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Saturday, December 25, 2010

RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (1932)



Two years after they were lovingly sent up on stage & screen in THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY, the real Barrymore clan, Lionel, Ethel & John, made their only joint appearance in this prestige number from M-G-M. The film has few champions (including Ethel who, uncomfortable in her first sound film, had the initial director fired and then stayed off the screen for a full decade), yet it’s compelling stuff on many levels. Richard Boleslavsky, who took over as helmer, is as unsung as the film, but his C.V. is loaded with good films in many genres. (Check out his THREE GODFATHERS/’36 which compares favorably with versions by William Wyler & John Ford.) An alum of the Moscow Art Players, he gives the film a real jolt of Russian flavor as he navigates the tricky dramatic waters of Tsar, Religion & Revolution. He’s helped by William Daniels’ lensing which dares to concentrate on details within the massive sets & ostentatious spending, more like a Paramount pic than M-G-M. Lionel gets most of the fun as a salacious, Machiavellian, rip-roarin’ Rasputin, which leaves John in the miserable position of playing the noble Noble. (At one point, he takes out his acting frustrations on a poor, defenseless épée.) Ethel, as Tsarina, enunciates beautifully, straight to the back of the house. But she gets a feel for the medium about halfway in and suddenly, she’s riveting: that clotted voice, those huge eyes, the acknowledgment of doom. Uneven as it is, there’s a lot that’s pretty damned impressive . . . when the film isn’t tripping over itself. And the double climax, with two politically motivated murder scenes, has an abrupt manner that achieves surprising power.

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