Anastasia Remains a Lovely Little Tale
By Kristin Battestella
Granted, we know the fate of the Romanovs was not as hopeful or romantic as the award winning 1956 classic Anastasia makes it out to be – complete with fifties splendor, dashing intrigue, and a whole lot of Cinemascope. However, the what ifs, period charm, and excellent performances here shine nonetheless into the new millennium.
Expatriate Russian General Bounine (Yul Brynner) and his cohorts Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff) and Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) rescue Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman) from the edge of the Seine after her escape from an asylum. Together, the trio intends to capture the inheritance of the rumored to still be alive Grand Duchess Anastasia by presenting an impersonator as the lost survivor. Anna – her past unknown – is likeness enough to the Grand Duchess to proceed, and Bounine educates her to play the part in hopes of impressing the exiled Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Helen Hayes). Only her approval of this Anastasia will legitimize Bounine’s claim and release the inheritance. Anna’s memories about who she really is, however, shows signs that she may indeed be the lost Romanov heir – and Bounine is no longer certain of his mercenary intentions once Anastasia’s former betrothed Prince Paul (Ivan Desny) renews his marital pursuit of the would be Grand Duchess.
Based upon Marcelle Maurette’s play about real life Anastasia pretender Anna Anderson, opening scrolls fill in the back-story on the 1917 Revolution and establish the possibility for Anastasia’s Paris 1928 tale from director Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit) and writers Arthur Laurents (Rope) and Guy Bolton (Easter Parade). Today we’re tainted by knowing how the history actually turned out, however, Anastasia almost makes you believe. The filming is closer to the interwar period than to us in the in 21st century, further inspiring our suspension of belief and realizations that Grand Duchess or not it may not even really matter who Anna is. From the proverbial princess training to the limited time window of acceptance, Anastasia tells its story in fine progression but doesn’t give the audience everything. Contemporary spoon fed viewers may not like this opportunity to make up their own minds, and when viewing as kids in the eighties, my sister and I always argued as to whether she isn’t or isn’t the titular Grand Duchess. I’m still not so sure we have a definitive answer, yet the nuanced performances, subtle style, and romantic possibilities make for ongoing rewatchability in spite of the real world facts.
Sure, the tender old ladies and the swelling music accenting their believing will be overly sentimental for some; perhaps too many grumpy old men contest Anastasia just to make a proving point for her. The audience is quickly caught up in each leg of the approve or disprove, however, and thanks to an appropriately regal European cast, we go along with the unforced chemistry. Anna and Bounine have a rocky start and different motives, but scenes with them shouting at each other from opposite rooms are a headstrong treat. The camera remains focused on the common living room with their open doors on either side, and the wit is allowed to blossom with a play within a play wink. This is, after all, an actress hired for the role, people are pretending to endorse her, and when is their show really over? Anastasia’s conclusion may upset some with its was she or wasn’t she, but this is perhaps one of the most memorable classic film endings. It’s totally fitting and could not have been done any other way.
Is Anna Koreff merely sick after an asylum stay or delusion that she is the Grand Duchess Anastasia? Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) makes us care regardless of the truth. Anna’s on the run mentality and flight from authorities is understandably based in the fear of what she doesn’t know and can’t remember. Whether she is a princess or not, this is a troubled woman needing redemption. Her desolate wandering Paris scenes may feel fifties overdone, but they are also stunning snapshots of the time and visually represent her on the edge state of mind. Does Anna latch onto Anastasia’s story and tell so many lies that she believes this identity is true? Mixed uses of both “I” and “she” keep the sense of self in crisis, and Bergman is able to be small, meager, and confused like this woman trapped in her little girl in the cellar nightmare. The wavering between Anna’s supposed train accident and the trauma of the Grand Duchess Anastasia becomes a tormenting inner conflict always brimming at the surface. She coughs, hunches over in longtime illness and burdens, yet Berman has some bemusement at the ruse as her class and grace shine and Anna blossoms into confident, regal poise. Will this act heal Anna or will she cut her puppet strings and ruin their inheritance plot? It’s a bittersweet performance from Bergman, as it is both melancholy on the past yet hopeful on the possibilities of a fresh start. Will Anna find her new life as a princess or as a woman in love – and which does she really want?
Now then, not only was he not even nominated for The Ten Commandments, but Yul Brynner never would have won an Oscar for playing the notorious lead villain Ramses II – though I confess I’ve always preferred him to the heroic Charlton Heston! Likewise, he was never going to win anything for Anastasia after the Academy politics already relented and quote forgave Ingrid Bergman for her perceived scandals and rightly awarded her the Best Actress Oscar. Brynner, of course, did ultimately win Best Actor for The King and I, which was perhaps graciously awarded more for his already longstanding history with the character on stage than for the actual movie musical. I would however like to think his Oscar trophy was awarded for this stunning sum trio of 1956 films, as in my mind, General Bounine in Anastasia is Brynner’s best performance. Initially, Bounine seeks to capitalize on the Grand Duchess returned and collect her lost inheritance and takes pride in this subterfuge. Bounine is fast-talking and claims he’s putting on no pressure and wants you to make up your own mind, yet at the same time, he tells you exactly what you are going to think. Anna’s cleverness, clues, and what ifs, unfortunately, do better than he expected, and Bounine’s thought of everything except the possibility of her really being Anastasia. Is this the wrong woman or just the right one pulling the rug out from under his plans? Bounine has faith in nothing but himself and wants a passable fake, yet he goes on his own journey of self-discovery by falling in love with his charge. Brynner sings and plays guitar in Anastasia as well, bringing a sentimental Old World feeling to Bounine. The General would perhaps have things as they were or thinks more of his lost country than he admits, and with such a mix of hardened and romantic, Bounine is not an easy character to pull off. Fortunately, Brynner presents a surprisingly stern but warm company to match Bergman. Who’s really discovering whom in their charade? Simply put a paragraph too late, I don’t think anyone else could have played this part so wonderfully.
Adding to the Imperial poise in Anastasia is the beautifully refined and much lauded Helen Hayes (A Farewell to Arms) as the exiled Dowager Empress. She’s a dolled up little dame, but also an old lady hanging on to this past grandeur – one who’s lost everything but her acerbic wit. The poor thing is understandably crabby after facing all these pretenders and now a “madwoman with a royal obsession,” but she puts down Bounine and sees right thru him even when he won’t say what’s on his mind. Are he and this pretender using her personal tragedy for vulgar reasons as she says? Can the Dowager Empress open herself to believing she may just yet have her granddaughter returned to her? “Wanting a dream doesn’t make it come true,” she says, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t hoping this is the one. It’s a darling performance by Hayes, yet the sappy isn’t without some sass or humor thanks to the banter with Martita Hunt (Brides of Dracula) as the Dowager’s goofy lady-in-waiting Baroness Livenbaum. I love it when the Empress tells the Baroness that for a woman her age, her fantasies of Bounine are disgusting! Likewise, Akim Tamiroff (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Sacha Pitoeff (Is Paris Burning) are largely for the brevity and questioning of Bounine’s scheme early on in Anastasia. Ivan Desny (Bon Voyage!) as Prince Paul is also a fictitious character designed for romantic conflict – he’s charmed by the eponymous lady whether she is or isn’t his once lost and former intended. Paul unabashedly admits that women and money are certainly worth all this trouble, and though Desny can’t stand up to Brynner, the prince makes an interesting mercenary counterpoint to Bounine in Anastasia’s final act. And say hey, there’s Natalie Schafer – Mrs. Howe on Gilligan’s Island!
Colorful reds, velvets, Old World objects, and cluttered apartments also accent Anastasia with a bittersweet Russian flavoring while a somber Oscar nominated score from Alfred Newman (State Fair) remains classical and period sweeping. Can I get a cheer for that crank record player, too? Though some of the twenties via fifties looks may be inaccurate, there’s a real sense of lost splendor in the Orthodox Easter opening and concluding ballroom ceremonies. The old cars, hats, cigarettes, and time capsule Paris and Copenhagen locales also look divine along with white frocks, sweeping staircases, and onscreen orchestras touting Tchaikovsky. Subtitles will be necessary to catch all the tough to hear Russian names or now less common upscale French phrases, but this whiff off pre-war Edwardian manners and even earlier Victorian pomp and protocol re-imagined as mid century can’t quite be recreated today. Ironically, the DVD menus are surprisingly plain with no music or crafty designs; however, a brief restoration comparison and an old school Biography episode on the real life Anastasia provide film and real world history balance. Though dated, it’s fantastic to compare the grainy black and white photographs and archive footage of the Romanovs against the vivid fifties grandeur just seen – perfect for the historian or classroom to discuss. Now, someone please tell me there are plans for a 60th Anniversary blu-ray edition coming soon!
Anastasia waxes nostalgic with exiled royals reminiscing on what was supposedly so splendid a time and this might anger viewers who think differently today. Luckily, the charm of the tale, style of the film, and excellent performances win out against any lingering politics or sense of aristocratic mood. In fact, compared to the tragically identified bodies accounted for nearly 100 years later, Anastasia may be even more revered now as a time capsule of past hopes and romantic escape. The Dowager Empress says she can smell the mothballs but the past remains “sweet and familiar.” Somehow, the film’s self-aware Gone with the Wind reflection and celebration of former luxury still let’s you choose which tale you’d rather believe. Fans of history, period dramas, classic film, and powerhouse performances can delight in the always entertaining and charismatic Anastasia.