Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

“There’s something clammy about him… I’d have the same feeling brushing up against something in the dark night.”

In the Russian court of Czar Nicholas (Ralph Morgan), Czarina Alexandra (Ethel Barrymore), and Czarevitch Aloysha (Tad Alexander), the duplicitous “holy man” Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) worms his way to the top, while Prince Chegodieff (John Barrymore) does what he can to stop him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Con-Artists
  • Edward Arnold Films
  • Ethel Barrymore Films
  • Historical Drama
  • John Barrymore Films
  • Lionel Barrymore Films
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Social Climbers

Like many Hollywood costume dramas, Rasputin and the Empress takes ample liberty with historical facts, focusing more on character than veracity: Lionel Barrymore’s Rasputin is appropriately wild-eyed and scummy, sister Ethel is adequately regal, and brother John provides a consistent voice of reason. The dialogue (by, among others, Charles MacArthur and an uncredited Ben Hecht) and elaborate set designs are enjoyable; otherwise, Rasputin remains a rather tepid affair, one which will annoy history buffs and only provide minimal enjoyment to most film fanatics. Watch it simply to see the three Barrymores in action, as well as for its legal notoriety (see note below).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • All three Barrymore siblings acting together in one film

  • Sumptuous sets, costumes, and cinematography

  • Rasputin forcing Aloysha to witness an ant and fly battling each other to the death

Must See?
No. Although it holds some historical importance as the film which prompted the disclaimer, “Any resemblance to actual persons…” to be added to historical dramatizations, it’s ultimately not must-see viewing.


One thought on “Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

  1. Not must-see. Overall, it’s uneven and, yes, sometimes “tepid”.

    The major problem with this 2-hour film is its first 45 minutes. There’s an “uber” quality about it (and not in a good way, just too much): uber-direction, uber-acting, uber-tone. None of it is particularly believable but it’s certainly uber-produced.

    From there, things do settle down a bit so the film becomes less overwhelming but the uneven quality remains: certain scenes play better than others, some are too sappy in the writing (I suspect Hecht).

    It’s a bit interesting seeing the 3 Barrymores together. Lionel comes off best; John is nicely subdued for a change; poor Ethel’s role is written so shabbily that it leaves her no color for a performance.

    The basic idea of Rasputin’s rise to power comes through adequately – and the film is never downright awful. But it’s not all that good (ultimately) either.

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