Before CNN, the worldwide web, and the 24-hour news cycle, most persons received their only news of outside world and national events through newspapers. Most cities possessed multiple newspapers pitched to different audiences, some focusing strictly on hard news, some featuring the tabloid, to cater to this important need.
With the invention of moving pictures, films became an integral part in relaying the visceral and emotional impact of news events. In fact, they sometimes shaped news and influenced national policies. J. Stuart Blackton re-created and reenacted battles of the Spanish-American War with the “The Battle of Santiago Bay” and “The Battle of Manila Bay” in 1898, inflaming prejudices and inflating American action. The 1912 short “Saved From the Titanic,” filmed just weeks after the actual sinking of the great ship, reenacted the terrible disaster. While people searched out documented histories of important events in newspapers, many also desired visual representations of these happenings.
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The conflagration of World War I accelerated audience desires for a visual record of world situations. People longed to see battle locations, surviving refugees and world leaders’ actions. Events in Russia spurred calls for documentation. Protests, uproars and the removal of the Romanoffs led many to wonder how events had transpired to overthrow such a powerful autocracy and replace it with a republic of average citizens. Events intrigued director Herbert Brenon as well, leading him to produce a movie called “The Fall of the Romanoffs” capturing up-to-the-minute history.
Brenon hired writers Van Wyck Brooks and George Edwardes-Hall to write a script, based on events related by the “mad monk,” Iliodor. Iliodor, born Sergei Michailovich Trufanoff in Russia in 1880, had originally studied and worked with Rasputin before opposing everything he stood for. He broke with Rasputin in 1911 and began denouncing him. Writer Maxmilian Gorky supported Iliodor, hoping that his denunciations would discredit the royal family for following the dictates of Rasputin, and incite revolutionary fervor. Iliodor departed Russia in 1914, spreading his accusations to worldwide audiences.
To make “The Fall of the Romanoffs” independently, Brenon reached a deal with Lewis J. Selznick, who was distributing his films, ending their partnership. The men canceled their contract for future films, whereby Brenon retained 50% of the film owned between him and Selznick, after buying out his interest with $80,000. Samuel Goldwyn owned the other 50%. Selznick kept all past and future profits of “War Brides,” “The Lone Wolf,” and “The Eternal Sin.” The director established Iliodor Pictures to produce the film at a cost of $100,000, selling the film on a states’ rights basis, and hoped to rush the ripped from the headlines film to theaters to capture timely interest in events.
As Brenon described it in the film journal Motography June 16, 1917, “ ‘The Fall of Russia’ will probably be the biggest picture I have ever made. It depicts the struggle of the people over the tyranny of a corrupt court and the consequent triumph over autocracy. The theme is all the more gripping because it is absolutely true. Not a word of it is fiction. Iliodor himself has either lived through all the incidents or heard them repeated from eyewitnesses. He was at the court, he had access to the czar and czarina.
“Iliodor plays in this picture exactly the same part that he played in the drama in Russia. He forgets his surroundings, he is oblivious to the camera and he actually takes part again in the scenes of a stirring drama which has made Russia the most dramatic figure in the world today. He is again in the little cell in the monastery, or denouncing Rasputin to the synod, or pining behind prison bars, or having an audience with the czar, however the case may be, and he is living through it all again.”
Brenon began filming in June 1917 at his Hudson Heights studio, building a rural Russian village and employing mostly real Russian immigrants as extras. Most of his direction was translated by interpreters, who refereed the many disagreements between the extras on Russian dress, life, and customs. Brenon brought it Iliodor to play himself in a major role. The story would reveal Iliodor’s vision that the Russian people were tricked by their rulers, with the lying and treacherous Rasputin controlling their destinies, as the royal family appeared ready to sign a separate peace treaty with Germany, betraying their own people and allies.
Nance O’Neil was hired to play the czarina, after Iliodor refused to work in a big scene until she was selected for the role, because of her strong resemblance to the czarina. Russian Ekaterina Galanta, a Russian actress and dancer, was hired for the part of Anna, who causes Rasputin’s downfall. Alfred Hickman and Conway Tearle filled the other major roles.
Brenon’s publicists blanketed the press with the largest exploitation campaign ever attempted at the time, releasing exclusive stories and photographs of “The Fall of the Romanoffs” to multiple newspapers and film trade journals. A trailer showing scenes of the film played during the Broadway opening of Brenon’s film, “The Lone Wolf,” in July 1917, less than a month after beginning filming. They worked to build intense audience anticipation of the picture.
In several stories, Iliodor spoke about making the film a true and accurate story acceptable to the Russian people. The Aug. 4, 1917, Motography featured a lengthy interview with the former monk. “Through my ecclesiastical education which lasted until I was 33 years of age, I was taught to believe that the theater, moving pictures, and all kindred amusements came directly from the devil. I realize now what a wrong idea that is. Since coming to this country, I have been able to see many things in a different and much clearer light. I am emancipated. I am free from the shackles that bound me for so long and I find much good where before I could see only evil…. I consented to take part in this picture, and play the role that I had taken in the recent events in Russia simply because I wished to condemn all evil and to make public to the world the wrongs of Russia… .” Unfortunately, while he thought the Bolsheviks were merely clearing out injustice and autocracy, he little dreamed that they would even more ruthlessly subjugate their own people.
Brenon edited as he shot, with “The Fall of the Romanoffs” ready for its premiere in New York only days after its completion. The director kept the motion picture to eight reels, the length of a two-hour theatrical play, which he thought was the most time an audience could stand, and which would also allow smaller houses to present two showings of the film per day.
For the film’s premiere in New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel’s ballroom in early September 1917, Brenon hired a staff of well-known composers to orchestrate the score with all Russian music, which would be performed by a 30-piece Russian symphony orchestra. He invited the Russian Ambassador Boris Bakhnetieff and his full embassy staff, all of whom arrived in full dress uniform. Foreign press from Spain, England, and Italy were also brought from Washington to report on the screening. Celebrities such as Adolph Zukor, Constance and Norma Talmadge, Fred Niblo, Daniel Frohman, Variety’s Sime Silverman, Herbert Bayard Swope, Lewis J. Selznick, and World Film Corp.’s William Brady attended as well.
Brady, producing the film “Rasputin, the Mad Monk,” and Brenon exchanged words during proceedings, engaging in fisticuffs in the lobby at the film’s conclusion.
Brenon considered “The Fall of the Romanoffs” his best work at the time, and the largest subject he had ever tackled. He was proud that the film was the first time that an actual world event had been portrayed realistically on the screen, the first big work inspired by Russian events and World War I. He called “The Fall of the Romanoffs,” “…nothing less than an attempt to screen swiftly moving history,” displaying enormous human drama and the development of Russian democracy. He hoped it would display his theory of film as historian, explaining how in moving pictures, “History actually lives before our eyes.”
Reviews praised the $250,000 film, calling it the best of Brenon’s career, and a vital, powerful record of ever-changing events in Russia. They considered it wonderfully cast, superbly designed and acted, underlined with a powerful score and thought Iliodor an important asset through his force of personality. One review stated that, “Mr. Brenon has produced a dramatic spectacle of almost unlimited money-making possibilities. It has no end of advertising angles and opportunities,” thanks to the roiling events in Russia.
The New York Morning Telegraph called “The Fall of the Romanoffs” “One of the most remarkable and noteworthy pictures of the year. Emphatically a stride forward in motion pictures.” The New York Herald noted, “The picture, drawn and lavishly embellished with Russian atmosphere, has an almost startling effect of reality.” Moving Picture World remarked on how admirably it captured contemporary events, with the film’s effect on the viewer “…is as if he himself were an actor in the scenes… .” Many noted how it accurately captured the “white heat” of the moment. The fall of 1917 was a spectacular time to be onscreen, as the American public was eager to understand the historic roots and political aftereffects of the Russian revolution.
Brenon trimmed and rearranged the film after the premiere, cutting one version for cities and another for rural areas. Iliodor appeared with the film, taking questions afterward, as much promoting the film as himself. South and Central America and Europe exhibited great demand for the film, thanks to what many considered the greatest exploitation campaign in the history of film.
In October, producers I. E. Chadwick, Ben Blumenthal attempted to springboard off “The Fall of the Romanoffs’” success with their own film, entitled, “The Tyranny of the Romanoffs.” Brenon won a restraining order preventing advertising, publicity, and exhibition of the picture. Footage of Iliodor was cut into the film “Ivan, the Terrible,” renamed “the Last of the Romanoffs, to mislead and exploit it.
As late as October, 1918, filmmakers added scenes to remain current with the rapidly changing Russian events. Writer George Edwards-Hall, without Brenon’s help, added scenes showing the czar’s condemnation, execution and the death of the czarina.
Iliodor released his ghostwritten memoirs in 1918, dedicating them to Brenon. He returned to Russia in 1918, aiming to become the “Russian pope” and help control the tide of the revolution into more spiritual purposes. When that failed, Iliodor returned to the United States in 1921, becoming a Baptist, and working as a janitor, before he died in 1952.
“The Fall of the Romanoffs” stands as the first international film to seriously document Russian history, followed by many others. Considered lost, the motion picture represents one of the first attempts to capture world events as they happen, something now witnessed every day on television and the Internet.