A Torn Soul: State’s Attorney (1932)

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An RKO Production~Director: George Archainbaud, Screenplay by Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown, based on a short story by Louis Stevens, Art Director: Caroll Clark

This film has two great things going for it: a tight script infused with Gene Fowler’s personal knowledge of its semi-fictionalized subject and a pitch-perfect performance by John Barrymore.  Both lend dynamic pacing to a movie that fits neatly into a then emerging pre-Code genre, the lawyer picture.  This genre seems to have found its initial flowering in 1932 when no less than three, and I would argue more, movies arrived on the scene loosely based upon then-famed criminal defense attorney, William J. Fallon, who defended the famous and infamous.  With the 1931 publication of Fowler’s popular biography of Fallon acting as starting shot, the lawyer-based courtroom drama was off and running.

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In the opening scene a tipsy defense attorney Tom Cardigan (John Barrymore) accepts 5Gs to defend a renter, a lovely lady accused of tapping on a window to procure ‘clients’, in order to protect the reputation of her landlord Vanny Powers.  As apparently this technique was standard procedure for ladies of the evening, Cardigan has no difficulty understanding what is required. And so he delivers, establishing his courtroom finesse and way with women and juries, the judge being female, manipulating one and then the other with essentially fabricated nonsense.

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Seeing Barrymore as a lawyer is akin to watching an arm slip into a sleeve. His penchant for delivering snappy dialogue and his engaging manner render him entirely believable. His theatrical nature gave him a fondness for make-up, eye make-up in particular, quite evident in the very first scene,  a holdover from his silent days. While this doesn’t bother me, in fact I would prefer to see more men in eye make-up, it does remind us that we are watching The Great Profile at work. This is either good or bad depending upon how you feel about his theatrical style.

 

Cardigan defends the tapping young woman and things being what they are she accompanies him back to his private apartment. The chemistry between these two establishes their relationship pretty quickly.  There’s only a minute or two before he is slowly removing her jacket and seductively kissing her, to which she responds “you have a nice mouth”.  One gets the sense that Cardigan has done this before.  Yet it’s a nice set up scene and establishes the dynamic between these two; it’s different this time. Pretty June Perry (Helen Twelvetrees) is not only lovely but warm and  good-hearted, as many women of the night are apt to be in pre-Code films, and soon is Cardigan’s paramour.  Twelvetrees is able to convey emotional depth and is truly moving in many of her scenes.

Powers is soon shot leading to a hospital bedside suggestion that Cardigan could be more help to his pal on the other side of the law, in the prosecutor’s office as opposed to handy DA. Cardigan makes it clear to the thug, “If I go on the other side, I’ll stay there”. There are soon hints that this proposed prosecutors position also holds the possibility of an eventual governorship. Unfortunately for June, the governor has a daughter.

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At this point June’s deep love and affection for Cardigan has been well-established. During their time together he is loyal and comes home faithfully to her. He is sweet and adoring.  They understand one another. Despite his cynicism we understand that there is a bond between these two and a gentle playfulness. He provides nicely for her despite a lack of vows and she adapts to a more comfortable lifestyle.  Her gowns are stylish yet soft and feminine.  But he is an ambitious man and when the governor’s daughter, Lillian Ulrich (Jill Esmond) begins to make an overt play for him, it’s not surprising that he begins to stray, particularly given his love for the bottle and someone to share it with.

Throughout this film, Cardigan is essentially portrayed as a man who has been led by events. While ambitious, his career path has been determined by his checkered past and reform school history with Powers. He falls easily into a relationship with an easy woman and just as easily into one with an assertive one.

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Lillian in her very first scene is depicted as a ‘modern’ woman and a dangerous one at that.  She’s attired in a jacket, white collared shirt and tie and wearing a brimmed hat (an outfit echoed years later in the early balcony scenes of Annie Hall where a very similar costume conveys a very different message). She finds Cardigan’s ties to the underworld exciting and appears to be drawn to him merely for her own entertainment, finding him “thrilling”. In their introductory meeting we learn Cardigan will be prosecuting a woman  for the murder of her husband. Interestingly Lillian has little sympathy for the defendant but finds the case titillating while June is repelled by the thought that Cardigan may send a woman to the gallows.

Barrymore opens this second courtroom scene by holding a steady gaze upon the defendant, Nora Dean (Mary Duncan), who accuses him of staring at her legs. As he replies quite plainly “I’m not staring at your legs Madam, I’m looking at your soul”, Lillian pulls her dress down. Apparently she’s not so certain that she would like him to see her own soul.

While the script is truly a good one, it is Barrymore’s masterful working of this fairly lengthy courtroom scene that gives it it’s power. He handles the blunt weight and apparent murder weapon, in such a way as to force a confession from the defendant, tapping not only upon the rail of the jury box but on the metal frame of the very bed where she slept, gave birth, made love and eventually murdered her husband. The tension continually builds as he literally has her, the jury and the audience squirming in their seats. As this high-profile case begins to pave his way to the governorship June expresses her concern that Cardigan is losing his moral bearings. This is an interesting twist as despite his being on the right side of the law , she sees through to the darkening of his soul.  Once he expresses that if acting as defense he could’ve gotten the defendant off in a hot minute, June begins to lose respect for him, leaving this weak man vulnerable to finding admiration elsewhere.

 (Spoilers Ahead)

Of course things get messy with the governor’s daughter as well as with the extremely shady Powers. When Cardigan won’t play by Powers rules and lay off on charges against his right hand man, he threatens to expose their shared past in reform school, potentially derailing the path to the governorship. There’s a hasty, regretted marriage and the loss of a true love. An obviously drunken Cardigan impulsively marries Lillian, sobers up and regrets it knowing that he’s lost a woman of true worth for one who was merely momentarily exciting. Right and wrong again change places as the better woman is the street walker, the socialite a cold-hearted, empty beauty.  A dissent into further alcohol abuse leads to a seedy road and political gain but at a cost to our hero’s soul. The man is torn.

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Eventually in the third and final courtroom scene Cardigan is forced to make a decisive decision and actually determine his own path. No longer able to straddle the thin line between right and wrong, virtue and pragmatic immorality, he chooses integrity and is rewarded with a return to respect and love.

This film contains a number of scenes and dialogue of a decidedly pre-Code nature.  Here are just a few:

~After an intentionally direct kiss at his apartment following his defense of June, Cardigan needs to leave to collect his $5,000 from Powers.  Her last words as he departs with his coat: “What do you want for breakfast?”  Barrymore’s long, lingering and suggestive look tells us not only that he understands her meaning but exactly what he’d like.

~The murder weapon in the Nora Dean murder trial is a phallic-shaped weight that Cardigan taps rhythmically upon the marital bed.

~When Cardigan asks Lillian if she’s ever been in love she ascertains that he’s seeking to know some intimate information. She whispers in his ear and then pulls away asking “That’s what you wanted to know?”  He replies, “That helps a lot” as he wraps his arms around her and pulls her into himself on the dance floor.

~June and Tom’s relationship is clearly one where they are living together without the benefit of a license.  In fact June seems well aware that she doesn’t consider herself marriage material, not being a nice girl and anticipating “nicer girls” to come, even though Cardigan has let her know “I don’t like nice girls”.

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~After marrying Lillian and regretting it, Cardigan states “June, it’s funny.  I never realized what a beautiful thing marriage could be, until tonight. That’s one ceremony I’ve never been through.  What a woman means to a man, and a man to a woman. And when I looked around, it wasn’t you…standing there… beside me”. The relationship between these two couldn’t be clearer. June stands her ground and sardonically responds, “I’m not one of your juries Tom”.

There is an economy of dialogue, story and editing that keeps this film moving at a brisk clip, with rarely a wasted movement, gesture or line. Yet it is the small touches that propel the story, set a quick pace, and make this film a fun watch.  Barrymore’s entertaining flourishes, Twelvetrees’ pretty sensuality and a satisfying ending are details that seal the deal.

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Recommended.

This post is a part of the “Order In the Court!” Blogathon June 10-13, 2016 hosted by Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Second Sight Cinema

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To read additional entries please visit:  https://cinemavensessaysfromthecouch.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/order-in-the-court-now/

harlow peeking red dustNotes and Extras

  • Primary writer Gene Fowler wrote a biography of not only William J. Fallon but also subsequently another:  Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore.  A long-time friend and drinking buddy, Fowler was also a member of the Bundy Drive Boys, a loosely-knit pre-Rat Pack Hollywood boys club that got its name from the location of their gatherings.  It included such hard-living souls as Errol Flynn, W. C. Fields, Thomas Mitchell, Roland Young, John Carradine, Ben Hecht, a young Anthony Quinn and various other artists and writers.  While their primary point of cohesion was alcohol they also shared many other ‘philosophies’ of living.  For a more detailed account try Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore,  W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and “the Bundy Drive Boys” by Gregory William Mank with Charles Heard and Bill Nelson.
  • Fowler also wrote the screenplay for What Price Hollywood?, whose main lead, played beautifully by Lowell Sherman (no stranger to alcohol himself), meets a far less redemptive fate than our hero here.  What Price Hollywood? is considered the prototype, if not the first version of each of the subsequent A Star Is Born films.  A favorite Fowler quote: “Hollywood is a place where you either ride in a Rolls Royce or are run over by one”, is reflected in the contrast between the main male leads in each of these two films.
  • Fowler was at John Barrymore’s bedside just moments before he died, testimony to their enduring friendship.  He, Lionel Barrymore and artist John Decker (whose home was host to the Bundy Drive Boys) were at John’s bedside for his final two days.  After, Fowler kept vigil at night over the body with his son Will for safekeeping until arrangements could be made. Interestingly Decker is the name of Powers right hand man in State’s Attorney.  On Bundy Drive apparently John Decker was a right hand man to many.
  • Criminal defense attorney Fallon’s most famous client, Arnold Rothstein was known for fixing the 1919 World Series among other criminal and gambling related crimes.  His partner and passionate defender (read frequent fall-guy) Nicky Arnstein was later immortalized in Funny Girl, the film depicting the life of Fanny Brice, an actress and wife who in the end found Nicky’s antics not so funny.
  • Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore by John Kobler gives this movie a scant two sentence paragraph mention.  There is actually little in print available regarding the filming of this one, probably in part due to the fact that, according to IMBd, it took a mere two weeks to shoot.  Yet despite this it netted Barrymore a sum equivalent to over $1.7 Million, a figure that attests to the star’s one-time power in Hollywood. The book does mention that a line in the film is directly attributable to Maurice Barrymore, a star of the theater himself and John’s father.  When shown a painting of a winter landscape by it’s artist and the speakeasy’s owner, Cardigan quips, “Winter isn’t as bad as it’s painted”.  When I read these types of things I always wonder just how much of what we see on screen  is attributable to John himself, building off a good (or sometimes weak) screenplay.
  • Jill Esmond, in the role of  Lillian Ulrich, was at the time of filming, Mrs. Laurence Olivier.  As many of you know, this was not going to be the last marriage for Mr. Olivier as he would soon leave Esmond for Vivien Leigh.
  • I perked up when I noted the name Ulrich, especially when I saw it in bold in a newspaper headline.  There was a prominent society family at the time in Grosse Pointe, (a suburb just barely outside of Detroit) by the name of Ulrich.  I only know this because I happen to be related to them.  So I checked the writers.  Sure enough writer Rowland Brown studied at the University of Detroit and the Detroit School of Fine Arts.  Funny thing, a pretty brunette granddaughter of the Ulrichs did eventually marry a grandson of James J. Couzens, a former Mayor of Detroit and  Senator,  connecting herself to a political family.  His son was also Mayor after him.  A funny case of the movies having a strangely predictive tendency.  Or just a crazy coincidence. And while the newspaper (and IMBd) clearly says Ulrich, the credits change the spelling to Ulric.
  • Keep your eyes open for a brief appearance by Nat Pendleton playing a boxer who acompanies Cardigan and Lillian to a speakeasy after a fight. It just so happens that this club features a lively Theresa Harris singing her jazzy little heart out in a way too brief number.  Both are uncredited.
  • Watch the set design too in this one.  There are large beautiful rooms, such as Tom Cardigan’s apartment and later he and June’s more upscale digs, that are lovely to look at.  Just as lovely are the gorgeous gowns worn by Twelvetrees and the dresses and furs on Esmond.  Art Direction is by Caroll Clark, costume design is unfortunately uncredited.

State’s Attorney is available from Amazon, Amazon Prime or occasionally for free viewing on TCM

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Murder and Menace: Guilty Hands (1931)

 

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An MGM Production, Director: W. S. Van Dyke with Lionel Barrymore, Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Costume Design: Rene Hubert

This early pre-Code film starts off with a bang and does not let up until it’s startling denouement. Initially the brisk pace, as is frequently the case for these early talking pictures, is dialogue driven. Lionel Barrymore perfectly plays the role of an attorney father who is compelled by his wry knowledge, familiarity with the moral complexities of justice and paternal love to commit the perfect crime to save his daughter.

The movie opens with a scene on a train in which several men are engaged in a philosophical debate as to whether murder can, in some circumstances be justified.  As a highly successful attorney, Richard Grant (Barrymore) has worked both sides of the law and knows the ins and outs of murder.  His claim that the perfect murder could be carried out with plausible justification by “a clever man…. so skillfully, so brilliantly, that he could get away with it” can hardly be disputed given his experience and expertise.  And thus we are tipped off that there is murder and menace in the air.

Barbara “Babs” Grant (Madge Evans) is introduced to us at the train station, where she awaits her father.  She is fresh and open-faced.  In lovely sweeping camerawork that follows her face and figure as she searches for and then greets her father warmly, rather surprisingly really given what is to follow, we are given our first glimpse of the sweetness of their relationship.

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Grant then enters the home of womanizing Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray) who is interested in not only rewriting his will and paying off his previous conquests, but also in informing Grant that he has every intention of marrying his daughter. The dialogue between these two men ends with a firm “See you in hell!”, a declaration that becomes more chilling as the movie progresses.  Later it is revealed that the planned nuptials are to happen the following day.

Barbara is  viewed in the garden, speaking intimately with a young man.  Apparently she has previously given her love to Tommy (William Bakewell), now confused and pleading.  Throwing over this same age beau for the significantly older and to my mind smarmy Rich seems a bit of a stretch but who I am to question her heart; it is quickly apparent that she has indeed committed herself to marrying a man who simply will not do.  Just as her softly ruffled dress flutters in the wind, this young woman is easily swayed, and as delicate as the lilacs that surround her. Grant comes to speak to his daughter, first gently but then firmly, letting her know that they must meet privately.
Barrymore is wonderfully natural in the part of the warm yet startlingly confident and candid father. Moving from the garden to Grant’s bedroom, father and daughter engage in a remarkably intimate exchange. Babs rummages through the pockets of a jacket that is casually hooked on a bedpost. Finding little of interest to her she sits on the bed and comfortably smokes as her father ties his bow tie, even offering to help, although he scoffs at her offer of assistance. Smoking lends an adult aura to Babs, yet her innocence gives her the appearance of a child smoking candy cigarettes. She playfully lays back onto the bed. Her father asks her for a kiss, leaning over her and  kissing her as she remains in this seductive position, her eyes glancing upward and chin jaunty. The scene is accompanied by this exchange:

“Well how about giving the old man a little kiss?”  He asks rhetorically.

“Help yourself.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you sir”, she replies, once again the little girl.

Grant immediately but tenderly confronts his daughter regarding the news of her impending marriage to Rich, a connoisseur and deceiver of women.

“This man Rich is rotten clear though. Now look here Babs, I’m not going to mince words. Rich isn’t fit to marry any woman. He’ll just bring you shame and disaster…This man you want to marry is a beast about women. I mean that literally. He’s just an animal.”

Father and daughter speak frankly about sex. He instructs her that being with this man on her wedding night, even as his wife, will be a “horror and a shame”, something that she will never live down or be able to put aside in her own mind, something that she will have to live with forever. These are powerful, intimate words that portray a rare candidness.  Earlier he has revealed how much his daughter reminds him of his late wife. The warm affection and incestuous undertone in these exchanges heightens the dramatic tension between our two male protagonists. This paternal bond is not one that will be altered easily or lightly. Once he sees that she is intractable, Grant understands that he must act and has determined to find a solution on his own.

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A dazzling display of flowers sits prominently upon the table at a dinner party, surrounded by a sophisticatedly charming and cheerful array of folks, seen as the camera pans down the center, finally reaching the host, Rich.  Grant glares, glances at Tommy and back at Rich. The flowers are telling as Babs imminent deflowering and potential loss of innocence are foremost on his mind. It is at this table that we are first made aware of the young and beautiful Marjorie West (Kay Francis). Despite her youth Marjorie displays an air of worldliness, almost weariness and elegance.  The only woman dressed in black, the straps of her gown glimmer with rhinestones.  As Rich announces his marriage to Barbara, Marjorie’s startled reaction tells us everything we need to know about her relationship to this philanderer and user of women. In the large window that provides the backdrop to this tableau we see an ominous flash of lightning.

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Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad frames shots that place characters, at times with their backs to us, and objects such as bouquets and lamps well into the foreground.  Scenes are layered with fore-, mid- and background neatly delineated.  This contrast moves this talking picture beyond the usual drawing room melodrama as Gerstad’s camera is an active participant in furthering the drama. Shadows and angles are utilized effectively to create menace and delineate character, with Barrymore’s stature never shown diminished, despite his morally murky decisions.

Furthering this aim of opening up a relatively static set are long lovely shots where the camera sweeps languidly around interior spaces. This is utilized most vividly just after the dinner party.  The lens sashays among lounging participants, lingering a moment and then moving on, settling first upon Marjorie, Grant, and then Tommy, each observing the affectionately engaged couple. This fluid camerawork not only creates a sense of space but also heightens the tension as a sidelong glance might between intimate acquaintances. Yet the participants remain lost in their own tormented thoughts. As the scene ends, Grant’s pain is palpable as he coaxes his daughter to the garden where “we will have a little love scene all by ourselves”.  He is not about to let her go so easily, not to this “animal “.

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Father and daughter stroll in the night air. Just prior to going off for the night they exchange two kisses with Grant encircling his daughter in his protective arm. He reassures her that everything is “going to be all right”. As she leaves for the night her voice trails off with a sweetly lilting “good night darling”, as she heads off to bed. Again the love between father and daughter is depicted as a strong bond, not easily broken by a cold-hearted adventurer. This central point must be well-established to lend credence to this narrative, with paternal devotion and protectiveness providing a solid motive for this man to proceed, despite his love of law. Based upon the opening scene, we already know that his love for justice is greater.

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Meanwhile, the case for action is strengthened as Rich explains to his long suffering yet strangely devoted lover Marjorie, in a private room with fireplace blazing, that in Barbara’s case “it has got to be marriage”, as there is no other way to have her.  However he sees his upcoming marriage as no impediment to continuing his arrangement with Marjorie.  The implication is clear: this man is a slave to his carnal desires.  He later can hardly restrain himself, seeking out Babs as she prepares to go to bed for the night, yet she firmly rebuffs him.  We see her close the door and pause. With Rich’s own motivations and his character (or lack thereof) defined, the path is well laid for the unfolding story.
I won’t give away the rest of this plot.  While it may seem pretty straightforward, this story, an original by playwright and screenwriter Bayard Veiller (playwright of Paid, 1930 and The Trial of Mary Dugan, 1929), takes many unexpected and interesting twists before coming to its dramatic, albeit somewhat far-fetched conclusion.  Although as you may have already guessed, a far-fetched conclusion is no deterrent to me in enjoying a movie, not with my love of over-the-top melodrama.

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As the movie progresses, we get a nice battle of wits and a tenacious emotional struggle between Kay Francis and Lionel Barrymore.  Francis more than holds her own against the veteran thespian and that in and of itself is exciting to see. While his enormous talent and experience lends considerable weight and finesse to his performance, her sincerity and ability to silently convey complex feelings beautifully matches his command of language and assured delivery.

In the very last moments of the film Francis is a breathtaking vision as a stream of emotions washes across her face. We see her fear, her anguish, her grief and her finely tuned sense of justice that understands that it has indeed prevailed. And she conveys all this with a minimum of dialogue during a time when dialogue was paramount in talking pictures. The essence of Francis’ enormous appeal is readily apparent in this,  one of her earlier films.

While Francis as usual wears her flowing gowns with grace and elegance, it is her skill as an actress that is most memorable.  This is not always the case with her movies, particularly as her career progressed. It is fabulous to see her in a role that respects her gifts as an actress.  While not entering the film until 15 minutes in, her performance and ability to match the artistry of Lionel Barrymore is remarkable and a pleasure to see.  In light of this raw talent her treatment by a vengeful Jack Warner (angered by a lawsuit she filed and subsequently withdrew) during the final year of her contract with the studio is even more incomprehensible and a loss to film-goers.

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This movie was so much more powerful than I expected it to be, particularly since Warner Archives hadn’t decided to make it available on DVD until the recent release of Volume 10 of their fabulous Forbidden Hollywood series. And while I’ve done considerable gushing here about Kay Francis the force of Barrymore’s performance cannot be underestimated.  He is perfect at every point.

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The quality of the solid pacing and firm direction, the artistic elements and especially the acting lift this film beyond a simple crime drama or lawyer picture, both so typical of the era.  This movie contains enough unpredictability and fabulous acting, despite its conventional murder-mystery moments, to be riveting.

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 Definitely recommended. 

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Notes and Extras

  • For an additional positive review with significant spoilers from the NYT, click here
  • At Pre-Code.Com, Danny also enjoyed the interplay between Kay and Lionel, going so far as to call it “fantastic”.
  • kayfrancisfilms.com also gives this film praise, giving considerable background information on the factors that led to its creation and the quality of the production. There are some fabulous stills and also a full plot synopsis  for those of you that find you can’t get enough!

The Barrymore Triumvirate: Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

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Photo courtesy of doctormacro.com

An MGM Production ~ Director: Richard Boleslawski , Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Alexander Toluboff, Costume Design: Adrian

Some years back I picked up a cocktail table book, The Romanov Family Album.  Filled with photographs, many of them taken by Czar Nicholas himself, it captured his wife and children in every day moments, engaging in simple family pursuits.  Hazy and seemingly touched by gossamer, these photos show signs of age and the newness of a budding technology, embraced by an enthusiastic photographer.  It is amazing that these photos survive and give us this glimpse into the royal realm.  It is this lost empire that is similarly glimpsed in Rasputin and the Empress.

It is fascinating to see this world depicted on the screen.  There is a generosity towards the Romanov family that knowingly understands that extended family members and friends of the royal family were still living at the time of the making of this film (although MGM probably should’ve appreciated this more fully, but more on that later).  Perhaps this accounts for this sympathetic portrait of an extremely privileged family, living an insulated, secluded life, aware only too late of the encroaching dangers. This depiction blurs the historical accuracy, to put it mildly.  Here they are shown befuddled as to what could drive the Russian people to such anger and revolt, even as thousands gather in protest. While the attention to detail is evident in costume and design, it is far less a factor in the screenplay, which could definitely be truer to actual events.

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There is much to love about Rasputin and the Empress. Most importantly for classic film fans, it is the only movie that features all three of the legendary Barrymore siblings, John, Ethel and Lionel. It is thrilling to see this trio together. Secondly, there is no doubt this is an MGM production. Perhaps due to the nearness of events, a wonderful attention to detail has been shown.  The set design is beautiful, rich and layered. The gowns are sumptuous, beaded and laced. The uniforms* are impeccable and beautifully made. There is drama and romance, action and intrigue, star wattage and larger than life performances.  Rasputin has the MGM touch and it shows.

Yet one wonders if Rasputin’s curse wasn’t upon the entire affair. There was a change of directors midway, a half-written script that was delivered to the actors in the mornings, and lawsuits post-production that ultimately amounted to pay offs of approximately $1 million dollars to extended family members, who objected to the creative license engaged in by the film makers.**

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Reportedly Ethel was apprehensive and nervous regarding her involvement.  Having appeared in silent films from 1914-1919 (and setting aside a 1926 home movie), she had spent the intervening years in the theater, returning for this, her first talking picture, following much persuasion and with the promise the film would be shot according to schedule.  As is so frequently the case it was not, and following her contracted eight week shoot Ethel departed for the East Coast and theatrical commitments.  But no matter.  Much of the tension and action occurs between the brothers as they duke it out on screen with dueling dramatics and sibling stunts designed to scene steal and each over-act the other, first one, then the other and back again.  They succeed beautifully.

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Surprisingly, John did not end up in the role of Rasputin, luckily avoiding a resurrection of his performance in Svengali (1931).  Rather he ends up as the romantic lead and rightfully so. It is certainly difficult to imagine Lionel, who despised playing romantic roles, as the aristocratic Prince Chegodieff, (a thinly disguised portrayal of an actual living Prince by the name of Yusupov), fiancé to Natasha, a Romanov niece depicted by lovely British theater actress Diana Wynyard in her film debut. Chegodieff not only shows depth of feeling towards his beloved but also towards the entire Imperial family.  He is warm and protective, providing respectful, well-intended guidance.  When that proves ineffective however, he turns to more drastic direct methods.  Refreshingly, John plays this part with greater dignity and reflection than many of his other roles of this period.  Still marvelously handsome, and remarkably so, we are afforded many glimpses of his famously perfect left profile, (probably far too many actually) and even at the age of fifty he is able to convincingly woo the young Natasha, throwing in just a hint of luscious naughtiness in a sweet early scene.

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Ethel’s portrayal of the Czarina is filled with a great deal of emotion, her maternal love mingled with self-possession. Much of her performance is conveyed through her deep, dark eyes, whose warmth and sensitivity soften her regal poise. Her delivery is slow and measured, yet sometimes so much so she seems rooted to the floor. As she was known to base her portrayal upon her personal acquaintance with the Empress, it is difficult to know how much of this reserve is a royal visage or Ethel’s own trepidation regarding her return to film. Despite John’s reassurances that the cinematographer could work wonders, she was no doubt concerned that her five year absence would be evident upon a silver screen that so adored the luminous perfection of youth.  Rasputin was her first encounter with the stylistic changes required for talking pictures, and the subsequent softening of her stage voice worked well to convey a loving, concerned and dignified presence.

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Lionel in contrast seems to have had great fun with the evil machinations and malevolence of Rasputin.  Playing with his beard (so ever present!) and engaged in wild-eyed manipulations, he becomes emboldened as his influence upon the Romanov’s, in particular the young heir apparent, the Czarevitch Alexei, (Tad Alexander), grows stronger.  It’s riveting to watch Lionel throw himself into this role, relishing the opportunity to act his heart out and doing so in friendly competition with his brother and sister. I loved seeing Lionel’s lively, intelligent eyes behind all that make up and a beard, seeming to have a life of its own, floating in mid-air as he menacingly masticates his lines. His attempted seduction of royal daughter Maria is unbelievably creepy and the subsequent ravishing of Natasha even more so (though much has been left on the cutting room floor).  Of course, this being a pre-Code film, he slaps Natasha as he cruelly diminishes her. Lionel could do kindly well, as he did in You Can’t Take It With You, but if you think of ‘Ol Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life), he could do evil even better.  Add crazy and he could definitely steal a scene.

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So steal away he does and while enjoyable, it does tend to give the movie a bit of an uneven pace. Between Ethel’s refined restraint, John’s debonair devotion and Lionel’s wild-eyed Rasputin, I sometimes felt as if I were watching this trio in several different movies.  Each performs beautifully but the whole is somewhat less than its parts.  This would appear to be not the fault of the Barrymores, who truly seem to devote their significant talents to this production, but rather to a sense of disconnect, not just between actors but between scenes.  I was left with a vague suspicion that these talented thespians in large part directed themselves. Not quite true, but with the Barrymores you never know.

Given this unevenness, it’s hardly surprising to discover that shooting began with daily rewrites and an unfinished script. It was only at Ethel’s emphatic insistence that Charles MacArthur, later known for Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights and His Girl Friday, was finally brought in to pull together a messy screenplay already touched by at least twelve other screenwriters. The unevenness remains however and much of the plot moves through expository dialogues and sometimes monologues, delivered by Rasputin.  His hold over the family is portrayed as mostly through the children, less through the Empress, furthering the historical inaccuracy.  How I would’ve loved to have seen Lionel attempt to work his maniacal charms over Ethel!

(Spoiler Alert)

Yet despite these caveats, this is an entertaining film.  There’s a fantastic scene between the Prince and Rasputin, who finally come to blows, the fighting going from table, to fireplace, to window, to wall, further wrestling and then out to the snow and ice.  Whether this traversing about was planned or improvised it’s hard to tell but it’s a knock-down drag-out.  John tries about six different ways to kill his brother in this scene, finally yelling in extreme exasperation “Why don’t you die?!?” and as Rasputin rises again, “Get back in hell!!” This is the stuff of high melodrama and tragicomedy and I enjoyed every minute of it; it’s the high point in a relatively somber film.

In one of the final scenes we hear an exchange between the Czar (Frank Morgan) and the Prince:

“Your majesty, I never believed that madman before. But one thing he said is roaring in my brain. He said when he died, Russia died. I’m afraid the cancer has been removed too late. We’re already destroyed”.

“No Paul. Russia is too great to be destroyed by any one man…… We have never injured our people … They will never injure us”.

These words frame the mindset of the royal family in perhaps the truest moment of the film. The Romanovs from all accounts, did not believe the love of the people would be entirely lost and yet, more untrue words were never spoken. It was not any one man, it was many.

 

Many of us know the end of this sad story and it’s certainly a cautionary tale, one of miscalculation by those who should know better, and yet are so insulated they are blind to the dangers encircling them.  Secluded and cocooned in their wealth and privilege, they seem uncertain and unknowing, oblivious to the struggles of the people and confused as to how they might help.  Every time we see these characters view their subjects, it’s from high above, too far removed, until the final moments.

 

This movie ends with a radiantly back-lit Russian Orthodox cross. The Romanovs were in fact, canonized and given saintly status by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981. Recognized as martyrs who died for their strong and unceasing faith, it is yet this very faith that contributed to their compulsion to believe in the false teachings and guidance of Rasputin. There is no doubt that this movie attempts to portray the family favorably, in keeping with these Russian Orthodox views. While many in the western world might view this monarchy at best as antiquated and at worst as oppressive, there were others that viewed the annihilation of the last Imperial family of Russia with great alarm and despair. Certainly it was the end of royal reign as it had traditionally been known. The assassination of the House of Romanov realized the modernization of monarchy and the end of an era.

 

 

So perhaps, after all, it is this sense of distant rumblings that Ethel is trying to convey most of all in her tender portrayal of the Czarina. The Romanovs enjoyed life, neglectful of the needs of the countrymen over which they ruled. They danced, they played, they swam, they sang, they took photographs of it all and they were beautiful. We are presented here with not still photographs but moving images of a misguided family, filled with unfailing religious fervor and blind trust, insensible not only to the dangers without but to the dangers within, trusting those who might intend to manipulate and possess. Their faith in Rasputin, a false visionary with his own brand of mysticism, a fantastical belief in the Russian people and an aged, ancient system, ultimately led to their downfall.  The insularity of privilege and elitism is a dangerous perch upon which to build one’s nest. Here, the people in the street prevailed, if only for a time.

Rasputin and the Empress gives us a small glimpse, despite its historical inaccuracies, into a lost time. For that and for the view it gives us of the extraordinary Barrymore triumvirate, it is well-worth a view.

Definitely Recommended

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* If you’ve ever wondered about the inspiration for the uniforms in the Land of Oz look no further than the winter uniforms of  Czarevitch Alexei and the Royal Guard as depicted here.  Obviously MGM’s Wizard of Oz borrowed a little from this royal dynasty.

** Interestingly, the obligatory disclaimer disavowing “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”  that we now  see at the start of most releases is a result of these lawsuits with extended family.

harlow peeking red dustNotes and Extras

In her autobiography Memories, Ethel Barrymore recalled an evening out during the filming of Rasputin:

 I remember going to the “premiere” of a picture, the first one I had ever seen. This one  in the middle of the depression was very different from those that I had heard and read about when the bystanders applauded the people who drive by them in big cars. This time there was no applause.  The onlookers on the sidewalks were silent and sullen as people wearing furs and jewels rode by them in the big cars.  It was a very uncomfortable experience. 

Rasputin did not do well as the box-office. It lost more than one million dollars, and had cost more than two million to make. MGM general counsel J. Robert Rubin remarked “The damn thing stinks.  Audiences won’t go near it”.  Perhaps it was difficult for depression era audiences to feel sympathetic towards a wealthy privileged ruling family that was so obviously out of touch with the needs of the common people. Producing this film during  the depths of the great depression may not have been the best timing. I can only imagine the audience confusion as to where their sympathies should lie.

The history and background drama surrounding the Romanovs, the making of the film and the Barrymore family are actually more interesting than the movie.  If you would like to explore further:

  •  Pre-Code.com does a great job of providing some historical background and further thoughts about the movie and its comedic undertones. He takes a look at the imbalances in the film, while acknowledging the fun of seeing these three chew the scenery.
  • Meanwhile Aurora at Once Upon a Screen beautifully describes Ethel’s relationship with her brothers, family dynamics and more about her impressions of the film. Her lovely words inspired me to promptly get my hands on a copy of Memories.
  • If you are a Royalphile or just fascinated by those romantic Romanovs, The Romanov Family Album by Marilyn Pfeiffer Swezey is filled  with vintage photographs of a lost time and place.  Reminiscent of seeing vestiges of the Titanic or remains from Pompeii, it’s a book I have treasured for years for its glimpse into a world that is gone forever.
  • Prince Yusupov actually had a hand in the killing of Rasputin.  While he didn’t seem to mind that detail in the film he did apparently object to the inference that his wife had been raped by Rasputin (apparently she had never even met him), resulting in much editing and more hinting at shame than anything else.  Ethel had intimidated that the extended royal family, now living primarily in France, might object to this plot development but once she returned to New York, MGM proceeded with the story-line that would ultimately lead to lawsuits and a very expensive out of court settlement.
  • MGM’s fantastic in-house Art Director Cedric Gibbons was beautifully assisted by the Russian-born Alexander Toluboff, who had studied Russian architecture in St. Petersburg. Toluboff went on to three nominations for Art Direction, all in the latter 1930’s.
  • This film marks not only Diana Wynard’s film debut but the first in her newly signed contract with MGM.