That scarlet woman Ingrid is back from exile, and hypocritical Hollywood is not complaining — Anatole Litvak and Arthur Laurents make an intriguing romantic-psychological mystery of a bogus Romanoff Duchess who surfaces in 1928 Paris to claim the crown fortune. Good roles for Yul Brynner and Helen Hayes as well. It’s a strange intersection of scandal, history and swindlers that may have found the real item… and maybe not.
1956 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 105 min. / Ship Date March 15, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, Akim Tamiroff,
Martita Hunt, Felix Aylmer, Sacha Pitoeff, Ivan Desny, Natalie Schafer, Karel Stepanek
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Art Direction Andrej Andrejew, Bill Andrews
Film Editor Bert Bates
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Arthur Laurents from a play by Marcelle Maurette
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The cleverly written and sumptuously mounted Anastasia is a fantasy version of one of the 20th century’s more persistent mysteries. Could one of Czar Nicholas’s children have been spared execution with her family, to somehow end up a lost amnesiac on the streets of Paris? That’s what one woman claimed in the years after the revolution, but she was never able to make her story stick. Master playwright Arthur Laurents has great fun with a story about conspirators constructing a big-scale inheritance fraud, sort of an off-Broadway confidence game. Anastasia is also one of those psychologically interesting movies about men coaching or browbeating women to be something they’re not — hopefully for the better in My Fair Lady, and for a more perverse purpose in Vertigo. Screenwriter Laurents gets to play with the idea of identity. After a certain point, are we who we think we are, just because that’s what we believe?
More famous than the movie itself was the confident return to big-screen stardom of Ingrid Bergman, who six years earlier had been the subject of a media lynching for leaving her husband and family to run off with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Part of the religious-moral hysteria that accompanied the cold-war blacklist years, the demonizing of Bergman amounted to something out of The Scarlet Letter, and her return sparked the beginning of a cultural ‘separation between church & celebrity’ – future stars wouldn’t be subject to the damning scrutiny leveled at Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn. Interestingly enough, although the Bergman-Rossellini marriage fizzled after a few years, they left behind a group of collaborations uncommonly dedicated to themes of social responsibility.
Anastasia holds up as a classy star vehicle, for both Ms. Bergman and Yul Brynner, whom The King and I had just transformed into a major star and romantic figure.
Paris, 1928. A small group of White Russian swindlers led by ex-general Prince Bounin (Yul Brynner) finds what it has been searching for, a woman that they can pass off as Anastasia Romanoff, the only survivor of the royal family murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The lost, amnesiac Anna (Ingrid Bergman) has the necessary superficial qualities to impersonate the Duchess. As their aim is to access millions in frozen Romanoff funds, Bounin and his cohorts Chernov (Akim Tamiroff of Touch of Evil) and Petrovin (Sascha Pitoeff of Last Year at Marienbad) know that most survivors that knew the Romanoffs will approve of any woman whose existence will open the bank vaults. The newly dubbed Anastasia, who once claimed to be the Duchess while in an asylum, now begins to reveal information that makes her trainers wonder if she’s authentic. Bounin uses snotty socialite Lissemskaia (Natalie Schafer) to debut his discovery, all the while preparing Anastasia to face the final acid test, her doubting grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes). Meanwhile, the confused Anna and the general are falling in love.
The early 1950s had its screen vamps and tramps, but the women’s magazines tended to favor stars like June Allyson, who promoted (mostly fictional) illusions of domesticated perfection. Even Joan Crawford, whose personal life was a promiscuous farce, had the sense to maintain an elaborate charade of ladylike dignity. It now seems ridiculous that the romantic beauty of Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls could scandalize anybody just by ditching her husband, but in 1950 Ingrid Bergman was thoroughly demonized by the American press. At a time when newspaper columnists were using Americanism as a daily excuse to attack Charlie Chaplin, Bergman was given the works. The European films she made with Rossellini either didn’t do well in the states or were denied a release; by 1955 Bergman was becoming a memory to American audiences. Clearly engineered to redeem a potentially profitable star, Fox’s Anastasia is one of Hollywood’s bigger comeback stories.
Anastasia doesn’t pretend to be historically accurate. The real woman that claimed to be the Russian Duchess is far stranger than what is presented in the movie. But the return of a mystery woman was the perfect parallel theme for Bergman to reclaim her place in Hollywood. When Bergman came back on the scene most movie fans greeted her with open arms. Bergman was an honest soul whose only crime had been to follow her heart and seek out better acting opportunities. In the post- Peyton Place climate she could now be forgiven as the victim of her own celebrity. A few wags might have needed wooing by the Fox publicity department, but by the time Anastasia came out, the editorial spin on Bergman had reversed itself. With the beloved Ingrid looking better than Garbo on a sunny day, the hypocritical talk of outraged morals evaporated.
Anastasia is a slick and well-structured film; Anatole Litvak’s expressive style is muted by the CinemaScope format, but he’s still better than the average Fox house director.. As 1956 audiences more likely than not didn’t know Anastasia from anesthesia, screenwriter Laurents could have gotten away with even less authenticity. Although she’s about fifteen years too old for the role, Bergman does a fine job appearing lost and confused. When it seems possible that she actually might be the Czar’s daughter, Bergman handles the doubt perfectly — she’s so naturally regal a personality, we know she has to be some kind of royalty.
Yul Brynner’s bald head and un-placeable accent didn’t prevent him from finding a string of impressively appropriate roles after The King and I. He convinces as a general-turned nightclub owner who plays guitar while engineering the con of the century. Laurents saddled him with two vaguely clownish assistants to carry the exposition. Even though one of them is the engaging Akim Tamiroff, they’re the weakest part of the picture. It doesn’t affect Brynner’s performance a bit, and, well, somebody has to carry all the complex exposition. A pre-Gilligan’s Island Natalie Schafer is a ditzy matron who helps promote General Bounin’s discovery. Martita Hunt is also a standout as the dowager’s main assistant, a frivolous woman who represents the White Russian desire to pretend that history didn’t happen and it’s still party time at the Winter Palace. The Empress seems to have kept things in perspective, but whenever the exiled White Russians assemble, it’s like a congregation of vampires eager to see if there’s any blood left.
The surprise ending is cleverly prepared, allowing Anastasia to wrap up as a story-driven picture — the two stars make surprise, fairly low-key exits and allow Helen Hayes to hold the final curtain on her own. Hayes’ appearance in Anastasia is a quieter but equally important show-biz comeback after several years of inactivity, apparently instigated because an actress who played the Empress on stage was named Helen Haye. Hayes was contacted for the film, by mistake!
(spoiler) In a key scene the doubting Empress suddenly decides for herself that Anastasia is genuine, and they share a tearful embrace. As the clue that convinces grandma is just another detail that a faker could have memorized, Laurents’ theme becomes clear: the Empress believes in Anastasia because she wants to believe in her; she’s just as susceptible as any White Russian to dreams that something of her family has survived. Bergman does well maintaining credibility for a woman who has interior feelings but no sense of identity. This woman is either an amnesiac real McCoy, or a self-deluded innocent who has forgotten her own deceptions, and internalized them. A protester at a photo op, played by Karel Stepanek, may actually indicate the truth in the matter. Again, Laurents wisely suggests these ideas without commiting himself, or resorting to dime-store psychology. His decision to stick to the theme of reality vs. storybook fantasy is what makes the film work. Anybody can write a depressing movie about a miserable fraud.
Is Anastasia a great film? It’s certainly an engaging movie, but there’s little visual going on here beyond Fox’s standard CinemaScope trappings, and some nice location work. Night scenes in Paris appear to be difficult to do with the slow ‘Scope lenses. I personally find the basic setup and trimmings to be highly entertaining, with the third act a bit lacking in fireworks. Bergman and Brynner’s smouldering romance doesn’t ignite sparks, something that came easy for Bergman with most all of her previous leading men — and the tale relies on the authority of Helen Hayes to make the ending go in the right direction. Hayes’ Empress proves to be a down-to-Earth dame with a keen intuition about people. By steering Bergman’s Anna to an unexpected choice, Hayes and Laurents give Anastasia a conclusion that neatly dodges the pitfall of deciding whether or not Anastasia is a fake.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Anastasia looks great. It’s also a welcome relief, for the new HD transfer does not have the cold bluish-teal cast imposed over several classic Fox releases of the last few years, notably a Desk Set Blu-ray, and a King and I edition that could have been re-titled “Rhapsody in Blue”. This new image is not the same scan as streams from the web: it’s sharper and more detailed and the colors are dark and rich. The optical transitions have only a slightly higher granularity. The cinematography flatters the excellent costumes, which are perhaps better than what would have been created for Ingrid Bergman back in Hollywood. I did notice quite a few shots with the CinemaScope mumps, as well as some with heavily distorted fields — people at the right of the screen are often half as wide as they should be.
The multi-track audio is fine as well, and Twilight Time gives us its Isolated Score Track option for fans that want to sample Alfred Newman’s lush, Romanoff-flavored music. Even the extra original trailer includes an isolated Score Track. An additional extra — TT is nothing if not audio-oriented — is a song demo for the title tune, in this case sung by Ken Darby. It was apparently recorded by Pat Boone. Nice tune, trite lyrics.
The disc repeats some content from the old (2003) Studio Classics Collection DVD. A battery of newsreel clips push both Anastasia and The King and I as Fox’s prestige titles of 1956. Robert Wagner arrives at a premiere wearing mutton-chop sideburns, apparently for The True Story of Jesse James; he’s accompanied by Jayne Mansfield, who swivels to display her bare back to the photographers. At the end of the newsreels are a few shots of the Czar’s royal family, from just before the revolution.
Also repurposed is the old disc’s commentary, which is split between several speakers. Author John Burlingame discusses Alfred Newman’s score and James MacArthur provides background on his mother, Helen Hayes. As a key participant in the movie, the opinionated playwright-screenwriter Arthur Laurents tells the best stories. Sylvia Stoddard provides good background on the production and the real-life history.
The main new extra is a second commentary by Julie Kirgo and agent-fantasy film promoter David Del Valle. It’s a bit chatty and overly solicitous of the legends of the various stars and personalities behind Anastasia but may play well for viewers unaware of basic facts about the movie. Ms. Kirgo’s liner notes point up the political and social angles with Ms. Bergman’s return to Hollywood filmmaking. Most of the actress’s subsequent studio work appears to have been filmed in England and Europe. This first effort was shot primarily in England with locations in Paris and Copenhagen – we see a parade at Tivoli Gardens.
Owners of the old DVD have one reason not to toss it; it contains an hour-long Biography docu on the woman who spent sixty years claiming to be Anastasia. The historical Anastasia claimant Anna Anderson couldn’t even speak Russian, yet she had half of Europe and a lot of gullible Americans convinced she was the genuine article. For the record, DNA tests in the early ’90s settled the question against her, but the Anastasia hysteria persists. Thus we understand why killing the Czar’s family was such a political imperative for the Bolsheviks. So long as any Romanoffs were alive, there’d be people trying to restore them to power.
Question: The Dowager Empress is a direct relation to the Romanoff line, so why can’t she collect the millions languishing in the banks of Western Europe? Answer: The movie is loosely based on facts and people. The Empress was Tsar Nicholas’ mother, so yes she would have been able to make a claim. She left Russia with her fortune and retinue and was shielded by the Danish royalty. She was a Danish princess to begin with before she married Tsar Alexander III, so presumably she was not in need of funds. I believe one or two or her daughters also escaped prior to the Tsar’s capture.
It was just a rumor that the Tsar had deposited millions in the British Banks. The banks never confirmed it, and of course probably absorbed all of the funds. The banks, and the surviving relatives, were the primary adversaries of the historical Anna Anderson and funded the decades-long fight to discredit her claim. Again, the money was considered the motive. That part at least the movie gets very right.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Anastasia Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Isolated Score Track; Commentary with Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle, Commentary with Screenwriter Arthur Laurents, Actor James MacArthur, and Jon Burlingame & Sylvia Stoddard; Newsreels, Song Demo, Trailer with Isolated Score Track, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 27, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson