DATELINE: Rah-Rah-Rah Rasputin
Hollywood has always loved Rasputin.
Way back in 1932, MGM made a poorly received classic version of the tale of the licentious mad monk and his hold on the Romanoffs in Rasputin and the Empress. It should have been better appreciated and would have worked on a twin-bill with King Kong. It’s a wonder indeed.
Rasputin & the Empress is gaudy from every angle. It uses actual footage of the pre-Revolution czarist Moscow. It does not flinch in its hints that Rasputin had a wink, nod, and grab at the young son of the Czar and his four daughters to boot.
And, for sheer and shimmering stardom, it cast the three Barrymores in their only film appearance together. There likely could not be a script that played to their special qualities better than this one.
Ethel is Alexandra, the Empress, in all her dignified and melancholy agony. From her hemophiliac son and weak-willed husband, to her final recognition that bullets would end her reign, Ethel has only to look gracious and grieved.
As the assassin prince, John Barrymore is dashing and looks like he is a tad overripe, but he is elegant and fills out those pompous military uniforms in grand style.
In the pip role of the film, Lionel Barrymore has a beard that serves as a serviette during meals and is allowed to emote with the best of Rasputin imitators.
Its accuracy is only slightly off-kilter. They could not use the Prince’s real name back then or he would have sued them. In the climactic assassination scene, where Rasputin seems to defy poison, John and Lionel are literally locked in a life and death scene to see who can look crazier.
We loved every overwrought minute.