Rasputin Is Why Movies Have Those 'This Is Fiction' Disclaimers
Some might find it wholly unnecessary to be told that a film is fictitious. After all, most of us understand that a movie and a documentary are not the same thing and that there's this thing called creative license, even though it sometimes leads to controversy (looking at you, Pocahontas).
But need we remind you that even though a story may be based on the truth, some people still think that it's all very, very real. That's how people have come to believe that Ted Bundy was some kind of suave genius gentleman killer (he wasn't) or that demons are real and can only be stopped by the loving saint-couple that is Ed and Lorraine Warren (oof, not so much). Of course, a person who has done some terrible things would probably not mind if the media decided to portray them in a better light. The opposite, however, could get you a one-way ticket to the courthouse. This is precisely what happened back in 1933 when the prince who killed Grigori Rasputin sued MGM for depicting the murderous affair all wrong.
Prince Felix Yusupov was one of the parties involved in the assassination of Rasputin, and instead of paying for his crimes, he was exiled by Tsar Nicholas II to go and live a cushy life in Paris only to squander his fortunes because he sucked at business as much as he sucked at covering up a crime. Yusupov was still alive, penniless, and presumably dueling people with baguettes in the streets of Paris when MGM released Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. The film shows the murder of the Russian rapscallion by Yusupov, who is depicted as "Prince PaulChegodieff" — a fact that greatly irked the prince because even though he had bragged about killing Rasputin to everyone and also in a memoir, he didn't want audiences to associate him with the movie's version of events. Sure, the film switched some things around, but we bet it had something to do with the fact that it showed Yusupov initially failing in his attempt.
However, it didn't matter because trying to build a libel case when you are, in fact, a self-confessed murderer is actually harder than it sounds. So instead, the prince alleged that the movie defamed his wife, Princess Irina, the niece of Tsar Nicholas II. The film shows Prince Chegodieff's wife, Natasha, as a devoted follower of Rasputin. At one point, she is hypnotized and ultimately raped by Rasputin — something that never happened to Irina, a woman who had never even met Rasputin. Major yikes.
Rasputin and the Empress was prefaced as such: "This concerns the destruction of an empire ... A few of the characters are still alive — the rest met death by violence." In court, it was argued that seeing as the Yusupovs were the only significant characters still alive, audiences would obviously associate the movie with them. The court's decision that the disclaimer should have actually stated the opposite — that it was not intended to portray factual events — led to every film in Hollywood slapping just that on their movies.
It's also worth noting that an MGM researcher actually told the studio they might get in trouble for portraying a sexual assault there was absolutely no record of. They fired her, proving that everyone's a villain in this very real and very true story.
Zanandi is on Twitter.