The Romanovs: 100 years of legends and rumors

One-hundred years ago, on July 17, 1918, the last royal family of Russia—Tsar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, their five children and a few aides —were taken into a cellar and assassinated.

Romanov family portrait in 1913

And while this was the end of the Romanovs and the Russian monarchy, it was just the beginning of 100 years of legends, rumors and myths that surrounded the royal family. From a 1928 American film based on Romanov imposter Anna Anderson to a 2016 Broadway musical, the world has been fascinated by the Romanovs. The curiosity doesn’t just revolve around if any of them survived (DNA and science now tell us that they didn’t), but also the relationship with Rasputin, the “mad monk,” the royal lifestyle and the seemingly charmed lives that the grand duchesses lived.

Below are films released from 1928 to 1997 about the last Tsar of Russia and his family:

Newspaper clipping for “Clothes Make the Woman”

Clothes Make the Woman (1928)
Eve Southern, Walter Pidgeon, Charles Byer, George E. Stone
Russian revolutionary Victor Trent (Pidgeon) saves the Grand Duchess Anastasia (Southern) from being executed with the rest of her family during the Russian Revolution in 1918. Ten years later, the two meet in Hollywood where Anastasia is trying to become an actress and Victor is a producer. Victor casts her as herself in a film about her life.
About the film:
The movie is loosely based on Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia. The film was thought to be lost but is in the British Film Institute’s archives.
Unfortunately, as much as I would like to see this film, I was not able to locate it (on DVD, streaming, or DVR for sale) to review. If anyone has a copy they are able to share, let me know!

John Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, Tad Alexander and Lionel Barrymore in “Rasputin and the Empress”

Rasputin and the Empress (1932):
John Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Ralph Morgan, Tad Alexander, Diana Wynyard, Edward Arnold, Anne Shirley, Jean Parker
The film begins in 1914 as the Romanov dynasty turns 300 years old with Empress Alexandra (Ethel) and Tsar Nicholas II (Morgan) celebrating with their family (Alexander, Shirley, Parker). The Empress meets Grigori Rasputin (Lionel), who seemingly is the only person who can help Tsarevich Alexei through his hemophilia illness, and he works his power over the royal family to gain power in Russia. John Barrymore plays a fictional character Prince Paul Chegodieff, who is based on the real person Prince Felix Yusupov, who is said to have killed Rasputin.
About the film:
The film is important historically for a couple of reasons:
1. It is the only movie that stars all three acting siblings Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore. This was also Ethel’s first sound film.
2. The film is also the reason many films include the disclaimer: The events, characters and firms depicted in the photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual firms, is purely coincidental.
This disclaimer is a result of a lawsuit from Prince Yusopov. To make John Barrymore’s character want to kill Rasputin, the script had Rasputin rape the lady-in-waiting that the prince was in love with, played by Diana Wynyard. The historical researcher onset protested because this wasn’t true and it was determined changing the name of the character to Prince Chegodieff would suffice. Prince Yusupov sued for libel after the film opened because of that scene since the character was based on his real-life wife. Prince Yusupov won the lawsuit against MGM, the movie was shelved for several years, and the scene was removed.
The film is interestesting for the historical reasons of the Barrymore pairing and the lawsuit. But as for the film itself, it is mainly just ok. Unsurprisingly, it’s largely fictional, and it also feels very long at 121 minutes. Lionel Barrymore plays Rasputin like he’s an evil cartoon character and it wasn’t surprising to learn that Ethel Barrymore was new to sound films judging by her acting. Anne Shirley (then Dawn O’Day) has a small role as Grand Duchess Anastasia and Jean Parker has a small role as Grand Duchess Maria. I haven’t been able to identify who the actresses are who play Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana. Tad Alexander had the largest role of the royal children as Tsarevich Alexei.

Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman in “Anastasia” (1956)

Anastasia (1956)
Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, Akim Tamiroff, Ivan Desny*, Martita Hunt, Felix Aylmer
Anna Koreff (Bergman) tries to commit suicide in Berlin. She looks a great deal like the Grand Duchess but has no memory of her past. Knowing that the family is dead but looking to make money, General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine (Brynner) locates Anna and proposes a deal of grooming her into Anastasia. As Anna is introduced to society, some people believe she’s the Grand Duchess while others don’t. But the real test is Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Hayes).
About the film:
Anastasia (1956) was based on the 1954 Broadway play which starred Viveca Lindfors as Anastasia. The story is based on Anna Anderson, who was claimed to the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The film was significant to the career of Ingrid Bergman, because it marked Bergman’s Hollywood comeback after she was blacklisted in 1949 after her affair with Roberto Rossellini and having a baby out of wedlock. Bergman’s role of Anna/Anastasia won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. “Anastasia” also marked Helen Hayes return to acting after her daughter Mary and husband Charles died.
I revisited this film for the first time last week 17 years after seeing it for the first time at the height of my obsession with the Romanovs and the cartoon Anastasia. I was disappointed when I was 12 because I thought it would be like the cartoon and they were very different in my mind. Revisiting it now with a more objective eye, the two are very similar. The only difference is the cartoon says “this girl is Anastasia” and in this adaptation, it is left up to the audience: is Ingrid Bergman’s character Anastasia or an imposter? For the sake of her grandmother, I hope she is but I have a feeling she isn’t. Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner are wonderful in the film, but for me, Helen Hayes as the Dowager Empress and Martita Hunt as her aid steal the show. Hayes’s empress is rather sharp and has some wonderful, humorous lines.

Ivan Desny and Lilli Palmer in “Anastasia: The Czar’s Last Daughter” (1956)

Anastasia – Die letzte Zarentochter (Anastasia: The Last Daughter of the Tsar) (1956)
Lilli Palmer, Ivan Desny*, Ellen Schwiers
In 1920, a woman named Anna Anderson (Palmer) tries to commit suicide and is placed in an insane asylum. Another patient recognizes her as Grand Duchess Anastasia, who was killed in 1918 in the Russian Revolution. Anna Anderson is helped by Chleb Bodkin (Desny), who befriends her. Anderson is both accepted as the princess and denounced as an imposter in circles.
About the film:
Released the same year as Anatole Litvak’s “Anastasia” starring Ingrid Bergman. Other titles for this film include “Is Anna Anderson Anastasia?”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a DVD copy of this film or streaming with subtitles, since it is in German. I’m dying to see it though, so if you find it with English subtitles, let me know! This film sounds interesting, because this isn’t an adaptation of Marcelle Maurette’s play, but sounds like a (fictional) biographical account of Anna Anderson’s claim to the Romanov bloodline. The only other Anna Anderson film I have come across is the made for TV version starring Amy Irving (see below).

Christopher Lee in “Rasputin: the Mad Monk”

Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)
Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Renée Asherson, Robert Duncan
A fictional “horror” account of Rasputin’s (Lee) rise to power in the Romanov court as he helps the Tsarevich Alexei’s illness. The film also chronicles his drinking and womanizing.
About the film:
Hammer films issued the disclaimer with the film “This is an entertainment film, not a documentary.”
“Rasputin: The Mad Monk” is a Hammer film, and that’s pretty much all you need to know: Low-budget, ridiculous, of the horror genre, and entertaining. We see very little of the royal family in this film, except for a couple of shots with Alexei and Empress Alexandra. It is mostly about Rasputin (who has magical powers here) and womanizing.

Gert Frobe as Rasputin

I Killed Rasputin (1967)
Gert Fröbe, Peter McEnery, Geraldine Chaplin, Ivan Desny*, Robert Hossein
Grigori Rasputin (Fröbe) rises in power in Russia, because he is able to make Tsarevich Alexei’s bleeding stop due to his hemophilia. However, as more discontent grows in Russia and the country goes to World War I, the royal family’s friendship with Rasputin makes them a target from their political enemies. Russian Prince Yusupov (McEnery) takes matters into his own hands to get rid of Rasputin.
About the film:
The film is based on the book Lost Splendor by Prince Felix Yusupov. Prince Yusupov was alive when this film was made, approved of the script and had a small role in it. He died shortly after it was completed. The film opened the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.
It was very difficult to take this film seriously because Gert Fröbe is ridiculous as Rasputin. To see this movie, I bought it on DVD. From everything I read, I thought it was going to be in French, but the copy I have is in English. The film mainly focuses on the relationship between Prince Yusopov and Rasputin. It all felt and looked very low-budget, but perhaps that was due to the DVD quality.

Royal family cast in “Nicholas and Alexandra.”

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)
Michael Jayston, Janet Suzman, Roderic Noble, Ania Marson, Lynne Frederick, Candace Glendenning, Fiona Fullerton, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Irene Worth, Tom Baker, Timothy West, Jean-Claude Drouot, Alexander Knox, Michael Redgrave, Alan Webb, John McEnery, Michael Bryant
The film begins in 1904 when Tsarevich Alexei was born — the long-awaited male heir to the throne after Nicholas and Alexandra had four girls. The film follows Alexei’s complications with hemophilia, how Empress Alexandra consumes herself with grief and concern for Alexei and falls prey to Rasputin, who somehow stops the bleeding. Against the backdrop of the royal Romanov life is the poverty and turmoil of the Russian people and the rise of underground political parties led by Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Tsar Nicholas II is weak and indecisive while his country is crumbling around him. Nicholas and Alexandra further lose footing with their poor leadership during World War I, and Nicholas is forced into abdication. The family goes into exile and are assassinated.
About the film:
Based on Robert Massie’s best-selling book “Nicholas and Alexandra.”
I went into this movie with a heavy sigh. I felt like I should see it since I have been interested in the Romanovs for several years, but it’s so long (3 hours), and I hadn’t heard of any of the lead actors (I know Tom Baker was on Dr. Who but I’ve never watched it). However, I was pleasantly surprised that I liked it a lot, but I’m glad I didn’t watch it when I was 12 or 13, at the height of my Romanov obsession. It would have been too long and heavy for me at that time, and it shows ugliness in the monarchy that I wasn’t prepared for at that age. Now, even when things were “happy” for the Romanov family, this wasn’t a cheerful movie. It was quite depressing throughout, seeing the poverty-stricken people of Russia and then the fall of the dynasty. But I loved it for a few reasons. The filmmakers did a great job of showing the stark contrast between the impoverished people of Russia who were killed in the streets by guards against the happy and charmed lives of the Grand Duchesses, which was the history I knew and followed as a teen. There is one scene where we see turmoil and the next we see the girls playing on the beach. It’s powerful and an amazing juxtaposition. I also love the attention to detail. Historian Robert Massie, whose book the film is based on, may have had some inaccuracies, but that was only because he was dealing with the USSR and what information was “approved” to release to him. But otherwise, this is the most historically accurate depiction (of the films/mini-series I have seen which are all listed). From the children all having measles down to the wallpaper in the room where the Romanovs were shot, I was really impressed with that level of detail. An added bonus were small roles and cameos from leading men of classic film such as Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Michael Redgrave and Alexander Knox. Jack Hawkins’ role is a bit larger than the rest. When the royal family is taken into exile, he cries and it is gut-wrenching. “Nicholas and Alexandra” was very long and also emotionally taxing, but I thought it was great.

Aleksey Petrenko as Rasputin

Agoniya (also known as Agony or Rasputin) (1981)
Aleksey Petrenko, Anatoliy Romashin, Velta Line, Aleksandr Romantsov
Set in Russia 1916, the film shows how Rasputin gains notoriety in the palace. Rasputin’s influence over the Tsar and Empress is partially what brings about their demise.
About the film:
The film was not able to be shown for several years in the USSR because it painted Tsar Nicholas II as weak but in a sympathetic light.
I liked the format of this film and the historical view it took. It was almost told in a documentary style manner, updating the viewer on things that had gone on in the world. However, while it was an interesting film, I got a little confused during parts, specifically who people were.

Amy Irving as Anna Anderson (Susan Lucci behind her) in Anastasia: the Mystery of Anna

Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986) (TV Movie)
Amy Irving, Olivia de Havilland, Rex Harrison, Omar Sharif, Claire Bloom, Christian Bale, Elke Sommer, Susan Lucci, Jan Niklas, Jennifer Dundas
A woman, Anna Anderson (Irving) is found trying to commit suicide in Berlin. She is placed in an insane asylum where a woman believes she recognizes Anna as the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anderson behaves erratically when her photo is to be taken and hysterically talks about being taken into a room to be assassinated. Prince Erich (Niklas) visits the woman rumored to be Anastasia and believes it is her. He introduces her to other family members, and many people deny that she is Anastasia. All Anna wants is her name and to know who she is, hoping she can be identified by the Dowager Empress (de Havilland), Anastasia’s grandmother.
About the film:
Aired on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, 1986, on NBC. Rex Harrison’s last film or TV project
This film has an agenda: to make us believe that Anna Anderson was really Anastasia. Now, in 1986, Anderson had been dead two years, and they did not have the DNA proof that Anderson was not Anastasia. While “Nicholas and Alexandra” made strives to be accurate, this mini-series was anything but accurate. Many of the characters have fictional names, but I believe are supposed to be historical figures. For example, Susan Lucci’s character of Darya Romanov I believe is Xenia Leeds, a distant cousin of Anastasia’s who lived in America with her rich businessman husband. This could have been done due to the “Rasputin and the Empress” lawsuit. The TV movie does have an impressive cast (especially if you love old Hollywood), though we only see Omar Sharif and Claire Bloom for a brief time, since they play Nicholas and Alexandra. Olivia de Havilland plays the Dowager Empress and it’s delightful to see her. There are parts that are interesting and other times I’m thinking “okay let’s get on with it,” like all the romance between Anna and Erich. I did see this mini-series first when I was 12, and I didn’t know all the big names in it (except for Olivia). This TV movie is really overly dramatic, but then I guess that goes without saying since it is a 1980s miniseries.

A shot from “Anastasia” (1997)

Anastasia (1997)
Meg Ryan, Angela Lansbury, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst, Liz Callaway (singing voice)
In the animated movie, Anya (Ryan) is an amnesiac teen who wants to know who she is and who her family is. Con artists Dimitri (Cusack) and Vladimir (Grammer) see the resemblance to the Grand Duchess Anastasia and decide to groom her to play the part so they can receive a reward from the Dowager Empress (Lansbury). There are a few problems though: Rasputin (Lloyd) is seeking revenge for the royal family that wronged him, and Anya really is Anastasia.
About the film:
An animated musical remake of the Ingrid Bergman film.
David Newman, who wrote the score for the film, is the son of Alfred Newman, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the score for Anastasia (1956).
So to get it out of the way: I LOVE this film. I’ll never forget seeing it in the movie theater in Dothan, AL when I was in third grade and being obsessed for years after. I had all sorts of memorabilia (dolls, coloring books, lockets, music boxes, books) and drove everyone nuts with the soundtrack. That aside, it’s a really nice story (except for maybe Rasputin) that I wish was real. It is a nice thought to think that one of them escaped, but they didn’t. While this may be just a cartoon, it is really a topnotch one. The music is terrific (I’m still bitter that it lost at the Academy Awards to Titanic), and has an all-star vocal cast. Unlike the other 20th Century Fox Anastasia with Bergman, this film starts off telling you that Anya is Anastasia, so there is no guessing. But several characters are parallels. For example, Cusack’s character would be Yul Brynner, and Peters’s character would be Martita Hunt. The cartoon also weaves in Romanov facts (like a picture Anastasia drew for her father) and also throws in 1920s historical figures like Isadora Duncan and Charles Lindbergh when they are in Paris. I could go on and on about this movie, but I will simply re-state that I adore it.

*Ivan Desny appears in three films about the Romanovs.

Other films on the Romanovs:
There are many films that detail the salacious life of Rasputin:

  • Rasputin, the Black Monk (1917) starring Montagu Love, Henry Hull
  • Rasputin, Demon with Women (1932) starring Conrad Veidt
  • Rasputin (1938) starring Harry Baur, Marcelle Chantal, Pierre Richard-Willm

Romanovs on the stage:

  • “Anastasia” – 1954 Broadway play written by Marcelle Maurette and starring Viveca Lindfors
  • “Anya”—A 1965 Broadway musical that lasted 16 performances. Starring Constance Towers and Lillian Gish, the musical was based on Maurette’s play
  • “Anastasia”—2016 Broadway musical based on the 1997 cartoon

About Comet’s Love of the Romanovs: Like many little girls in 1997, I saw “Anastasia” in the movie theater at age 9 and was convinced that I was the lost princess (I was disappointed when I figured out no one in my family was Russian). Over the years, I not only researched various films but the family. This included turning in an unassigned extra credit project about the Romanovs to my geography teacher in seventh grade. Now that my interests have turned more to films, I wanted to combine that former obsession into this post.

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6 thoughts on “The Romanovs: 100 years of legends and rumors

  1. Hi! there is also a film on Rasputin, starring the French actor Depardieu. It is “The Rasputin case”, a 2011 television film by Josée Dayan.


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