The Romanovs in Film
by Greg King
come as no surprise that the Romanov Dynasty, with its love affairs and
sexual scandals, madness and murder, set against a backdrop of
unbelievable opulence and revolution, has proved irresistible to the film
industry from the early days of cinema. What is perhaps surprising is the
sheer number of films that has thus far been undertaken: No other ruling
house has so often been portrayed on screen as the Russian Imperial
Royal biographies have proved a popular cinematic subject since the advent of the motion picture industry. In 1912, the famed Sarah Bernhardt portrayed Queen Elizabeth I on film; director Ernest Lubitsch filmed the story of Madame du Barry in 1919; Anne Boleyns life was first committed to the screen a year later; and this trend continued through the 1920s and into the 1930s.(1) Not surprisingly, the great majority of these royal biographies were produced in the United States, aimed at an American audience whose knowledge of the intricacies of European royalty was minimal. While production values were often high, the same could not uniformly be said of the films historical accuracy.
The decade of the 1930s saw the full flowering of the royal biography on film. To some extent, this was a result of the Depression; no one wanted to pay their quarter and sit in a darkened cinema only to wallow in tales of human tragedy: there was quite enough of that to be seen on the streets outside the theatres. If movies were primarily intended to provide escape, there can be no better example of this than the major Hollywood studios devotion to the royal biographic picture. Between 1930-1939, the six big studios-MGM, Paramount, United Artists, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and RKO Pictures-released no less than fourteen royal biographies: Du Barry, Woman of Passion, in 1930; Rasputin and the Empress, in 1932; Queen Christina, in 1933; The Scarlet Empress, The Rise of Catherine the Great, and Madame du Barry, all in 1934; Cardinal Richelieu, in 1935; Mary of Scotland, in 1936; Victoria the Great, in 1937; Queen of Destiny, and Marie Antoinette, both in 1938; and The Mad Empress, Juarez, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, all in 1939.(2)
The earliest cinematic depictions of the Romanov Dynasty began before the Revolution; indeed, Nicholas II authorized the first two motion pictures on the Romanovs, and had some involvement with another four. Because it was contrary to both law and tradition to depict members of the dynasty in such a way, Imperial permission was required to avoid prosecution.
Following the momentous events of March 1917, a flood of quickly produced historical reels kept movie audiences entertained with the true story of the fall of the Dynasty. But it was not until the 1930s that Hollywood began to look with a largely sympathetic eye to the Russian Imperial House as a subject for cinematic fodder. There were several reasons for this: First, and perhaps foremost, was the undeniable depth of the subject matter, whose love affairs, murders and tragedies made for good movie-house drama. A secondary factor was undoubtedly political. The Communist Soviet Union was not a country that could be portrayed with any romanticism; most Americans rebelled at the very idea, and certainly no major studio ever featured extravagant spectacles depicting the lives of Lenin or Stalin. Russia was a land of immense cinematic storylines, but these stories could only be presented in terms of current political thought. In the 1930s especially, Communists were perceived by many as an even bigger threat to world peace than the Nazis, and so Russia, at least where Hollywood was concerned, came to be symbolized exclusively by its lost Imperial past. This politicization of the movies marked the beginning of a trend that has continued to this day.(3)
A much shorter version of this annotated filmography originally appeared in the first four issues of Atlantis Magazine: In the Courts of Memory, from 1999 to 2000. Since its first publication, new information, acquisitions, releases, and productions have meant that it sorely needed to be brought up to date, and this I have tried to do, greatly expanding several of the titles previously covered, adding in substantial new reviews for films that I have viewed since, as well as trying to draw in a number of television productions previously ignored. It does not pretend to cover every single Romanov-related title, but I have tried to make it as comprehensive as is possible.
In presenting this annotated filmography of the Romanov Dynasty, I have tried to include listings for all known films. I have also stretched to include portrayals in television productions when they dealt with figures in the Dynasty at any length. Unfortunately, it has only been possible, due to availability, to view some of the films listed. Many of the earliest films-those produced before the 1930s-are now lost, either disintegrated from lack of conservation, or having simply disappeared from the cinematic record. I have given the fullest detail available for each listing; in some instances, this amounts to little more than release dates, and brief production and casting information. However, a great deal is known of many of the films, and I have also conducted interviews with some of those involved in the more recent works.
I am in no way a film critic, nor even versed in the language of cinema; in examining the merits of any particular film, I have relied on several factors, including historical accuracy, critical reception, and entertainment value-the latter, I admit, a purely subjective point of view. The films are presented, for the sake of convenience, in strict chronological fashion, in the order in which they were made. I have not broken them up according to the various reigns and the figures in them, for there is substantial overlap in the areas of Rasputin and Anastasia with the representations of Nicholas and Alexandra. That said, this list does deviate somewhat in that it includes Ivan the Terrible, not strictly a Romanov sovereign, but nevertheless a figure in the cinematic history of Imperial Russia. The inclusion of several films that do not depict the Romanovs at all has been made because they present extraordinary scenes related to the general subject.
Films are listed by title and year; typical entries include the original and any alternative titles; the country of origin; production details and release dates (where known); running times (where known); whether a film is in black and white, or color and, for the earliest pictures, where the film is silent; company information (producer, director, studio, and crew); and details of the cast, in addition to a synopsis of the plot and any extra information of value. As noted above, detailed reviews follow the listings for those films I have been able to watch and analyze.
Most of these titles are, not surprisingly, largely unknown. Many of the earliest films have been lost to history and, unfortunately, more than half included in this list have never been released on either video or DVD. I have been fortunate in having been able to access several otherwise unavailable films through the courtesy of friends over the years, but in a list as long and hopefully as comprehensive as this, it has proved impossible to view and adequately review more than about a third of the titles listed. I have included details about other films and any information on them I could find, but many of the motion pictures remain sadly enigmatic. I would sincerely appreciate any information, updates or other relevant detail from readers.
1. George F. Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992, 5.
2. Ibid., 244-245.
3. Ibid., 99-100.
The Romanovs in Film is copyright 1999-2000, 2006 by Greg King. ISSN 1525-111X. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be produced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including copying, or by any information storage system and retrieval system, or computer system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder.