The model for the character of Princess Natasha in the movie was Princess Irina Romanoff Youssoupoff. She filed a lawsuit against Thalberg and MGM, claiming invasion of privacy and libel in portraying her as a mistress and, later, a rape victim of Grigory Rasputin. She won an award of $127,373 in an English court and an out-of-court settlement in New York with MGM, reportedly $1 million. As a result of the success of Princess Youssoupoff's lawsuit against MGM over this movie, Hollywood studios began inserting the disclaimer "This motion picture is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental" in the credits of virtually every film released since.
Upon its initial release in 1932, the movie was the subject of a lawsuit issued by Prince Feliks Yusupov, who had actually been involved in the death of the real Grigory Rasputin. Although names in the film were changed (Yusupov's character, as portrayed by John Barrymore, was called Prince Paul Chegodieff), Yusupov also recognized Diana Wynyard's character of Princess Natasha to be that of his wife, Princess Irina. the Yussoupovs sued for libel as a result of a scene which suggested that his wife had been raped by Rasputin. MGM lost the suit, and the scene was cut from later releases. It rendered Wynyard's character somewhat incomprehensible if the viewer of the film is unaware of the cut - in the first half of the film, Princess Natasha is a supporter of Rasputin, and in the second half, she is inexplicably extremely afraid of him. The laserdisc release of this film includes the original theatrical trailer, which contains a portion of this deleted scene.
Annoyed that his brother John Barrymore was trying to show him up by placing his hand on him while he was finishing a scene (an ancient actor's technique for drawing attention to oneself), Lionel Barrymore excused himself from the set and went to the back lot to find a telephone. He then phoned the set and told director Richard Boleslawski that "he'd better advise Mr. John Barrymore to not place his hand on me at the close of this scene, lest I lay one on him!" By the time Lionel returned to the set, John has been advised to keep his hands to himself.
Irving Thalberg fired writer Mercedes de Acosta when she refused to write a scene involving a fictitious meeting between Grigory Rasputin and Princess Irene Romanov Yusupov, which she knew did not occur. Prince Feliks Yusupov, one of Rasputin's assassins, was a friend of de Acosta. After her firing, the scene was added. After the film's release, both Prince Yusupov and his wife sued Thalberg and MGM, as de Acosta warned he would, and won a large settlement.
Dr. William Axt, MGM's musical director, brought together all the Greek and Russian orthodox church choirs in Los Angeles to sing at the celebration mass at the start of the movie.
The only film in which all three Barrymore siblings - John Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore - appeared together. Although all had starring roles, there are only a couple of short scenes in the film where all three sibling actors are actually on the screen at the same time.
Charles Brabin was originally assigned to direct. After several run-ins with Ethel Barrymore, who condescendingly referred to him as Mr. Theda Bara, he was taken off the project. Brabin was married to the silent screen legend Theda Bara. Richard Boleslawski was brought in to direct and given sole directorial credit, although several of Brabin's completed scenes remain in the finished film.
In 1989 Sir David Napley published 'Rasputin in Hollywood', which covered in detail the 1934 libel lawsuit by the Youssoupoffs against MGM over the film.
MGM purchased stock footage of the Romanov family and Russian military parades from J. Stuart Blackton, who had this footage as part of a vast stock footage library.
Ethel Barrymore's only starring role in a motion picture with sound except for Kind Lady
This was Ethel Barrymore first sound film and the first time movie goers heard her speaking voice.
In the scene where the Empress walks in on Rasputin hypnotizing Natasha, the Empress is wearing a swastika on a chain around her neck. This might be historically accurate since the swastika was a popular decorative and religious symbol around the turn of the 20th century. However, allowing one of the main characters - and a German one at that - to wear a swastika at a time when anything relating to Nazi Germany was strongly discouraged if not banned in Hollywood films is rather strange, especially since this film's national release occurred less than two months after Hitler took power in Germany.
This film received its USA television premiere in Seattle Friday 2 November 1956 on KING (Channel 5), followed by Los Angeles Thursday 15 November 1956 on KTTV (Channel 11), by Hartford CT Sunday 9 December 1956 on WHCT (Channel 18), by Philadelphia Monday 10 December 1956 on WFIL (Channel 6), by both Altoona PA and Portland OR Friday 21 December 1956 on WFBG (Channel 10) and KGW (Channel 8), and by Pittsburgh Sunday 30 December 1956 on KDKA (Channel 2) ; in Omaha it first aired 20 February 1957 on WOW (Channel 6), in New York City 29 May 1957 on WCBS (Channel 2), in Chicago 27 August 1957 on WBBM (Channel 2), and in San Francisco 4 May 1958 on KGO (Channel 7).