Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is Peter III, the heir to the throne of Russia in the mid-1700s. A tempestuous character, he shouts out orders and is unhappy. Well, who wouldn't be? He's dressed in some kind of bear skin outfit and is made up like Frankenstein's monster, with a silver wig, black eyebrows, black false eyelashes, a black mustache, and two black beauty spots. He could clear a room without a gun.
His bride-to-be is brought to him from Germany. They've never met before and she mistakes him for an ordinary castellan of no particular prominence. He quickly twigs but Catherine carries on about how much she's dreamed of marriage to him and how little she cares for empire. It all sounds a bit like Fred and Ginger.
Gradually, Fairbanks comes to accept her as the genuine artless article and whisks her off to be married. This is quite a mental achievement for Fairbanks. After all, she's Prussian, not Russian, doesn't speak the language and is Lutheran rather than Russian orthodox. On top of that -- the real obstacle -- is that she was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. I ask you, would you marry someone with a name like that? Even if she looked like Botticelli's Venus? So they called her Yekaterina.
As played by Elisabeth Bergner, who never looks more than vaguely cute, the new bride is all winsome and proud and overwhelmed by the sumptuousness of the Russian court. Flora Robson is Fairbanks' aunt, Empress Elizabeth, always impatient and angry. Florid Robson -- I mean Flora, of course -- was always some kind of Empress or Queen, whether in England or China or Russia. It didn't matter. She radiated disdain. She glowed with authority. Her Empress here is sexier than usual. In fact, young as she was, her big face was compellingly ugly. And she got what she wanted. Historically, she was a terrible rake and played doctor with everyone.
Alexander Korda's direction is functional and expressive. He really manages to capture the splendor of the court, even if it's rendered in fuzzy black and white. When Fairbanks and Bergner are married, the priest puts the wedding ring on Bergner's right hand, as he should.
This is no place to recount the history of Russia, so putting it in a nutshell: Robson dies, Fairbanks takes over, goes increasingly nuts, until Bergner finally consents to exile Fairbanks and rule Russia herself. The end. There is only the barest hint of what her rule would be like.
She became a benign dictator, brought Russia into the modern world, implemented all sorts of reforms, and corresponded with Voltaire. What we've watched is a filmed play about palace love and intrigue, and not a bad one. There are no outdoor scenes, not a shot is fired or a sword lifted in anger. Someone should have made "Catherine the Great, Part II." As it is, at Bergner's moment of triumph, she stands on a balcony, arms raised, listens to the cheering crowd, and almost swoons as she cries, "They love me!" And then the host presents her with the Academy Award.
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