THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT, a/k/a CATHERINE THE GREAT (Premier Distributions Limited/London FiIms, 1934), directed by Paul Czinner, became Alexander Korda's production follow-up attempt in duplicating his earlier royal success of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1933) starring Charles Laughton in his Academy Award winning performance. While this could have been titled THE PRIVATE LIFE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT, this and HENRY VIII each show the visual and historical Korda techniques quite popular with Depression movie audiences. This impressive and lavish scale production, consisting of mostly British performers, stars the American-born Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with the Viennese born Elisabeth Bergner in the title role. With Fairbanks' attempt in a costume drama made famous by his father, Douglas Fairbanks, of the silent screen, CATHERINE THE GREAT would become a step forward for both its leading players, especially Bergner under the direction of her husband, Czinner.
The story opens in Russia, 1745, in the hunting lodge of Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). heir to the throne. During his gathering among his friends and female companions, Peter is given news that his aunt, Empress Elisabeth (Flora Robson), in order for him to have an heir, has arranged for he to marry Sophia Frederica (Elisabeth Bergner). At first, Peter refuses to give up his carefree lifestyle and marry a perfect stranger. He changes his mind after meeting the shy Sophia, renamed Catherine by Elisabeth, and consents to the proposed marriage. Catherine soon realizes the sort of man she's married when Peter leaves her alone on the wedding night to have an affair with another woman. It is Empress Elizabeth who encourages Catherine to change her ways by helping herself be stronger and forceful. During the course of their marriage, Peter becomes jealous of Catherine with rumors of her affairs with seventeen lovers. Knowing this is a falsehood, Elisabeth advises Catherine to actually have one lover in order to gain Peter's respect. At Elisabeth's deathbed, she warns Catherine her fear for the future of Russia once Peter takes command, especially with the startling news that Peter is actually insane. Now on her own, Catherine attempts to plot against Peter before he plots against her. Co-starring Gerald D Maurier (Lecoca, Peter's advisor); Irene Vanbrugh (Princess Anhalt-Zerbat); Griffith Jones (Gregory Orlov); Joan Gardner, Lawrence Hanray and Clifford Heatherley.
Released the very same year as Josef Von Sternberg's Catherine the Great production of THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Paramount, 1934) starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe and Louise Dresser, many often compare these productions, considering the fact that no two productions are exactly alike. While Fairbanks' Peter is tall and handsome, Sam Jaffe's Peter is presented much more differently more in the manner of the wide-eyed Harpo Marx style instead. Louise Dresser's Empress Elisabeth for THE SCARLET EMPRESS steals the proceedings from the leads, though presents herself more American than Russian through her presentation. Flora Robson's Elisabeth, however, speaks loud and forceful, adding to much attention towards her character who favors Catherine more than Peter. Elisabeth Bergner does her best as Catherine the Great, though many prefer Dietrich and the offbeat performance by Jaffe over Korda's production, a success at the box office, over the misfire of Von Sternberg's heavily scored and titled presentation. Regardless of their reputations over the years, both CATHERINE THE GREAT and THE SCARLET EMPRESS are worth viewing for comparison reasons, especially when one can catch them playing together on a double feature bill.
CATHERINE THE GREAT enjoyed frequent revivals over the years, from its early days of television in the 1950s to public television and video cassette distribution in the 1980s, to DVD and cable television broadcasts, notably Turner Classic Movies since 2011. Though one would wonder which of the two Catherine the Great movies is more accurate as a history lesson, it could be said that CATHERINE THE GREAT offers more of Peter than Catherine, while THE SCARLET EMPRESS offers more Von Sternberg's artistic style along with more background on Catherine from child to her rise to the throne. (***1/2)
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