This is the story of CATHERINE THE GREAT, Czarina of All The Russias. Summoned by a fierce, dying Empress to marry the Russian heir, young princess Catherine soon learns that her bridegroom is both unfaithful & insane. After the death of the old Empress, Catherine's danger increases and she must learn to be very cunning in order to save herself from her unpredictable royal husband...
Vienna-born Elisabeth Bergner, in her first English-language film, is radiant as the obscure German princess who would become the most powerful woman in Russian history. Hers is an excellent performance in a difficult role, where it would have been easy to be upstaged by the other, flashier, characters. As Grand Duke Peter - later Czar Peter III - Douglas Fairbanks Jr. behaves like a homicidal Hamlet, all moodiness & flares of deadly temper. He makes an interesting effort to create a charmer out of a pathetic man who was obviously a maniac.
(Actual history relates that Catherine & Peter were married 17 years and had 3 children before Peter's ascension to the throne - a time period necessary for Catherine to build her strength, but which the movie makers ignore.)
Miss Bergner & Mr. Fairbanks are given an excellent supporting cast. Dame Flora Robson is wonderful as the Empress Elizabeth. Suspicious, domineering & rather wanton, Dame Flora makes the viewer want to know the story of this noteworthy monarch, overshadowed in history by her colorful successor. Celebrated stage actress Dame Irene Vanbrugh makes a rare screen appearance as Catherine's mother.
The small role of Peter's French valet is performed by Sir Gerald du Maurier, one of the great English actor-managers of the early days of the century. In this, his penultimate role & a few months from his death, Sir Gerald had become largely forgotten by his once enormous public. He gives his few lines great dignity. In his autobiography, Fairbanks relates that upon arriving at the studio prior to filming and before the other cast members, he discovered that he had been assigned a large dressing room, whilst Sir Gerald had been given a tiny one. Deciding this was not a proper way to treat the legendary actor, Fairbanks switched names on the doors. Sir Gerald soon arrived, sweeping majestically into the larger room, as if this was only natural...
It is fascinating to compare this very fine historical drama with Marlene Dietrich's SCARLET EMPRESS, also produced in 1934.
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