Today is the first day of The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon! This is the second year that the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society is celebrating Joseph I. Breen’s birthday with a blogathon! Like last year, participants are joining the celebration by either exploring the Breen Era‘s unique qualities or contrasting films from other periods to this time. My first article for this blogathon is in the Breening category. Thus, I am going to write about a film which is not from the Breen Era and explain how it could have been changed to be a Code film. My film of choice is a pre-Code film, Rasputin and the Empress from 1932, from which the picture on the pre-Code banner is taken.
In addition, I agreed to participate in MovieRob‘s Genre Grandeur this month. The topic of October’s Genre Grandeur is Zombies. When I was trying to think of a topic, this film came to my mind. Although it doesn’t feature any official zombies, the young prince, when hypnotized by Rasputin, certainly looks like a zombie. Thus, this article is not only my first contribution to The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon but is also my contribution to MovieRob‘s Genre Grandeur!
I reviewed this film in great detail for Crystal Kalyana‘s Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon in August as part of #AMonthWithoutTheCode. If you want to read my thoughts on the synopsis, the casting, and the history of the story, click here to read that article. In today’s article, I am just going to focus on breening and zombies. Let the breening begin!
The early portion of this film is quite harmless. The only potentially-questionable element is the behavior of a woman suspected of assassinating a noble. Prince Paul Chegodieff (John Barrymore) tries to save the lives of the untried suspects, but his future father-in-law, the brother of the victim, demands their death. The woman seems a little mad, and she curses and spits at them. She also pulls her top open slightly when demanding that she be killed right away. I think her behavior should be toned down. That is really the only problem until Rasputin.
In my previous article, I stated that Rasputin and the situations surrounding him are the only problems in this film. However, I also pointed out that the whole story was based on the relationship between Rasputin and the Romanovs. Because Rasputin and his behavior are so heinous, I have wondered whether this film could have been a good Code film at all. However, there are very few films which are “unbreenable.” If handled properly, this film could have been a good Code film. Let’s delve right into the very core of the problem, the character Rasputin, and see if we can make it acceptable.
Grigori Rasputin was based on a real person. However, this depiction of him is considered to be one of the most unrealistic film characterizations of Rasputin. Many accusations and ideas have been suggested about him, but most are unproven theories. Some historians say that Rasputin’s interference with the Romanovs created the discontentment and the mistrust of the monarchy among the people which led to the Russian Revolution. The scenario of this film was based on that idea.
To create a dramatic, profitable story, the filmmakers utilized every available rumor about Rasputin’s bad behavior. They magnetized it, dramatized it, and sometimes just fabricated new things to create the most thoroughly-despicable character I have ever seen in a motion picture. In many ways, I think they went too far. Lionel Barrymore was talented enough to create a fearsome, loathsome, horrifying character without having the help of every sin known to man! If some of this dramatization was toned down or removed, I believe that the character of Rasputin could have been acceptable.
The biggest problem with the character of Rasputin is his perverted licentiousness. He is surrounded by young, attractive female followers who seem to be living at his flat. They are scantily-clad, dazed creatures who flatter Rasputin, hoping for blessings and favors.
Apparently, these women aren’t enough for him. It is implied that he forcibly takes advantage of Princess Natasha (Diana Wynyard), one of his most devoted disciples, when she visits him to warn him about her fiancé, Prince Chegodieff, who hates him. She was the person who brought Rasputin to the palace in the first place. This scene caused a lot of trouble during the making of the film. Screenplay writer Mercedes de Acosta objected to the scene because Princess Natasha was based on a real princess, Irene Romanov Yusupov, who had endured no such dishonor at the hands of Rasputin. Her concerns were ignored, and, since she refused to write the scene, she was fired. Ultimately, she proved to be right. Princess Yusupov and her husband sued MGM for invasion of privacy and misrepresentation. They won, and the scene was destroyed. However, an excerpt from it remains in the trailer, and the photograph which I used in the pre-Code banner also is taken from it.
In addition, he shows a depraved interest in children. In one scene, he manages to be alone with one of the empress’s daughters, Maria. The actress was sixteen, but I think the character is supposed to be a little younger. The way Rasputin acts toward her is frightening for her and disgusting for the audience. Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of others, but his pursuit of the damsel leads to the empress’s discovery of his real nature.
Having removed these elements, Rasputin is not a perverted lecher. He is a scheming, drunken, self-indulgent charlatan who claims to be a man of God to gain favor with the royal family and control Russia. He maintains his high position because he saved the young heir, Alexei, through hypnotism and has convinced all that he keeps him alive. He still is a very depraved and despicable character. When his flat is depicted, it would not include the fawning female followers. It would focus more on his scheming. In many ways, he would seem more cleverly conniving if he didn’t indulge in such dangerous promiscuity, which was bound to get him in trouble. His main associate would still be the old woman whom he calls Cabbage Face, played by Sarah Padden. If followers are seen, they should be equally male and female of diverse ages, and he should show no special preference for the young and attractive women.
As for his self-indulgence in food and drink, it is not entirely unacceptable. He eats his favorite chocolate cakes with the manners of a barbarian, but that is not in violation of the Code. His belching, however, is and therefore must be removed.
The most troublesome key element of Rasputin’s character is his religious charlatanism. The Code is very strict upon the point that ministers of religion must not be villains. This is a rule without exception and a very important one. However, there is one aspect of Rasputin’s character which, if properly utilized, would make him acceptable. He was not really, nor is he in the film, a minister in any organized church. He claimed to be a man of God and a prophet. He was called Father Rasputin, but he was neither a priest, a monk, nor a minister in any church. That element should be largely emphasized. Rasputin should clearly just be assuming this air of piety and religion to make himself powerful. In the film, although it is clear that Rasputin does not really believe that he is acting in God’s behalf, he acts too religious. For such a wicked man to incessantly make the sign of the cross and discuss God is blasphemous and offensive to devout Christians. His behavior makes a mockery of Christianity. His religious activity, especially making the sign of the cross and referring to God, should be curtailed. In many cases, the word “God” should be replaced with “Heaven,” since God should not be used unless reverently, and Rasputin is hardly a reverent Christian. It also would be a good idea for him to be called “Father Rasputin” a little less often. Just Rasputin or Grigori would suffice on many occasions.
The best thing for this film would be the introduction of a compensating moral value. In this case, I think the moral value would be well-provided by a sympathetic and noble priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, whom we will call Father Dmitri. It would be a good idea for him to be a friend of Paul. They could both oppose the evil deeds of Rasputin. Thus, Paul would not seem apathetic or opposed to religion in general, as he does now. He would seem like a devoted member of the established church who is suspicious of an outsider who claims to have powers from God but seems to be using black magic. Thus, Rasputin would have a clearer motivation for disliking Paul, namely his friendship with the orthodox, trustworthy priest. Rasputin’s more gullible followers, such as Natasha and the empress, would prefer the guidance of Rasputin over that of Father Dmitri, since they believe his claims of divine inspiration and are deceived by his hypnotism and his lies.
Numerous dramatic twists could have been developed because of the inclusion of Father Dmitri. I believe they would completely fill the void left by the removal of Rasputin’s lechery and would make the story even deeper. The Barrymores could have handled a deeper, less obvious story than the one they were given for this picture. Ultimately, there could be a rift between Paul and Father Dmitri, who have different ideas about how to defeat Rasputin. Paul feels that violence is necessary to defeat him, but Father Dmitri prefers using facts and the truth to convince others of his wickedness. The priest does not agree with Paul’s scheme to shoot the deceiver, so Paul proceeds with his plan alone. That is when he goes to Rasputin’s flat and shoots but does not kill him because of the latter’s breastplate.
One unacceptably violent and grotesque scene involves graphic details of a fight not between people but between insects. Rasputin puts a live fly and ant under a microscope and forces the unwilling, repulsed Alexei to watch the battle. The audience is also forced to watch the magnified details of this gory struggle. The close-up shots of the insects attacking each other are quite disgusting and should be eliminated. It would be acceptable if Rasputin and Alexei were just seen watching the fight. The audience could witness their reactions without actually seeing the insects. In addition, none of Rasputin’s comments about the fight should be too grotesque.
The empress’s discovery of Rasputin’s true nature is an essential part of the story. However, if Rasputin’s lechery is removed, the discovery must be changed. Instead of discovering Rasputin trying to enter Maria’s bedroom, Princess Natasha could perhaps discover Rasputin trying to kill Father Dmitri. It would be quite effective for Father Dmitri to have gained evidence against Rasputin. When the priest confronts him about it, Rasputin decides to silence him forever by killing him. He could start to smother him. However, he is interrupted by Natasha’s entrance. He tries to hide the body of the unconscious but living Dmitri, but Natasha quickly realizes what he tried to do. She tries to escape and tell the empress, but Rasputin grabs her and begins to hypnotize her. The scene could then progress as it does in the film.
After this incident, Natasha is unwilling to talk to Paul because she is riddled with guilt for trusting the evil Rasputin.
When Paul talks to the empress, they agree that Rasputin, who has attempted murder and poisoned Russia, must die.
The evening of Rasputin’s death is by far the most unacceptable and repulsive scene in the film. It starts with a bacchanal in which Rasputin is surrounded by intoxicated, indecent women, excess alcohol, and mounds of secretly-poisoned chocolate cakes. Naturally, the loose women must be removed. Rasputin can still thoroughly intoxicate himself and eat the poisoned cakes. However, in this scene, I think that he should not be dressed in the religious garb which he wears throughout the film. He should be wearing a different sort of Russian outfit, as the real Rasputin often did. That would protect the dignity of the cloth and make his subsequent assassination seem less brutal. Then, Paul would present himself, and Rasputin would demand for him to meet his death in the basement. As in the film, Rasputin would shoot at Paul but miss because of his unsteadiness and the other man’s dodging. Finally, Paul tells Rasputin that he has been poisoned. However, his insane laughter in doing so would best be eliminated. It’s not that laughter is against the Code. It’s just that John Barrymore acts like a madman in this scene.
This scene is the most brutal thing I have scene in a classic motion picture. Rasputin just will not die, and the fight is so violent and gory. After being poisoned, shot, and stabbed with a poker, he is still not dead. He does not die until he is thrust into the icy river. Lionel Barrymore’s makeup in this scene was so grotesque and horrible that it was forbidden for still shots to be taken of him in this form. By the end of the scene, John looks almost as bad, with his face filthy, his hair disarranged, and his clothes torn. This scene is so disturbing that I am reluctant to watch this film again. It is a shame, because it is a brilliant film in many ways.
After Paul tells Rasputin that he has been poisoned, Rasputin should just stagger back in horror, dropping his gun. Then, Paul should not revel in the killing. He should not seem wild or impassioned. He should seem coldly noble and self-sacrificing. He should declare that he doesn’t care if he dies; he is happy to pay the death penalty to save Russia. Then, he should draw his gun and aim right at Rasputin. Some of Rasputin’s dialogue about Russia dying with him could remain. That is fine as long as there is no use of the word hell. Rasputin should be shot simply and cleanly, dying from the first bullet. It would probably be best to just show Paul during the shot, since Rasputin was shot in the head, and that shouldn’t be shown. His body could be briefly seen on the floor, but there must be no focus on his face or head. Then, Rasputin’s followers should be heard trying to break in the door and see what has happened. Paul should then hastily exit through a side door out to the snowy night.
Once Rasputin is dead, almost all the problems have ended. The only problematic element after that is the very ending. The film’s ending is quite shocking and disturbing. Having no qualms about spoiling the ending, I will reveal that the film ends with all the Romanovs being shot by the revolutionaries. It’s not much of a surprise, since monarchs generally die in revolutions. I would have been happy for the film to end with the scene after Rasputin’s assassination in which Paul is thanked by the czar and his family. If not, it should end with them going to an uncertain fate on the train. The dialogue of the soldiers could be used to imply that they are going to meet their death. Although bullets are not shown hitting them, they are standing there, and the sound of gunshots fills the air. It is especially disturbing because their young son and daughters are killed, too. These are the heroes of the film. They shouldn’t be so brutally murdered right before the audience’s eyes, even though that is what happened.
With these changes, Rasputin and the Empress could have been a highly moral story. Let us imagine that it really was made in compliance with the Code. It is now a cautionary tale against believing magicians and those who flatter us with promises of healing and blessings. It shows the folly of those who believe lying charmers instead of those who really serve God. Since it would still have the beautiful historical details and the magnificent acting, I think that the breened version would truly be a better film.
Rasputin enters the story when Alexei, the young prince and the heir to the throne, develops hemophilia, a fatal illness which runs in the family. No one can cure the boy, so Princess Natasha brings Rasputin to the palace to save him. The poor empress is grieving to hear her child’s moans of agony, and she is spent and exhausted.
In this vulnerable state, she meets the intimidating Rasputin for the first time. After he speaks to her for only a few moments, he has her almost hypnotized. Staring forward in a daze, she repeats after him, “My son will live.” Although he has not actually hypnotized her, he has cast his evil influence over her. She grants him access to her son’s room, and her actions are controlled by him for almost the rest of the movie.
Rasputin demands to be alone with Alexei to cure him. He begins talking to the boy in a soothing but eerie voice. He pulls out a watch which plays a hauntingly sweet little melody and revolves mechanically. Rasputin holds the revolving watch in front of the boys eyes and chants to him. This is the most convincing hypnotizing scene I have ever seen. After putting him in a trance with this watch, Rasputin tells the boy that his pain is gone. He hasn’t cured him; he has merely taken away his sensation of pain. From that moment forward, Alexei’s mind and will are in Rasputin’s control. Until Rasputin’s death, Alexei is a slave to him, a living zombie.
I haven’t seen many films with zombies, but I don’t know how an actor could portray a zombie better than this young boy, Tad Alexander, does. He stares blankly and is almost unresponsive. Rasputin commands the boy to get out of bed and walk around the room, much to the doctors’ dismay. The boy gets up, but he staggers around the room like a zombie. It is amazing that his mother is undismayed by his listless behavior. She convinces herself that he is just weak. She is so happy that her son is alive that she is unable to realize that his mind is not his own.
Rasputin uses his control over Alexei to manipulate the boy’s behavior. The boy walks around with no purpose and a dull stare in his eye. Since the boy is the heir to the throne, Rasputin makes him become attached to himself. He trains him, tutors him, and thoroughly brainwashes whatever is left of his mind. He is making him his own little zombie, who will someday take the throne. At that point, Rasputin will be the power behind the throne.
Rasputin also changes Alexei’s behavior toward others. Before his illness, Alexei admired Paul more than anyone else. The older man was his best friend and his idol. Once Rasputin controls Alexei’s mind, he makes the boy hate Paul, since he is his bitter enemy. Alexei is cold and rude to his former friend. Under Rasputin’s control, he even bites Paul’s hand!
However, Rasputin quickly changes his behavior when the circumstances require it to keep everyone else deceived. When the empress comes in, Paul implores her to realize what Rasputin is doing to her son. However, she refuses to believe anything against the man who saved her son’s life. Paul tells her that Alexei is completely different, but Rasputin controls him enough to change his behavior at that moment. He tells Alexei to go over to his mother, and the hypnotized child hugs his mother and somewhat connivingly says, “I love you, Mamushka.” His mother is completely convinced. In some ways, she is as much a zombie to Rasputin as Alexei is.
The zombie genre is a classic one, supposedly beginning the very year this film was made with the United Artists picture White Zombie. It relies on the horrific idea of the dead coming back to life and roaming the earth in a trance. However, I think that the idea of a living person becoming a sort of zombie is equally horrifying. The way Rasputin controls the young prince’s mind is startling and captivating. With his spinning watch, his gleaming eyes, and his mesmerizing words, he turns a happy young boy into a living zombie.
There is another element of this film which applies to the Zombie genre, Rasputin’s assassination scene. As the scene progresses, Rasputin has been severely injured multiple times, and he looks absolutely grotesque. However, he is not yet dead. Paul continues to attack him, but he always rises again, still living. It creates the weird impression that he is some sort of zombie, since he looks gruesome enough to have returned from the dead. As he rises and staggers toward him, Paul screams for him to die. Only the icy waters of the river can finally put an end to the evil Rasputin.
This film had a lot of talent, a lot of quality, and a lot of potential. If it had been a Code film from the Breen Era, it could have met its full potential. The Code would have ensured that it didn’t have the offensive, horrifying, and disgusting elements which are now in it. These elements prevent me from rewatching it, which is a shame, because I really enjoyed parts of it. The acting and characterization from the Barrymores and the rest of the cast were brilliant, yet the filmmakers felt that they had to add distasteful elements to this film to make money. Filmmakers always do that and make films which could have been perfectly acceptable distasteful to many potential audience members. They do this simply because they can.
I hope that my description of the possibilities for a breened Rasputin and the Empress make you think about the film’s untapped alternative. Are films really better with excess blood, sin, and depravity? The Code created a different sort of entertainment, in which it was possible to have drama and excitement within films which were “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.”
Be sure to visit our website frequently during the next few days. We will be posting many more articles as part of The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon. We will also post links to the articles of our talented participants. If you decide you would like to join the festival, you can read the rules here. It is not too late to join. The blogathon runs through Wednesday, October 17!
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