Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rasputin and the Empress: Yussoupoff v. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer

When Thalberg, the producer of a new movie about Rasputin, ordered the scriptwriter, Mercedes de Acosta, to write a scene in which the mad Russian monk seduces the niece of the Tsar, it horrified her. Thalberg wanted the scenes to be ‘violent and terrific’, according to the article, Tatars and Moguls in Atlantis Magazine. She had met Prince Yussoupoff, the principal conspirator in the murder of Rasputin, and it was obvious to her that the fictional character in the movie, Princess Natasha, was meant to represent his wife, Princess Irina. She wrote to the Prince about the movie. He threatened to sue. When Thalberg found out he fired her.

He promptly found another more agreeable scriptwriter and achieved the coup of getting three Barrymores to star in the movie: Ethel played Empress Alexandra; Lionel starred as Rasputin; and John played Prince Chegodieff (really Prince Yussoupoff). The film cost $1 million to produce, an enormous sum in 1932.

When Princess Irina found out about the new film it upset her very much. She had never even met Rasputin and she felt that the scenes in which she was seduced or raped by him destroyed her reputation. It was obvious that Princess Natasha was meant to be Princess Irina because she was betrothed to Rasputin’s murderer, she was the niece of the Tsar, and there were other similarities.

She met the famous lawyer, Fanny Holtzmann, who decided to sue in spite of the many risks involved.

MGM argued that Princess Natasha was a lady-in-waiting in the film and didn’t represent Princess Irina. It also argued that even if it were, the movie wasn’t libellous. Even if it was assumed to be Princess Irina, the princess in the film was raped so she wasn’t responsible and hadn’t been defamed.

Slessor, L.J. said that the film was defamatory whether the princess was raped or seduced:

“...When this woman is defamed in her sexual purity I do not think that the precise manner in she has been despoiled of her innocence and virginity is a matter which a jury can properly be asked to consider.”

After a law case involving such luminaries as Sir Patrick Hastings, graphic evidence of Rasputin’s murder, and sympathetic testimony from Princess Irina, the plaintiffs won. The jury awarded them 125,000 pounds, an enormous sum in those days.

MGM lost the appeal. Eventually a huge settlement was reached, in order to prevent law cases all over the world.

Today practically all movies use the disclaimer “...the characters in this movie are fictional and bear no resemblance to real persons living or dead...”

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