferers to bleed to death. Dr. Remezov tries to comfort Alexis and his mother, but there is little that anyone can do for the poor boy. He sends for Dr. Wolfe, the finest physician in Europe. However, the empress’s heart breaks as she listens to her beloved son moan in pain while they wait for the doctor’s train to reach their city. Natasha tells the empress that there is a man who can save her son, and he is Father Rasputin. She brings in the fierce-eyed man, who says that he can pray for her son and heal him. The exhausted and anguished empress politely thanks him and says that everyone is praying for him and she appreciates his help. However, he insists that God has given him special powers, saying that total faith in God can heal her son. Alexandra seems almost bewitched as she repeats after him, “My son will live.” She orders for Rasputin to be alone with Alexis. The sinister old man takes the boy’s pain away by hypnotizing him with a watch. When the physician finally arrives, the boy seems to be cured. However, he is hardly himself. He is dazed, barely responsive, and entirely dependent on Rasputin. Dr. Wolfe is very suspicious, and he wants to examine the boy. However, Rasputin tells Alexandra that she must choose between faith in God through him or faith in doctors. Certain that a miracle has saved her son, she dismisses the doctors and puts all her confidence in Rasputin. Little does she know that the so-called man of God is a vicious, conniving, greedy villain who uses hypnotism, black magic, and lies to control people. Acting in the name of God, he will stop at nothing to become the most powerful person in Russia. Although he professes a life of piety, he lives a life of appalling self-indulgence through gluttony, drunkenness, perversion, and debauchery. He is now in great favor with the royal family, particularly the empress, because he saved the heir. He uses this power to influence the hypnotized boy, hoping to become the power behind the throne through him. In addition, he makes a deal with the head of the secret police. In exchange for saving the other man’s job, Rasputin is allowed to look through the police files on anyone in Russia, giving him even greater power. Only Paul sees through the villain’s holy exterior to his vicious core. They swiftly grow to loathe and fear each other. Paul notices the horrible change in Alexis, who used to be his best friend. Now, the boy hates Paul because of Rasputin’s manipulation of his mind. Convinced that Rasputin aims to destroy Russia for his own evil purposes, Paul tries to shoot him. However, the “protection of God,” which is really a breastplate, keeps the bullets from harming him. The czar won’t believe Paul’s accusations toward Rasputin, since he, like the rest of the royal family, believes that Alexis would die if Rasputin did. Paul is removed from his military position. However, the royal family and the entire country of Russia is being slowly, secretly poisoned from within by the diabolical Rasputin. Will things end well for the royal family and the country of Russia? Probably not, since World War I is about to begin, and the Russian Revolution looms on the horizon. Although partly fictionalized, this film is based on the true story of Rasputin, so a happy Hollywood ending is not in sight.
Empress Alexandra is played by Ethel Barrymore. Father Grigori Rasputin is played by Lionel Barrymore. The czar, Nicholai, is played by Ralph Morgan. Prince Paul Chegodieff is played by John Barrymore. Alexis is played by Tad Alexander. Princess Natasha is played by Diana Wynyard. Grand Duke Igor is played by C. Henry Gordon. Dr. Remezov is played by Edward Arnold. Dr. Wolfe is played by Gustav von Seyffertitz.
This film is based on the true story of Rasputin, the un-ordained priest who healed the czar’s son and won himself the favor and trust of the royal family, especially the empress. It has been suggested that he used hypnotism to cure the young heir’s hemophilia. In real life, he was married and had a few children. In the movie, he is depicted as a loner whose main helper is an old woman, Duna, played by Sarah Padden, whom he calls “cabbage face.” The real man, who denounced alcohol and amorous immorality, became a heavy drinker and a promiscuous man who has been accused of many immoral acts. He used his influence in political circles, and it was noted that he was always with the royal family. Many historians believe that his influence over and presence with the czar and his family caused the disgust with the monarchy which led to the Russian Revolution. Whether or not he acted with the intent to make himself a great power in Russia is not a topic on which historians agree. However, it is known that he used black magic and engaged in licentiousness while claiming to be a man of God. In the film, all the evils of which he has been accused were made fact to create a ruthless character who is merciless and unscrupulous in his quest to become the greatest power in Russia.
When analyzing what is wrong with this film from a Code standpoint, the answer is only one word, Rasputin. Aside from him and the scenarios which surround him, there are no unacceptable elements in this film. There is no profanity, no forbidden expressions, no risqué costumes, and no other offensive elements which do not involve him. However, he is such a central character that he cannot possibly be removed or revised. Without him, you have only the royal family, and you have no story.
This is the most disturbing, unacceptable pre-Code film I have ever seen. I’m sure there are many which are worse, but this is the most offensive one that I have seen. Rasputin, as he is depicted in this movie, is a highly disturbing and entirely un-Codish character in many ways. Firstly, he is a religious individual, a “man of God,” who commits grievous crimes while claiming righteousness. The Code is very strict on the point that clergymen must not be depicted as villains. The fact that he is not an ordained priest does not improve the situation. He is claiming to be a man who has received power from God. A depiction of such a terrible religious charlatan could be very offensive to many people. It becomes absolute blasphemy as Rasputin speaks of God, quotes Scripture, and makes the sign of the cross before, after, and while doing despicable things. This movie creates a sense of mistrust and suspicion, since it shows such a horrible fraud. It makes all men of the cloth look bad, since there is no good priest to contrast the evil Rasputin.
The second troublesome element about Rasputin is his personal life of lust and promiscuity. As though his lying, hypnotizing, and scheming for power aren’t enough to make him a thoroughly despicable character, he is very depraved in his amorous pursuits, using his religious guise and authority to satisfy his own wicked desires. At his apartment, he is surrounded by scantily-clad young women who flock around him and fall over him, saying that they love him and flattering his evil ego. It is implied that a lot of women who go to his dwelling are receiving more than spiritual guidance from him. One middle-aged female follower touches at the heart of the matter when she asks him why he only blesses the young and beautiful women. All doubts about him are dispelled when Princess Natasha, his devoted disciple, visits him at his flat to warn him about Paul’s plans to injure him. Rasputin brings her to a dark, private room, and an abrupt fade to black doesn’t remove the implication of what he is about to do to her. The sudden fade out seemed suspicious to me, but I was surprised to learn that the cut was not censorship. MGM itself made this cut after the real-life princess on which Natasha’s character was based sued them for invading her privacy and misrepresenting her life. Although the more pointed parts of the scenario were destroyed, Natasha’s sullen, terrified behavior for the rest of the film completes the picture of what happened in Rasputin’s apartment.
As though that behavior isn’t enough to make Rasputin one of cinema’s worst villains, he is none-too-subtly implied to be perverted. His behavior toward the royal children is highly inappropriate and very disturbing. Most of the time, it is just implied by his gazes, which are absolutely diabolical. After all, there were censor boards throughout the nation in 1932, and they were eager to cut out such elements if they could pinpoint them. The only instance where it is more than just implied is between him and the oldest daughter of the czar, Maria, played by Jean Parker. I’m not sure how old she is supposed to be. The actress was seventeen during filming. The character can’t be older than fifteen or sixteen. Rasputin tells her brother and sister to leave the room, giving them some foolish task, and Maria looks frightened. She wants to leave, but Rasputin won’t let her. He tells her she mustn’t be afraid of him, but she clearly is, and who can blame her? He gives her a religious icon, and he speaks in a sweet way which sent chills up my spine. Thankfully, some other people enter the room, and Rasputin acts like he was just giving her religious council. That night, he tries to go into her bedroom when she is asleep, but she wakes up and calls out, not knowing what had awoken her. Natasha immediately rushes in and, seeing the door handle turn, knows who tried to enter. This ultimately leads to the empress’s knowledge of the truth about the villain.
Aside from the huge problems surrounding Rasputin, there are small details which the filmmakers predictably included. The girls who surround him are drunk and loose. Their evening gowns are very risqué, in standard pre-Code fashion. Some of them don’t look historically accurate for 1917 to me. One girl seems to be literally falling out of her dress! In addition, Rasputin’s indulgence in food and liquor is to the point of gluttony. It is rather disgusting at times, such as when he unashamedly belches. It’s funny how such unpleasant little details of life disappeared from films for twenty years, and movies actually managed to be good without them!
There is nothing in the Code about depicting the more grotesque facets of the animal kingdom, but it was implied in the rule that the sensibilities of the average American must not be offended. In one scene, Rasputin forces Alexis to watch a fly and an ant fight in a tiny container under a microscope, telling him to learn from the details of the battle. The audience is also forced to watch the graphic struggle between the insects in magnified detail. It’s nothing new to fans of modern nature shows, but I’m sure it was a little too much information for many viewers in 1932. Even now, I’m sure that many children and sensitive individuals such as myself would be as horrified by this brutal battle as Alexis is.
The most impacting and memorable scene in this film is the occasion of Rasputin’s death. Any character who wreaked so much havoc in his life couldn’t die peacefully, simply, or quickly. I don’t think that discussing his death will spoil the effect for those who watch it, since his assassination is a historical fact and something which must be scene to be fully grasped. It begins in a lavish party, filled with champagne, chocolate cakes, and indecent women. Rasputin is eating and drinking like a condemned man, which, unbeknownst to himself, he is. When he is thoroughly drunk, he recognizes one of the servants and realizes that this dwelling, which one of his guests told him was a friend’s house, belongs to Paul, his nemesis. Paul comes out, and Rasputin tries to kill him right there. The other guests stop him, and Rasputin slyly tells the prince to come down into the cellar with him to meet his death. The villain makes Paul stand in front of a fireplace so that he can shoot him several times, causing him a slow, painful death. Paul looks unconcerned, however, perhaps because his rival is too drunk to aim properly. Paul dodges the first bullet, and Rasputin’s eyes looks very bleary. Suddenly, Paul lets out a wild laugh and tells Rasputin that he has been eating poisoned cakes all night. He furiously springs at the younger man in his horrified anger. What ensues is the most graphic, horrific fight I have ever seen in a movie. This scene puts the film’s unacceptability over the top. Perhaps one can overlook all the implications of Rasputin’s lechery, but this scene is so violent that many less sensitive individuals would be tempted to look away from the screen. Although he has been heavily poisoned, Rasputin puts up a fierce fight as they wrestle, locked in a struggle to the death. Eventually, Paul picks up a poker from the fire. You don’t actually see it hit the other man, but the fierceness of his blows makes the viewer infer the goriness of the wounds. Rasputin’s screaming adds to the effect. However, Rasputin still isn’t dead! Covered with blood and looking absolutely ghoulish, he continues to fight. By this point, Paul looks almost as bad, since he is bruised, blood-spattered, and dirty. Finally, he drags Rasputin outside and through the snow, bringing him to a frozen pond. He pushes him below the ice, and the fiend drowns in the icy lake.
I think the stark realism and unsettling aspect of this scene is a tribute to the filmmakers and actors in the film, if nothing else. They created a truly horrific spectacle with intelligence and ingenuity, not computers. Because of that, I imagine that this scene is more disturbing than contrived computer animation. The realness of it makes it all the more disturbing because you believe that Lionel Barrymore is a diabolical religious charlatan and that John is not his brother but an impassioned prince who will do anything to save Russia. That being said, I think it was the crowning element of unacceptability in a totally unacceptable film. Things like Paul shouting throughout the battle that Rasputin is a devil from you know where can be removed. The whole flavor of corruption, perversion, and depravity cannot.
For the Blogathon
This film is a magnificent example of the incomparable talent which the Barrymore siblings possessed. Every one of them is dramatic, stirring, and powerful in his role. They work together so seamlessly, yet it’s very easy to forget that they are siblings. Although they possess many common features, they are all very unique and different. They all have intense, burning eyes and an ability to throw their entire soul into the portrayal of a character. They were a deeply powerful and gifted trio of siblings, the likes of which will never be equaled.
Ethel is beautiful as the refined and sensitive Czarina. I was impressed by how lovely and youthful she is at fifty-three; she doesn’t look a day over forty. She is loving toward her husband and children, particularly her son. One of her greatest performances in this film is when her son is dying of hemophilia. As he is crying out in anguish, her face and actions show how much greater her pain is for her son. She so thoroughly creates this impression that it is easy to understand why she accepts the ominous-looking Rasputin when he offers to heal her son. Her eyes are the reflection of her soul, as she goes from a happy and contented woman to a grief-stricken mother to a person living in a delusion, blinding herself to the truth of the situation. It is not until she realizes the truth about Rasputin that her eyes are full of fire again. It seems like she has also been under Rasputin’s spell, but it takes only the truth to set her free from his evil grasp. She is a consistent tower of strength and dignity, a real contrast to her brothers, whose characters portray much wilder emotions.
Lionel is thoroughly despicable as Rasputin. It is a credit to his great talents. I have seen and loved him in numerous roles for years. Although he might be gruff at times, he almost always has a soft heart. The only other villain as which I have seen him is the wicked Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946. He is cunning, manipulative, and ruthless as the old tyrant who dictates a whole town from his wheelchair. I’ve always been impressed by the convincingness with which he plays this evil man. However, Mr. Potter looks rather tame and mild compared to Rasputin. Yes, the cruel banker is a horrible person. However, he possesses just one element which is in Rasputin’s character, namely a selfish and ruthless plot to control his world. However, he lacks the lust, perversion, gluttony, religious fraud, and grotesque ending which attend the character of Rasputin. Perhaps it’s because It’s a Wonderful Life was a Code film. However, I don’t think that Lionel Barrymore needed that much plot detail to make his character convincingly nefarious. Just the fierce, menacing look in his eyes could make you loathe his character if that’s what he wanted. In some ways, I think that Rasputin has too many wicked facets. Just as no character is perfect, Rasputin seems too thoroughly evil on every level. Every evil of which the real Rasputin has been accused was utilized and magnified in the plot. I’m not saying that there aren’t some very evil people in this world. I’m just saying that I think the script went a little too far with Rasputin. It seems like the only horrible thing he doesn’t do is torture cats! Mr. Barrymore is so convincing as this horrible person that I frequently forgot who he really was. I just thought of him as Rasputin! He switched so convincingly between his roles of a wise priest and a plotting villain. Although I think that this character is in complete violation of the Code, I was very impressed by the way Lionel Barrymore brought him to life.
Rasputin and the Empress is the third film in which I have seen John Barrymore, the other two being Maytime and Grand Hotel. I have always appreciated the diversity and intensity of his acting, even in the few roles in which I have seen. The role of Prince Paul Chegodieff is my favorite role of his because it is the first really nice character I have seen him play. Nikolai in Maytime is a rather sinister man who turns to murder out of his jealousy, and Baron Felix von Geigern in Grand Hotel is a rather likable thief and lecher. As Paul, John is a fierce patriot and a devoted soldier. He looks very handsome in this movie; he seems much younger than fifty. His affection for and loyalty to the royal family is very sincere and deep. I think his relationship with Alexis is very touching. He is like a brother to the prince who has nothing but sisters. Because he is so close to the boy, Paul is able to see the change in him more clearly than anyone else, and that is the real reason for his suspicion of Rasputin. John shows the full range of his acting abilities in this film. He is sensitive, disturbed, romantic, moved, angry, fierce, enraged, and passionate to the point of madness. He makes a fierce opponent to his brother’s villain. His most intense and dramatic scene is certainly Rasputin’s assassination. Their fight must be the fiercest battle which two brothers ever fought onscreen! Although he receives no definite wound, the battle greatly bedraggles him. He looks almost as bad as Rasputin by the end of it. He poured all his energy into creating the emotional turmoil and fury which would be driving his character. I can’t think of any character who could better portray the noble hero in this doomed trio of historical characters.
This concludes my late entry to the Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy. Thanks to Crystal for annually honoring this peerless family of the stage and screen. I recommend Rasputin and the Empress as a historical curiosity and an example of excellent acting. Personally, I never intend to watch it again because of its Codeless elements, particularly the gory assassination. I think it’s a shame that the only film which the Barrymore siblings made together had to be attended by such unpleasant elements, since they make the film unpleasant to watch. When I watched this movie, I was really struck by the purpose of #AMontWithoutTheCode. No matter how great the actors and filmmakers, without Joseph Breen’s enforcement of the Code, films are doomed to be filled with wickedness with no hope of goodness or compensating moral values.
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