Why Do Movies Insist that Similarities to Real People Are Purely Coincidental?

Guardians of the Galaxy is a 2014 movie by Marvel Studios. It features some entertaining-but-implausible characters. An anthropomorphic raccoon, sentient tree-like creature, and green-skinned alien woman travel throughout the galaxy, alternately fleeing from and fighting powerful extraterrestrials.

On the other end of the entertainment spectrum is Raging Bull. This 1980 drama from United Artists was adapted from Jake LaMotta’s autobiography was produced with the full cooperation of LaMotta and purports to tell the story of his life.

With entirely different studios, topics, genres, and premises, the two movies could not be more dissimilar. Despite that, both films’ credits conclude with the notice that the characters and incidents portrayed in the film are fictitious. Guardians adds “Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional.” Raging Bull advises, “No identification with actual persons is intended or should be inferred.”

If you remained in your seat through the end of the credits, you might be scratching your head, wondering why those words appear. Is there any concern that someone might leave the theater under the delusion that Guardians of the Galaxy is anything other than fiction? Although we haven’t researched this, given the state of the internet, we’re pretty sure we could find someone who believes this, but for the most part, it seems fairly obvious that talking raccoons and CGI trees are make-believe.

But what about Raging Bull? The theatrical trailer clearly stated that the movie was based on LaMotta’s book. The film makes no effort to pretend that the main character — Jake LaMotta — is anyone other than the real Jake LaMotta. Why end the movie with the statement that there was no intention to link any of the characters with real people?

The disclaimer, found in the credits of nearly every movie, is known as an “all persons fictitious” notice. Its origins trace to a movie that is largely forgotten by today’s theatergoers: Rasputin and the Empress.

The 1932 MGM movie starred John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore. It told the story of Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic who played an influential role in the lives of the last Russian imperial family.

Rasputin was killed in 1916 by Russian Prince Felix Yusupov and other aristocrats. They feared the strange self-described mystic held too much influence over the Czar and the Czarina. Killing him was not as easy as they thought but after several attempts, they were successful. For his crime, Yusupov and his wife were exiled from Russia.

Theatrical release poster for Rasputin and the Empress.

Rasputin and the Empress sought to portray the dramatic last days of Rasputin. It did, however, take a few liberties with history. For one thing, Yusupov and his contributions were replaced by a fictional character, Prince Paul Chegodieff. Chegodieff’s character was a conglomeration of several of the aristocratic co-conspirators.

Yusupov was living in exile in Paris when Rasputin and the Empress was released. He believed the movie was defamatory. The Chegodieff character was clearly based on him. He wasn’t the only one who came to that conclusion. The New York Times movie reviewer wrote that Chegodieff was “really intended to represent [Yusupov].”

Felix and Irina Yusupov.

You might think Yusupov’s beef was with being publicly associated with Rasputin’s murder. On the contrary, he was rather proud of his role in ridding his homeland of the Mad Monk. He wrote a braggadocios memoir, letting the world know what a clever fellow he was. More likely, he was upset that the film didn’t give him direct credit for Rasputin’s death.

Yusupov contemplated legal action against MGM. His problem, however, was that he was the murderer of Rasputin and was precluded from profiting from his own crime. Furthermore, he had publicly admitted to being Rasputin’s murderer. He couldn’t, therefore, enforce a libel claim, since his role as the murderer was the key issue in his alleged loss of reputation.

There was someone else who had a claim, however. Yusupov’s wife, Irina, was clearly the inspiration for the character of Princess Natasha, the wife of Cheodieff. One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie saw Rasputin hypnotize and rape Natasha. Although Rasputin was certainly guilty of many nefarious acts, he could not have committed this one because Irina never met Rasputin.

While the film was in production, an MGM researcher raised concerns about the scene, warning that it could expose the company to liability since it had no foundation in fact. The powers that be at MGM considered this sage advice and chose to move forward with the scene and fire the researcher, instead. They believed it added drama and entertainment value to the film.

See the original theatrical trailer for Rasputin and the Empress

The Yusupovs were less than appreciative of the dramatic and entertainment liberties. Irina sued MGM, claiming that the offending scene sullied her reputation and exposed her to ridicule. She brought her lawsuit in the United Kingdom because Irina’s mother was a first cousin of King George V, who funded the legal action. She promised to follow up with litigation in every country where the film had been shown.

MGM’s attorneys were faced with a losing battle. The film opened with a title card, informing viewers that “A few of the characters are still alive. The rest met death by violence.” In effect, the film proclaimed, “This is a true story,” knowing all the while that parts of it were not.

Parts of the story were certainly true. It accurately depicted Rasputin’s relationship with the Czarina and his treatment of her hemophiliac son. It correctly showed the way he made enemies and that he was murdered by his enemies.

That’s what made the made-up portions so damaging to MGM. By interweaving fiction with history, it was difficult for viewers to tell the difference. New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall opined it might have been better if they’d stuck to the actual history. Later, in the same paragraph, he credited director Richard Boleslavsky with “knowledge of certain incidents” that seemed to contain “more truth than fiction.”

The New York Times continued to have difficulty sorting truth from fiction. When reporting on Irina’s testimony at trial, the newspaper referred to Irina’s husband as “Prince Chegodieff Yussoupoff.”

It also didn’t help that one of the film’s stars publicly supported Irina. When asked to comment, Ethel Barrymore (who played the tsarina) said, “I have never seen the film right through. My sympathies are with the [Yusupovs], whom I have known personally for some years.”

Not only did one of the stars express support for the plaintiff, but she said that she couldn’t be bothered to watch the whole movie. Not exactly the kind of publicity MGM was hoping for!

A jury agreed that MGM had sullied Irina Yusupov’s reputation. After deliberating for an hour, it awarded Irina £25,000 (US $127,373), or about £1,829,746.84 (approx. US $2.5 million) in 2022 value. Some jurors were initially willing to grant her twice as much in damages until they learned that she was planning lawsuits in other countries, as well.

MGM appealed the decision and lost. One of the appellate judges, Lord Justice Scrutton, focused on the opening title card and opined that if the card had said that everything about the movie was fictitious, the outcome might have been different for MGM.

Faced with the prospect of going through the same legal proceedings in several countries, MGM offered to settle. In addition to the jury award, Irina received a reported $250,000 and a promise by MGM to purge the offending scene for all time. The movie was pulled from circulation and remained unavailable for decades.

MGM and all other studios took the lessons of the Yusupov case to heart — particularly the observations by Lord Justice Scrutton. From that point forward, nearly every film includes the notice that the characters and events depicted therein are fictitious and any similarity to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Goofily enough, the notice even appears on biopics and super unrealistic science-fiction stories alike, just to be safe.

Including an All Persons Fictitious disclaimer in a film does not necessarily stop the filmmaker from being sued. In 2014, a woman filed a $250 million lawsuit against Disney. She claimed that the animated film Frozen about a magical frozen kingdom was based on her life. She failed to persuade the judge or the court of appeals. The court’s decision seemed to put more emphasis on the fact that the plaintiff did not have magical powers than it did analyzing the effectiveness of the All Persons Fictitious disclaimer, so we don’t know what role closing credit’s words played.

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