It's hard to separate fact and fancy from the many accounts of what happened on the set when all three of the fabulous Barrymores -- Ethel, John and Lionel -- appeared together for the only time in Rasputin and the Empress. As for the end result, John offers the subtlest (!) performance as Russian Prince Paul Chegodieff; Lionel throws all caution to the four winds in the role of "Mad Monk" Rasputin; and Ethel comes off as rather artificial as Empress Alexandra (Ethel was more appealing in her character roles of the 1940s and 1950s). The plot covers the years 1913 through 1918, during the tumultuous final years of the Romanov regime in Russia. When young Prince Alexis (Tad Alexander), a hemophiliac, hovers near death after an accident, the royal physicians regretfully predict an imminent demise. At the advice of Prince Paul's impressionable sweetheart Natasha (Diana Wynyard), Alexandra and her husband, Czar Nikolai (Ralph Morgan), call in the mysterious Rasputin to look after Alexis. Using hypnosis, Rasputin is able to "cure" the boy-and to slowly gain control over the royal family. Prince Paul, concerned that Rasputin's despotic misuse of his new-found authority will cause the people to revolt, does his best to discredit the oily holy man, but to no avail. When Natasha is raped by Rasputin, Paul attempts to shoot the miscreant down. But Rasputin, who has taken the precaution of wearing a bullet proof vest, is not so easily killed off. In a last, desperate measure, Paul and his cohorts try to poison Rasputin to death-and even this doesn't work. Only a climactic fight to the death puts an end to Rasputin's reign. Alas, the damage has already been done, and the royal family is doomed to be toppled from power...and, ultimately, to be shot down like dogs by the Bolsheviks. Perhaps it's true that the three Barrymores spent more time trying to upstage one another than concentrating on the script at hand, but we wouldn't have it any other way. When seen today, Rasputin and the Empress seems rather choppy in spots, with isolated lines of dialogue and sometimes whole scenes completely missing. This is due to a million-dollar lawsuit brought against MGM by Prince Yusupov, the man who really engineered Rasputin's assassination. The Prince wasn't offended by being depicted as a murderer, but he was distressed when MGM suggested that his wife had been raped by Rasputin. As a result, Rasputin and the Empress was withdrawn from distribution, and all prints were later bowdlerized when released to television. Also as a result, all future Hollywood films were obliged to carry the "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental" disclaimer.
by Hal Erickson synopsis