Less is more, some people say, and to compare this to the Josef Von Sternberg/Dietrich version is like comparing a box cake to a wedding cake. Both are delicious, yet one is more fun to look at. That being said, this British version of the life of Catherine the Great takes 90% of the cast (including extras), props and audacious jewelry, and puts it off to the side. This is the no frills version of the tale of Russia's most powerful woman, not to say that there isn't any opulence. It just isn't overstuffed with it.
This version doesn't have the name brand of Dietrich in fellow German actress Elisabeth Bergner, but she is perfectly fine, if not as overly stuffed in gowns and jewels and big wigs or hair decor. She is also second fiddle to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the mad future emperor Peter III and Flora Robson as Empress Elizabeth who get to ham it up while Bergner watches for the most part from the sidelines. It is as if this is the happenings of the former Prussian Princess Sophia's look at the goings on around her as she becomes betrothed to Grand Duke Peter and realizes the mess she's getting into. Empress Elizabeth takes her under her wing, even helping her find a lover, knowing that life with Peter alone will not be satisfying.
Unlike Sam Jaffe, Fairbank's Grand Duke Peter isn't presented as a hideous looking monster, just a hot tempered fool who could go on a homicidal rampage at any minute. Portraits of the real Emperor Peter at the various stages of his life show him looking closer to Jaffe's take on the part, something you might see Conrad Veidt play in a silent German expressionist film. Robson plays Empress Elizabeth as feisty but not the crass royal Louise Dresser was directed to play. Unfortunately, her close-ups and full body shots are not flattering, making her look a bit like a clown in drag. This only covers a short period of Catherine's life in Russia, and yet there's enough detail present to make it an interesting life. Too bad there wasn't a sequel to this more affordable version that showed more of Catherine's reign.
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