The film's inaccurate portrayal of Prince Felix Yusupov and his wife Princess Irina (renamed "Prince Chegodieff" and "Princess Natasha") caused a historically significant lawsuit against MGM and gave rise to the "all persons fictitious disclaimer", which has since become standard in Hollywood works of fiction.
The impetus to making the film was Thalberg's discovery that the studio already owned the rights to Alfred Klabund's 1927 novel Rasputin. In June 1932 M-G-M had announced that the three Barrymores would star in the movie. This film marked Ethel Barrymore's sound film debuted and is the earliest known recording of her famous voice.
The highly fictionalized story takes place in the Russian Empire during the last years of the reign of Czar Nicholas II (Ralph Morgan) and the Czarina Alexandra (Ethel Barrymore). Reform-minded Prince Paul (John Barrymore) has long been concerned about the plight of the common people and knows a revolution is brewing. Prince Alexei, heir to the throne, is loved by the people but has hemophilia, and a slight fall turns out to be life-threatening. When royal physician Dr. Remezov (Edward Arnold) is powerless to stop the boy's bleeding, Princess Natasha (Diana Wynyard), Alexandra's lady-in-waiting and Paul's fiancee, recommends Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) as a healer. He convinces the frantic Empress that he has been sent by God to cure the child. Left alone with Alexei, he hypnotizes the boy and relieves his agony but also gradually makes Alexei a slave to his will.
With the influence he now wields over the relieved parents, Rasputin begins replacing those loyal to them with his own men. He is greatly aided when the head of the secret police (Henry Kolker), fearful of losing his job over his failure to prevent the assassination of a nobleman close to the Czar, turns to him for help. With police dossiers at his disposal, Rasputin is able to use blackmail to increase his power even further.
Prince Paul fears that Rasputin's actions will bring about the downfall of the empire. However, even Natasha believes in Rasputin. She warns him that Paul is going to try to kill him. Paul shoots him, but Rasputin is unharmed: he has taken the precaution of wearing a hidden metal breastplate. Nicholas forces Paul to resign his position when he admits he tried to assassinate the man.
When Germany issues an ultimatum demanding that Russia cease mobilizing its army over the crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Nicholas and his advisers are divided. Rasputin convinces him to reject the ultimatum, leading to World War I.
Finally, Rasputin begins to make subtle advances on Grand Duchess Maria (Jean Parker), Alexandra's daughter. When Natasha finds out, she becomes furious and shouts that she will go to the Empress. Rasputin overpowers her and puts her in a deep trance. The Empress fortuitously enters the room at that moment, enabling Natasha to recover her wits and tell what she saw. When he is unable to shake Alexandra's faith in Natasha, Rasputin boasts of how he is now effectively Czar. In despair, the Empress sends for Paul. He assures her that he knows what to do.
At a big party where Rasputin is guest of honor, he recognizes the servant who has been bringing him his favorite traditional Tobolsk cakes all night; he used to work for Paul. Immediately suspicious, Rasputin has the house searched. They find Paul and Dr. Remezov. Rasputin is eager to dispatch his most implacable enemy himself; he takes Paul into the cellar at gunpoint. Once they are alone, Paul taunts Rasputin, telling him the cakes were filled with poison. He then leaps at Rasputin and beats him into unconsciousness. However, Rasputin refuses to die. Covered with blood, he rises and walks toward Paul, shouting that if he dies, Russia will die. Paul finally drags him out into the snow and throws him into the river to drown.
Immediately, Alexei is freed from his hypnotic trance and hugs his mother. Nicholas is forced to exile Paul, as Rasputin's minions are still in power. However, the old charlatan's last prophecy comes true, as the Czar is overthrown and shot with his entire family by the Bolsheviks.John Barrymore as Prince Paul Chegodieff
Ethel Barrymore as Czarina Alexandra
Lionel Barrymore as Grigori Rasputin
Ralph Morgan as Czar Nicholas II
Diana Wynyard as Princess Natasha
Tad Alexander as Czarevitch Alexis 'Aloysha'
C. Henry Gordon as Grand Duke Igor
Edward Arnold as Dr A. Remezov
Henry Kolker as Chief of Secret Police (uncredited)
Jean Parker as Princess Maria (uncredited)
Nigel De Brulier as Priest (uncredited)
Henry Armetta as Photographer (uncredited)
The model for Princess Natasha was Princess Irina Yusupov, the wife of Felix Yusupov, one of Grigori Rasputin's actual murderers. Attorney Fanny Holtzmann filed a lawsuit by Yusupov against MGM in 1933, claiming invasion of privacy and libel. The film portrays her as a victim of Rasputin, and it is implied that he raped her, which never happened. She won an award of $127,373 in an English court and an out-of-court settlement with MGM, reportedly of $250,000, in New York.
The all persons fictitious disclaimer in the credits of most Hollywood films is a result of the lawsuit. The offending scene was cut, which rendered Wynyard's character somewhat incomprehensible unless the viewer of the film is aware of this cut: in the first half of the film, Princess Natasha is a supporter of Rasputin, and in the second half she is extremely afraid of him for no apparent reason. The laser disc release of this film includes the original theatrical trailer, which contains a portion of this deleted scene.
The Barrymores are all caricatured in the Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey's Gala Premiere (1933), costumed as they appear in this movie.
The film grossed a total (domestic and foreign) of $1,379,000: $677,000 from the US and Canada and $702,000 elsewhere, resulting in a loss of $185,000.