Even though it has been conclusively proved that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas of Russia, truly died with her family on July 17, 1918, the idea that Anastasia could have escaped has always fascinated people, even now. I was wondering about it recently, after watching for the first time 20th Century Fox’s animated Anastasia from 1997. What is the appeal of the story?
On the one hand, it has a haunting quality to it. Anastasia in film adaptations is a shadowing figure, dancing on the edge of history, only to fade out of it at the end to lead a normal life apart from the artificial constructs of history, tradition and ceremony. It’s a fairy tale; a princess, a young girl who, through no fault of her own, is caught up in the forces of history and thrown into the cold world where she has no identity, but acquires one, not so much through establishing that she is really Anastasia, but by finding love and acceptance.
There is also the appeal of a lost world (lost worlds, whether Atlantis, the British aristocracy featured in Downton Abbey, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World or, in this case, Imperial Russia, have an inherent appeal), combined with the fairy tale qualities of princesses, con artists, romances that never could have happened in Imperial Russia, political intrigue….it gives the story of Anastasia a unique quality all its own
Both films, the 1956 Anastasia and the animated musical Anastasia from 1997 tap into these things, though they both have a different intended audience and are from different eras. In both films, a con artist tries to pass a young woman off as Anastasia, in the hope of reaping a vast reward. In both cases, the key is to convince the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna that she is, in fact, her granddaughter. And in both cases, the young woman is struggling to find her identity, who she is, while the con artist discovers he has a heart.
Anastasia: 1956 – Directed by Anatole Litvak, Starring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, Akim Tamiroff, Martita Hunt
Anastasia was a film adaptation of a popular stage play and also signaled Ingrid Bergman’s return to Hollywood after some years spent in Europe after the scandal of her affair and marriage with director Roberto Rossellini. Apparently the scandal was entirely forgotten and she was welcomed with great enthusiasm, even winning an Oscar for her role in the film as a sort of welcome-home-we’re-sorry-you-were-gone gesture, though she is certainly very affecting and effective in the role.
This Anastasia is kind of a blend of Cinderella, Pygmalion and Russian History. There is lots of intriguing by various people, which makes sense since it is based on a play and there is a lot of talking. The music is composed by Alfred Newman and I find it haunting. It is romantic, but also signals the ruins of what once was, the revolution and how the exiled Russian aristocracy are now trying to relive their past lives through Anastasia in a kind of grotesque, theatrical facsimile of a dead reality.
Anastasia: 1997 – Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, Voices by Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher Lloyd
The 1997 Anastasia is an animated musical that is squarely in the realm, not only of a fairy tale, but also fantasy. It takes the original story told in 1956 and aims it towards a younger audience with less talking and more fantasy. Gone is the Pygmalion aspect of the story and added is a subplot involving Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), who has a vendetta against the Romanov family and is apparently the cause of the Russian Revolution. But the film gets away with it because it never pretends to be anything other than pure fantasy. Now, there is magic at play.
But it’s still a Cinderalla story, with Anastasia now in search, not only of an identity, but more importantly for her, in search of her family. The musical score was composed and orchestrated by Alfred Newman’s son, David Newman (using themes from his father’s score), while the songs were written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The songs “Journey Into the Past” and “Once Upon a December” were both nominated for Best Original Song.
In the 1997 film, there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that Anya is really Anastasia and it is more of a personal journey for her, to overcome obstacles (like Rasputin) to find her family. But she is essentially comfortable with who she is, a survivor who can take care of herself…very much a modern 1990’s woman.
Anna Koreff in the 1956 Anastasia, is much more fragile (portrayed beautifully by Ingrid Bergman). She’s suffered a lot, been in various mental hospitals and does not just suffer from amnesia like her animated counterpart, but is confused about her memories. What does she really remember? In this sense, she is not merely looking for family, but an identity, though she is a survivor in her own way. She finds herself when she adopts the identity of Anastasia, whether it’s true or not. “Real” identity doesn’t matter; it’s being loved. For the animated Anastasia, the identity isn’t as important. She has a family (identity); what she needs is to be reunited with them.
But in both films, she never does go to the ball (which would have introduced her to the world as the Anastasia). Neither does she marry a prince or get a crown. Instead, she makes her own life with the man of her choice. Both men are con artists who unexpectedly fall in love, though the animated con artist, Dimitri, used to be a kitchen boy working at the palace (making this a kind of reverse Cinderalla for him, since he gets to marry a princess), while General Bounine was part of the Imperial army. Andrea Lundgren has argued, however, that the ending of the ’56 film is slightly unsatisfactory, because we never actually see Anna and General Bounine (Yul Byrnner) leave together or hear them acknowledge their love. Instead, we hear they are gone and the film ends with The Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes). In the cartoon, we see them leave and she is not necessarily going to be separated forever from her grandmother (Angela Lansbury).
One thing that interested me is the criticism I have read of the films, arguing that they distort history and shamelessly exploit what is really a tragedy. I’ve already written about the first concern regarding distorting history, but the second one intrigued me. Is it exploitation? It seems a valid point. But if that is the case, then nearly every film or novel involving historical fiction, from the Titanic to WWII to a biopic of Billie Holiday, is essentially an exploitation. But people have always used historical figures and events to explore their own contemporary concerns, wishes, fears and dreams. To treat history as sacred, I fear, would be to confine it to dusty embalmment. But it is a reminder never to forget that history is full of real people who lived and died.
The score for the 1956 Anastasia by Alfred Newman (Wuthering Heights, The Mark of Zorro, Airport, he wrote scores for over 200 movies) was nominated for an award for Original Music Score. Here is the main theme.
The singing voice of the 1997 animated Anastasia was provided by Liz Callaway.
“Once Upon a December” is essentially the theme of the movie. The melody is also heard in a music box given to Anastasia by her grandmother and is the means of reuniting them.