• This is the first of 6 films I intend to watch about the famous Russian sovereign (albeit of German origins) as part of the Josef von Sternberg retrospective, whose masterpiece THE SCARLET EMPRESS – from the same year – also deals with her. It was obviously intended as the British response (through renowned producer Alexander Korda) of the afore-mentioned Paramount release; ironically, the latter had been made – as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich – in the wake of the classic Greta Garbo title QUEEN Christina (1933)!

    Even so, the result here is quite a good film taken on its own merits – though lacking the ornate visual sense and other idiosyncrasies that Sternberg deployed in his version (and which made it so fascinating to watch in the first place). In any case, this has all the virtues and faults of a typical Korda effort: low-key approach undermined by stiff production and buoyed by reliable casting. The latter sees Elizabeth Bergner – the director is her husband – in the title role (though she does well by the character on a human plane, there is little to suggest her 'great' qualities as monarch!), top-billed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (an ambivalent characterization as he goes all-too-swiftly from being submissive to his Empress aunt through a pre-arranged marriage to tyranny: his is a valiant try, but the star's dashing looks makes this incongruity that more conspicuous!) and Flora Robson (as the ailing Empress who conspires with Catherine to depose her own unstable nephew: the distinguished actress would virtually make a career out of playing monarchs!).

    Plot-wise, court intrigue (easily the more interesting aspect to the narrative) is too often swamped by romantic complications and that worst trapping of costumers i.e. archaic dancing…but, having grown up watching the Korda films on Italian TV (even if not among its very best examples, this one is solid enough), I kind of have a soft spot for them and, in fact, over the years I managed to collect virtually all of the more notable titles in that popular cycle (including the same year's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN which, coincidentally, starred Fairbanks pere!). By the way, while this one was originally released in the U.S. as THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT, it was recently issued on R1 DVD through Criterion's sister label Eclipse as part of a Korda Box Set (along with DON JUAN itself and two superb Charles Laughton vehicles – namely the Oscar-winning THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII {1933} and, arguably his masterpiece, REMBRANDT {1936}).