Monday, January 4, 2010

RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (MGM 1932) Warner Archive Collection

Hollywood's historical epics are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they report to be a factual recreation of events that shaped the world. On the other, as with all forms of mass entertainment, they seek to engage and captivate their audience - usually through spectacle, and largely at the expense of factual substance.

All to the good, the dream merchants would probably argue. Certainly, they are lavish escapism for many who might not otherwise have either the time or the inclination to pick up a history book and actually read the true story behind Hollywood's glittery myth.
Perhaps no other event in world history has been as mythologized and/or bastardized through the lens of Hollywood's fantasy wish fulfillment as those tragic last days of the Russian Romanov dynasty.

Owing to the diligence of the revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy - and thereafter effectively wiped most of the slate clean of any reference to Nicholas II and his family for the premiere half of the 20th century - the final days of Russia's last monarch have long been fodder for constructive hypothesis and pure conjecture. What is known today is hardly more conclusive than what was known then, thus allowing the Hollywood myth to be perennially perpetuated and resurrected for good box office.

Of this ilk is MGM's lavish 1932 film, Rasputin and the Empress. As scripted by Charles MacArthur (with unaccredited assists from Lenore J. Coffee, Ben Hecht, Robert Sherwood and Mercedes de Acosta) and rather haphazardly directed by Richard Boleslowski (who basically dedicates the last seven and a half minutes to twelve years of history) the film brings together for the first and only time, theatre's 'royal family': John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. In layman's terms, this film is pure hokum, though artistically salvaged from descending into pure tripe.

As with most epics from this vintage, Rasputin and the Empress opens large, with Czar Nicholas II (Ralph Morgan) and Czarina Alexandra (Ethel Barrymore) celebrating a milestone anniversary in the Romanov reign. To a packed cathedral, the royal family - including Czarevitch Alexie Aloysha (Tad Alexander), princesses Natasha (Diana Wynyard), Maria (Jean Parker), Anastasia (Ann Shirley) (though oddly, not Olga or Tatiana) - parade majestically past their loyal court while outside a restless mob of peasants impatiently wait to catch a glimpse of their sovereign. Also present at court is Grand Duke Igor (C. Henry Gordon) - a fiery diplomat who is informed by Prince Paul Chegodieff (John Barrymore) that his brother has been assassinated while attending the theatre.

Demanding vengeance, rather than justice, Igor and Paul clash in both their views and loyalties. Igor is more tyrannical - constantly encouraging the Czar to extract his will on the people by autocratic rule as it is his divine right to do so. But Paul represents the democratic view - that the future of Russia lies in the hands of the people and the establishment of a Duma (or parliament).

From here, the story shifts to Czarina Alexandra and her love of Alexie. After the boy falls in the garden and suffers a bout of hemophilia, Alexandra summons the court doctor, A. Remezov (Edward Arnold) to attend him, only to realize that modern medicine can do nothing to stop his bleeding. Desperately grasping for salvation, Alexandra is persuaded to allow a rebel monk, Grigori Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) to 'pray' over Alexie in private.

Here, the script begins to delve into pure fantasy with Rasputin casting some sort of 'magic' spell over Alexie that, while stopping his hemorrhaging also transforms the child into a sort of walking zombie who is loyal in both his fear and worship only to Rasputin from this day forward. In a bizarre moment in the script, Rasputin terrorizes Alexie by forcing him to watch an ant devour a fly under a microscope, illustrating that the fly is the monarchy, but that he - Rasputin - will never allow it to be destroyed.

All evidence to the contrary, as Rasputin slowly bribes and cajoles his way into the government, replacing the Czar's loyalists with cronies who basically sponge off the excess of riches while abusing the Russian people for their own profit and pleasures. Only Paul remains true to his Czar and above it all - though his merit is tested and then misrepresented by Rasputin who suggests to the Czarina that Paul is really the one driving a wedge between the Czar and the devotions of his people.

The last act of this film is pure fiction, but compelling - even disturbing - melodrama nonetheless. Rasputin's hold on the royal family has become omnipotent. The monk shows signs of planning to rape Princess Maria - a minor - as she sleeps in her bed. Natasha, however, discovers Rasputin's devilry. First attempting to beat and murder Natasha, then cast a powerful hypnotic spell on her, Rasputin is exposed to the Empress who exiles him from court once and for all.

At a party at Paul's estate, Rasputin is fed dessert pastries by a waiter (Misha Auer) that are laced with a powerful poison. Before discovering the rouse, Rasputin learns that Paul is hiding within a closet and forces him down into the cellar of the estate, locking the door behind them. It is Rasputin's intent to murder Paul, but Paul reveals to Rasputin that he has in fact been poisoned and only has moments to live.

The two men struggle and Paul - in a powerful fit of rage - murders the monk by first bludgeoning him repeatedly with a hot poker from a nearby fireplace, then dragging the still conscious and extremely bloody Rasputin outside into a raging snow storm, before submersing him in icy waters just beyond the estate grounds.

Until this moment, the narrative has been evenly paced and made rather compelling. Unfortunately, two hours have run their course and with still much history to cover, director Richard Boleslowski slaps together a brief series of vignettes in a rather shoddy attempt to summarize the demise of the Russian royal family.

The Czar publicly exiles Paul for Rasputin's murder, but privately and gratefully thanks him for his duty to the crown. Paul encourages the Czar to seek exile outside of Russia, or at the very least, send the royal family away to parts unknown for their own safety. Barring this suggestion, Nicholas and his family are led away by the revolutionaries to a cellar where they are assassinated before the final fade out.

Before exploring the quality of this burn on demand DVD, there are curiosities in the cut of this film that bear brief mention. First, it is important to remember that Rasputin and the Empress was made in pre-code Hollywood and there appears to have been some rather heavy handed editing performed after its original premiere, presumably either to cut down the film's running time and/or satisfy the censors for subsequent reissues after the code's instatement.

A handful of scenes are jump cut together with obvious portions of dialogue and situations 'sanitized'/omitted. These cuts are damaging, not only to the overall impact of the storytelling but also the performances of which Lionel Barrymore's remains the emblematic stand out. His Rasputin is a diabolical anarchist, consumed by greed and haunted in the depths of a Godless existence. If a more complete cut of this movie exists, Warner Home Video should do all it can to research and restore this film.

Rasputin and the Empress has been released as part of the Warner Archive Collection. The B&W transfer exhibits all of the shortcomings of a film that has not been restored. Although the image can be rather sharply detailed, contrast levels appear to have been boosted with the mid-range of the gray scale all but absent. Close ups have good detail but long shots tend to digress to a muddy, softly focused mess. Age related artifacts are prevalent and often distracting. Thankfully, there is no edge enhancement or shimmering of fine details to contend with. The audio is mono and exhibits considerable hiss and pop, all par for the course of a bare bones offering. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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