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Anastasia: 1956 and 1997

Anastasia(1956)MV5BMTYwNTA4NzY1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODE1NzM5._V1_SX214_AL_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.

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman

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.

Comparisons 

downloadIn 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 HeightsThe 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.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Movies

 

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Anastasia (1956) – Cinderella Meets Pygmalion Meets Russian History

220px-Anastasia322Other than the basic premise of the movie – that Yul Brynner is trying to pass Ingrid Bergman off as the missing Princess Anastasia of Russian – I knew very little about Anastasia before I watched it. I was expecting a tragedy. There didn’t seem to me to be any way to end such a venture happily, whether she was the real princess or not. But what I saw instead was a movie that has to be understood as a fairy tale (it doesn’t even pretend to be historical), with strong echos of Shaw’s Pygmalion and Cinderella.

The movie unfolds in 1928 in Paris and Copenhagen, where many exiles from the Russian Revolution of 1917 now live. One of them is General Bounine (Yul Brynner) who is in partnership with two men, Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) and Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff), to capitalize on the rumors that one of the Russian royal family escaped being murdered by the Bolsheviks. They organized a fund, with money donated by certain Russian exiles to locate the missing princess Anastasia, but use the money for their own ends until it becomes necessary to find someone to present as Anastasia or  else go to prison for fraud.

They find a young woman, Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman), of unknown background who has amnesia and spent time in an asylum where she told the nun that she was Anastasia. She is vague about her true identity, but has certain features in common with the real Anastasia and seems to know things most people wouldn’t know. Bounine has eight days to prepare her to be the princess – information she should know, how to walk, how to dance – and then present her to all the exiled Russians in Paris. They are divided, however, on whether she is the princess and Bounine realizes that if he is ever to have Anna accepted as Anastasia, they must have the acknowledgement of the real Anastasia’s grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna (Helen Hayes), who now lives in Copenhagen.

Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner

Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner

Plot Spoilers to Follow – I was enchanted by this movie, though somewhat surprised at the turn it took (I initially thought the fact that she was coughing meant she was dying of tuberculosis…possibly the result of listening to “La Boheme” too often). It’s more sentimental than I expected. I was expecting a psychological exploration of identity (where I got that idea, I have no idea), but that’s not what the movie is about. Is she Anastasia or isn’t she? Anna is desperate to know who she really is and where she belongs and she certainly comes to believe that she is the real princess. She seemingly convinces The Dowager Empress that she is her granddaughter. She even has Bounine wondering. But ultimately, the movie seems to say, it’s not important if she is Anastasia or not. Identity, instead, comes from being loved and accepted.

In fact, once she is accepted by the Dowager Empress, she has doubts. Does Prince Paul von Haraldberg (Ivan Desny) love her or like or her just want the inheritance that will come to Princess Anastasia? Are all these people simply using her so they too can participate in the money or glory in the memory of what is long past? Are people too eager to believe she is the princess, whether it is true or not? Anna is not sure. The only people who seem to care for her genuinely are the Dowager Empress and Bounine.

Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes

Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes gives a wonderful performance as the Dowager Empress. Grown weary of pretenders presenting themselves to her as her long lost granddaughter or grandson, she initially refuses to see Anna. There is a wonderful confrontation scene when she and Anna finally do meet. She is cold, but there is vulnerability beneath it. You know she wants to hope, but has grown cynical of disappointment. Anna is desperate for acceptance and it is unclear whether the Dowager Empress is convinced or simply has such a need to love someone again and recognizes a fellow sufferer, lonely and lost,, and opens her heart to her. In essence, she chooses to believe that she is her granddaughter.

Because whether she is the princess or not, Anna clearly has had a traumatic and violent background, causing confusion, mental anguish and a distrust of people. General Bounine’s motivations are more opaque. He’s a con artist, but he doesn’t really seem to care about the money. He’s like a gambler who likes to control and stage scenes and move people as pawns. The Dowager Empress mentions that he was denied a title before the Revolution. Is he simply showing his power over the royal family that snubbed him? But without ever saying so, it is clear that his views of Anna change over time and he begins to feel protective towards her and care for her, wondering if what he tried to make her into was really the best thing for her.

The film shares many aspects with George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Like Professor Higgins, General Bounine seeks to mold Anna into the image he envisions, in this case as the princess. There is the same master and pupil dynamics, with the same fireworks as he finds that she is not just a puppet, such as when he considers it safer for her not to speak to the exiles who have come to see her and she ignores him and proceeds to act and speak as she chooses. There is also the same freedom Eliza achieves from Higgins, as Anna achieves independence from Bounine when the Dowager Empress acknowledges her and takes her into her home and Anna begins to run her own life. And like the 1938 film Pygmalion, there is the same unspoken romance that evolves subtly without anyone ever mentioning the word.

008-ingrid-bergman-theredlistThe film is also a Cinderella story, just as “Pygmalion” was. A woman is plucked from the banks of the Seine and turned into a princess. But unlike Cinderella, she doesn’t quite go to the ball. She chooses, instead, to give it all up for the certainty of being loved as she is. “The play is over,” as the Dowager Empress says. What she means is that in choosing to run away with Bounine, Anna is relinquishing the part of what has become a play, unreality, an act so other people can live in the past. Now she can live in the present where former identity does not matter.

Anastasia was the next movie Yul Byrnner made after his tremendous success and Oscar winning performance in The King and I and he is likewise compelling here. He’s still intense and charismatic, but more restrained and he and Bergman have a lovely, unspoken chemistry, similar to the unspoken one in The King and IAnastasia also marked the return of Ingrid Bergman after her affair and marriage to Roberto Rossellini led to so much scandal and condemnation that she lived for years in Italy only to return to Hollywood in 1956. She won an Oscar for her performance, partly as a welcome back, though she does give a very moving one.

The movie is based on a play, which has led a number of people to comment that the film is too stagy. I confess, though, I’ve always had a weakness for movie adaptations of plays and I rather like talky films. Anastasia is not static, though it does largely occur in extended scenes in large rooms. I like the intensity created when people are engaged in earnest interaction on a set. The movie has also been accused of being melodramatic, which is true, but I must confess again that I have a weakness for certain kinds of melodrama. Some emotions should not be expressed tepidly.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2015 in Drama, Romance

 

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