The Russian Princess Who Changed the Film Industry Forever
Find out how much it cost Hollywood to blur the line between fiction and reality
When I was little, I never understood why movies about real people featured the following disclaimer: “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.”
It was a blatant lie.
Of course, Elliott Ness in The Untouchables wasn’t made up. Neither was Mozart in Amadeus.
So why does that disclaimer exist? Because of a series of bad decisions that can be traced back to Rasputin and the fall of the Russian empire.
Lights, Camera, Action
In 1932, MGM Studios released the film Rasputin and the Empress. The only movie to star all three Barrymore siblings (Lionel, Ethel, and John), fictionalized the sinister relationship of the “mad monk” Rasputin to the Russian imperial family. A title card at the beginning of the film promised viewers that what they were seeing had really happened:
“A few of the characters are still alive. The rest met death by violence.” ¹
And parts of the film’s story were true — Rasputin did comfort the Russian empress by easing the pain of her hemophiliac son. He did make enemies at court. And some of those enemies did kill him, believing it was for the good of the country.
But other parts were fabrications, made up to sensationalize a story that — let’s be honest — didn’t need it. For example, in the film, Princess Natasha, the tsar’s niece, introduces Rasputin to the empress. But when the immoral Rasputin flirts with one of the empress’s daughters, Natasha threatens to rat him out. To stop her, Rasputin puts her in a trance and…so the film implies…rapes her.
For Rasputin, this is a win/win situation.
Natasha’s fiancé is his number-one enemy, Prince Paul Chegodieff. The rape not only keeps Natasha quiet with regard to the empress, but it also makes her unfit to marry Prince Paul.
In the film’s climax, Prince Paul poisons Rasputin, beats him, and tosses him into an icy river to drown.
The New York Times reviewed the film on January 8, 1933. In the same paragraph, reviewer Mordaunt Hall said it might have been better if they’d stuck to the actual history…then credited director Richard Boleslavsky with “knowledge of certain incidents” that seemed to contain “more truth than fiction.” ² This only muddied the already murky water clouding what was fact and what was fiction.
The movie did well at the box office, but considering how much it had cost to make, it wasn’t profitable. And none of the Barrymores received acting nominations for that year’s Academy Awards. The movie’s only nod was for “best story” by screenwriter Charles MacArthur. ³
But that wasn’t the film’s only problem.
Its “story” looked a little too familiar to a certain Russian couple.
Meet the Yusupovs
Prince Felix Yusupov was the sole heir to one of the richest families in imperial Russia. In 1914, he’d married the last tsar’s only niece, Princess Irina Alexandrovna.
In 1916, Felix had been one of a handful of conspirators who murdered Rasputin, hoping to rid the tsar of his influence. Unfortunately for Felix, Rasputin’s death wasn’t enough to prevent a revolution. Felix and Irina fled Russia in 1919. They settled in London and then Paris, selling artwork, jewels, and trinkets to get by. Irina wore the dazzling jewels they hadn’t sold yet by night, then came home and washed their clothes in the bathtub. ⁴
When a friend told Felix about Rasputin and the Empress, he realized the character of Prince Paul Chegodieff was based on him, and Natasha seemed to be based on Irina. But the real-life Irina had never even met Rasputin, let alone been raped by him. And when they heard that’s exactly what audiences around the world were being told, they called a lawyer.
‘Discarded, Disgraced and Degraded’
Felix and Irina hired Brooklyn lawyer Fanny Holtzmann, who threatened to sue MGM in every country that had shown (or was planning to show) the film, starting with Great Britain.
Why Britain and not the U.S.?
Because Irina’s mom lived there…and she was a first cousin of King George V. According to Holtzmann, the British royal family offered more than just moral support — they paid her counsel fee and bond money. ⁵
Holtzmann figured their ace in the hole was the film’s title card prologue, informing the audience that the film depicted real people. Felix had already published a book to tell the world he was the guy who’d murdered Rasputin. So it seemed reasonable for an audience member to assume his character’s wife was depicting his real-life wife, Irina.
But that wasn’t all.
The Natasha character was the fictional tsar’s niece…but in real life, Irina was Tsar Nicholas II’s only niece. The Yusupovs argued that filmgoers would immediately identify her with Natasha. And because that character was referred to in the film as a “discarded, disgraced and degraded mistress” of Rasputin, Irina argued that’s what people would believe of her, too. ⁶
The Yusupovs asked for a whopping $2,000,000 in damages. ⁷
When asked to comment, Ethel Barrymore (who played the tsarina) said, “I have never seen the film right through. My sympathies are with the Youssoupoffs, whom I have known personally for some years.” ⁸
The stage was set for an epic showdown.
Stranger Than Fiction
The battle began on February 27, 1934. Irina and Felix testified to the similarities between themselves and the film’s characters.
What was MGM’s defense?
Their attorney, Sir William Jowitt, tried to prove that the film’s story was more fiction than reality. He nitpicked historical details to try and prove that a co-conspirator had killed Rasputin, not Felix.
He then tried to prove that Natasha resembled the woman who had introduced Felix to Rasputin, not Irina. When it came to the film’s rape scene, he argued that rape wasn’t defamatory since the female victim was not guilty of “unchastity or adultery.” ⁹
It was weak, to say the least.
And it seems that the trial’s details blurred fiction and reality for more than just the Yusupovs. When The New York Times reported on Irina’s testimony, the dispatch referred to her husband as “Prince Chegodieff Yussoupoff.” ¹⁰
I couldn’t have made that up if I tried.
In the end, the jury had little trouble coming to a verdict. They deliberated for an hour and found in Irina’s favor, awarding her £25,000 (about $125,000 at the time). Some jury members had wanted to give her double that amount, and only changed their minds when they realized more suits were pending in the other countries. ¹¹
MGM’s lawyer filed an appeal, claiming the award was excessive and that Irina “has suffered no loss of reputation in the eyes of her friends.” ¹²
It didn’t work. The appeals court upheld the original verdict.
One of those judges — Lord Justice Scrutton — wrote of the defense’s argument against rape being defamatory, “I really have no language to express my opinion of that argument.” ¹³ Like Fanny Holtzmann, Scrutton zeroed in on the title card as the main problem. Had it said that everything depicted was fictitious, the lawsuit might have failed.
MGM immediately offered to settle.
They offered the Yusupovs about $750,000 in addition to the original $125,000 — one of the highest amounts ever awarded for a libel lawsuit up to that point. ¹⁴ MGM also had to issue an apology affirming that the Princess Natasha character was fictional. Add up those awards, plus the studio’s legal fees, and you’re looking at an extra $1 million for a film that had already lost the studio money.
Wary of the same thing happening to them, other Hollywood producers began to insist their films carry disclaimers, whether they were based on historical events or not. Today, that disclaimer is a standard operating procedure, even for films based on true stories.
¹ Times, October 28, 1933.
² Hall, Times, January 8, 1933.
³ Aquino, Truth, 16.
⁴ Dobson, Felix, 138.
⁵ Aquino, Truth, 17.
⁶ Times, October 28, 1933.
⁷ Times, March 1, 1934.
⁸ Times, Feb 28, 1934.
⁹ Aquino, Truth, 19.
¹⁰ Times, February 28, 1934.
¹¹ Times, August 11, 1934.
¹² Times, July 13, 1934.
¹³ Aquino, Truth, 20.
¹⁴ Times, August 11, 1934.
Aquino, John. Truth and Lives on Film: The Legal Problems of Depicting Real Persons and Events in a Fictional Medium. United Kingdom: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2005.
“Award on ‘Rasputin’ Fought as Excessive.” The New York Times. July 13, 1934.
Dobson, Christopher. Prince Felix Yusupov. London: Harrap, 1989.
Hall, Mordaunt. “Ethel, Lionel, and John in “Rasputin and the Empress,” Directed By Richard Boleslavsky — “Silver Dollar,” With Robinson.” The New York Times. January 8, 1933.
Kuhn Jr., Ferdinand. “Youssoupoff Suit Ended for $750,000.” The New York Times. August 11, 1934.
“Prince Tells How He Slew Rasputin.” The New York Times. March 1, 1934.
“Princess Sues Here on Rasputin Film.” The New York Times. October 28, 1933.
“Youssoupoff to Testify He Killed Rasputin As Plotter to Oust Czar and Seize Power.” The New York Times. February 28, 1934.