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  • Warning: Spoilers
    The dynasties of Europe are usually recalled only when they rule major nations for a long time: Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, Hanovarians, Windsors in England; Valois and Bourbon in French; Hapsburg of Austria; Hohenzollern of Prussia and Germany; and Romanov of Russia. The smaller dynasties pop up if they last long enough too: Saxe - Coburg in Belgium (and Bulgaria), Wittelsbach in Bavaria, Holsteins and Bernadottes in Sweden. Occasionally transplanted dynasties are recalled: Hapsburg and Bourbon in Spain.

    Less recalled is if the spouse of a royal heir was from a really obscure family. But in the long run the need for new "blood" to continue a dynasty would lead to minor nobility producing wives or husbands for the major dynasties. It was rare for any of the these minor figures to become well known. But Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst did just that. In fact she was to become a great figure in her own time and in modern history. For Sophie became the Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia.

    Two films that came out in 1934 dealt with Catherine's rise to power. One was THE SCARLET EMPRESS by Joseph Von Sternberg (starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, and Sam Jaffe) and the other was THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT. As pointed out in another review, the two movies each have aspects of the story missed by the other.

    Elizabeth Bergner manages to show more of the naiveté of the young Princess brought to Russia to marry the Grand Duke Pyotr (who became Peter III). Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) was the sole male descendant of the Romanovs (except for a cousin who had been dethroned in 1741 by the reigning Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) and was held in a prison*). Tsarina Elizabeth was determined to have Peter marry and have an heir. She chose Sophie because of dynastic claims to Swedish and Baltic territories of the Romanov Family dealing with their Holstein blood connections - connections that Anhalt-Zerbst shared.

    Both movies show how Elizabeth and Catherine (her name was changed to Catherine when she married Peter, as her Lutheran religion was changed to Greek Orthodoxy) treat each other with wariness, but gradually get to see each other as an ally. This is particularly true because Peter was mentally ill. However, while this is shown in THE SCARLET EMPRESS, it is not true about THE RISE. Fairbanks is shown to be mentally ill, but a type of affection rises between him and Catherine every now and then - which is dashed by his paranoia and suspicions.

    The performance of Bergner is quite charming (as normal) in this film, and one gets a feeling of sadness that is not historically accurate. Here as history marches on, Catherine regretfully joins in the overthrow of her husband, and watches helplessly while he is taken away to his doom. The actual situation in the overthrow of Peter was closer to the cynical contempt shown by Marlene Dietrich towards her mad husband.

    Flora Robson portrays Tsarina Elizabeth as a tired, dying woman, desperate to try to save the dynasty and her nation but aware of the rotten material she has to work with. It's as good a performance as the two leads.

    I might add that you should note two brief supporting performances for a historical reason. Gerald Du Maurier (Daphne's father) was a leading stage star in England from the 1900s to 1930s. Irene Vanbrugh was a female star of the 1890s - 1920s (she was in the original THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST). Both play roles in this version - Irene Vanbrugh as Bergner's mother. It is very rare to see either of them on film.

    *The cousin, Ivan VI, was imprisoned for life - and gradually lost his reason. The guards were told to kill him if there was ever an attempt to rescue the Tsar. When Peter III was overthrown, an adventurer attempted to rescue Ivan and restore him to his throne. Ivan was slain by his guards before the adventurer could reach him.
  • 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.
  • The drama and characters in this movie about "Catherine the Great" are generally pretty good, although often non-historical, and the atmosphere is often quite good. The settings and many of the details were crafted with care, and apparently with ample resources available.

    Elisabeth Bergner often gives distinctive, sometimes unusual portrayals of her characters, and this is no exception. Yet Catherine was such a complex figure that it's almost a moot point as to how accurate Bergner's portrayal may be, especially since the story here is mostly concerned about her younger days, before she became Empress. Bergner definitely makes Catherine interesting and worth caring about.

    The story itself is interesting, and though it should not be viewed as accurate history, as a movie it works well enough, and sometimes it works quite well. As Peter, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gives his character a nature that is probably quite different from the historical Peter, but in itself it is a believable and effective portrayal.

    The story of the ongoing intrigues involving Peter, Catherine, Elizabeth (a well-cast Flora Robson), and others, has some good moments. The historical situation was complicated, and it lends itself easily to a movie adaptation. The settings work well in conveying both the historical period and also the atmosphere of plots and counter-plots. The movie as a whole was overshadowed, even in its own time, by other features on the same subject, but it is still a good effort that is worth watching.
  • Alexander Korda produced this lavish film, "The Rise of Catherine the Great," starring Elizabeth Bergner, Flora Robson, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It's the story, not wholly accurate but still interesting, of, as the title suggests, Catherine the Great's (Bergner)ascension to the throne as it was wrested from her crazy husband Peter (Fairbanks). Though in the film this all seems to happen somewhat quickly, Catherine and Peter were married for 17 years and had children before the Empress Elizabeth dies and Peter becomes tsar.

    In the film, Peter cheats on Catherine on their wedding night, and she pretends to take many lovers. This makes him jealous, and the two reconcile. However, after the Empress Elizabeth dies, the decisions that he makes as tsar on behalf of Mother Russia are outrageous, and Catherine is encouraged to go along with a coup.

    Wide-eyed, girlish Bergner is Catherine. Bergner was a noted stage actress in Europe who unfortunately never caught on in Hollywood; nevertheless, she worked in Europe until she was 87 years old. Supposedly an incident in her life was the inspiration for "All About Eve." Tiny, she nevertheless had authority as an actress, with line readings that were at times reminiscent of Garbo. She is a good Catherine. The showier roles were those of the Empress Elizabeth and Grand Duke Peter. Flora Robson is a wonderful Empress Elizabeth, and Fairbanks, always an underrated actor, is brilliant as the volatile, mad Duke.

    Worth seeing for the performances.
  • While most people are more familiar with the Marlene Dietrich version of this movie, released the same year as The Scarlet Empress, those interested in romance will prefer this one because it shows a Czar Peter III exactly the opposite of the one that really lived. Douglas portrays someone tall, thin, intelligent, and unethically gorgeous. The other cast members seem more experienced than him, however, at the sort of historical drama roles this film called for. But one also must remember that the British cinema was still developing at this time. The early 30's were the years in which it began to become as great as American cinema (the same goes for films from countries other than England). So, give this film a chance. I personally found it fantastic. It's a bit rare, but worth every second of searching. And as a Korda classic, well, I'll leave the rest up to you. It's not historically accurate , but it's almost like another story in itself. The main flaw is the print is a bit dark. But overlook this and you have one of the greatest films of all time.
  • Yet more intrigue from the court of imperial Russia, which (at least according to movie history) must have functioned entirely on plots, counter-plots, rumors, gossip and scandal. Produced in England by the celebrated Alexander Korda, this handsome spectacle stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (less dynamic but a better actor than his father) as the petulant heir to the royal throne who marries the petite German princess Catherine more or less against his will. Favored by the Queen Mother and beloved by her subjects, the sensible and modest Catherine has only one flaw in her character: an unquenchable love for her power-mad, playboy husband. Their bittersweet love/hate rivalry must have seemed quite sophisticated to a 1934 audience, and seen today the film still possesses a freshness rarely seen in early sound productions, thanks in large part to a quality script and some lively, natural performances.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    1934 was a strange year. While there have been relatively few films about Catherine the Great of Russia, apparently 1934 was an exception. Not only were there two big-budget films about her, but both covered the exact same period of her life--when she first comes to Russia to marry and ending when she assumes control of the nation. Of the two, my personal favorite was "The Scarlet Empress" with Marlene Dietrich. But, "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is still a pretty good film.

    Now I must stop for a minute to talk about the shortcomings of BOTH films. History, they say, is made by the winners and historians at the time seemed to spin Catherine's usurping the throne and the 'accidental death' of her husband as necessary because he was evil and insane. However, this is not the view of everyone--and many historians are just as convinced that she was a conniver and the only reason she was backed in her coup was that her husband was a reformer--and it was simply a case of the nobles wanting to keep their power. Whichever the case (and perhaps neither is correct), both films clearly portray Catherine in almost saint-like terms and a woman forced to take this action--which, by the way, would NOT fit her character later in her reign. In other words, she was one tough lady and probably not the little wall-flower you see in these films. After all, she went on to become one of the most powerful and feared of Russia's leaders.

    I think my biggest problem with this film, despite the nice direction by Alexander Korda, is that the script doesn't seem to know what sort of film it is. In the first half, it's a love story about Peter and his new bride, Catherine. Both care for each other but Peter later comes to believe that he was manipulated into the marriage and pulls away from his wife. Later, through clever manipulation, she wins his hearts. It's clearly a love story....period. Yet, oddly, as soon as the Empress is ready to die, the elderly lady (Flora Robson) tells everyone that Peter (her nephew) is crazy and dangerous. In light of everything we've already seen, there was no indication of this at all---none. And suddenly, Peter (Douglas Fairbanks) starts behaving crazy and very, very cruel and vindictive. As a result of many threats against his loving wife, Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner) is forced to fight fire with fire and she takes the throne. So what did the two halves of the film have to do with each other--just about nothing other than the names of the characters! While both halves were good, they just didn't fit together well. Additionally, I felt the weak point acting-wise was Bergner--whose interpretation of Catherine was way too weak and sentimental.

    My feeling is that this is a watchable film even if its accuracy is in question. But, how many want to watch two films on the exact subject? If you don't, then I suggest the Dietrich version instead--it's made better and the acting is better.
  • The alternative title "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is much more accurate since the picture ends with her getting the throne.

    The costumes and sets are Grade A Hollywood (compliment).

    Flora Robson (Empress Elisabeth) has the best lines and delivers them impressively. Elisabeth Bergner (Catherine) does well in her scenes with the Empress. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Grand Duke Peter) seems out of his depth.
  • 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}).
  • lugonian16 February 2021
    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)
  • Elisabeth Bergner is a great actress and always lovable, but she is not convincing as Catherine the Great - she is too lovable for that, and an Austrian at that, while Marlene Dietrich in Sternberg's "The Scarlet Empress" of the same year was more appropriate and more convincing as a Prussian princess. On the other hand, Douglas Fairbanks Jr makes perhaps the most interesting Peter III on screen, showing nuances and possibilities that usually are ignored in all those other Catherine films. Flora Robson is perfect as usual in one of those many roles of queens and empresses that suited her perfectly. The direction by Paul Czinner (also from Austria) is very meticulous and carefully planned in well considered dramaturgy, so there is nothing wrong with this excellent costume film of the early thirties, although Marlene Dietrich's and von Sternberg's version is more stylistic and impressing in more artistic liberty. Paul Czinner went on with Elisabeth Bergner in Shakespeare's "As You Like It", a triumph of Shakespeare in Hollywood, and then to ballet films and opera films, in which he constantly surpassed himself.
  • Some actors just emit a sort of magnetism through the camera - and Douglas Fairbanks Jr (Grand Duke Peter) does it in spades in this rather prosaic depiction of the early life of Catherine II of Russia. When Princess Sophie (Elisabeth Bergner) is chosen to marry the young Grand Duke by his aunt, Empress Elisabeth (Flora Robson) and the Kaiser, she arrives in a court where it isn't just the weather that is ice cold. Their relationship develops, in fits and starts, as she decides she is not going to simply be his trophy bride. Bergner depicts the young woman well, combining the personas of naive flightiness soon tempered by a steeliness of character. There is a strong, lively, performance from Robson as the Empress with her own coterie of lovers and a rather fun contribution from Gibb McLaughlin as Bestujhev. Overall, however, the film lacks the intrigue and the chemistry of Von Sternberg's "The Scarlet Empress" - It is a little dry; but the dark cinematography lends much to the integrity of the depiction of 18th Century Russian court life and the narrative does engender some sympathy for the young man who was in no way equipped for what destiny had in store for him.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    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.
  • The story of Catherine the Great's rise to power in 18th Century Russia. Von Sternberg covered much of the same ground as Paul Czinner's British biopic, but he had Marlene Dietrich whereas Czinner had only Elisabeth Bergner, who has little of Dietrich's magnetism but at least manages to keep Catherine sympathetic. Douglas Fairbanks Jr gives the film's stand-out performance as the psychologically frail heir apparent (a far different interpretation to Sam Jaffe's in Von Sternberg's picture), although a young Flora Robson is a hoot as his feisty Aunt. A satisfying movie with an unexpectedly downbeat ending which sews the seeds of Catherine's unseen downfall.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Like "Rembrandt" which I recently reviewed on this board "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is an ostensibly British historical film from the thirties which might also be regarded as a multi-national co-production. It was based on the play by two Hungarian writers (Lajos Bíró and Melchior Lengyel) about a German-born Russian Empress. It had two co-producers, one Hungarian (Alexander Korda) and one Italian (Ludovico Toeplitz), an Austrian director (Paul Czinner) and an American-born leading man (Douglas Fairbanks junior). Its leading lady, Elisabeth Bergner, is difficult to categorise in terms of ethnicity. She was born to a German-speaking Jewish family in what was at the time of her birth part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the time this film was made part of Poland and today is part of the Ukraine. Rather than determine whether she should be described as German, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish or Ukrainian, her Wikipedia entry evades the issue by calling her a "European actress".

    In 1745 Princess Sophie Auguste Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived in Russia to marry the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Although Peter had a Russian mother, he too was from a German princely house, that of Holstein-Gottorp, and could speak little Russian. (By rights the name of Russia's ruling dynasty should, from 1762 onwards, have been the House of Holstein-Gottorp, but for reasons of both nationalism and continuity Peter's descendants continued to use the more authentically Russian surname Romanov). Upon arrival Sophie's name was arbitrarily changed to Yekaterina, generally rendered in English as Catherine, even though "Sofiya" would have been a perfectly acceptable Russification of her German name. Her marriage to the mentally unstable Peter was not a happy one, but they remained together until after he had ascended the throne in 1762. (Divorce would presumably have been unthinkable). As Tsar Peter proved a disaster, and within a few months he was removed from power by a military coup, dying in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, following which the coup plotters invited Catherine to become Empress in her own right.

    As its title suggests, the film only deals with Catherine's rise to power and not with her subsequent reign. One or two details have been changed for dramatic purposes; in reality Catherine and Peter's marriage lasted for seventeen years, but in the film this period is greatly telescoped and no mention is made of their children. (Their son Paul eventually became Tsar after Catherine's death, even though he was nearly as mad as his father). No mention is also made of the historical Catherine's notorious sexual promiscuity, but in 1934 movie heroines were required to be impeccably virtuous, and Catherine is very much the heroine here.

    Bergner is not very good in the leading role, partly because she did not speak English very well but mainly because she is insufficiently imperious and commanding to make us think that this is a woman capable of not only ruling a mighty empire in her own right but also ruling it so well as to acquire the title "The Great". One cannot envisage Bergman's "Little Catherine" ever amounting to more than, at most, a puppet in the hands of the aristocrats and military officers who carried out the coup d'état.

    Fairbanks, however, is good as Peter, a difficult role to play because in this production Peter, although suffering from mental illness, is not altogether unsympathetic. At times he is capable of showing love towards Catherine, who for a time returns his love until he begins an affair with another woman. When he dies in the coup his wife is devastated, which is probably more than one could say for the real Catherine. Flora Robson is also good as Empress Elizabeth, Peter's aunt and Catherine's autocratic if capable predecessor.

    The mid-eighteenth century was a period when clothes and furnishings favoured by the wealthy classes of Europe were particularly fanciful and elaborate, and this is reflected in the lavish sets and costumes on view here. (By this period the Russian nobility had largely adopted Western fashions; had the story been set a hundred years earlier the clothes of the Boyars and their wives would have been very different to those worn by their English or French counterparts). It is therefore a pity that the film was made in black-and-white, but in 1934 colour film was an expensive luxury, rarely used in Britain. "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is a fairly decent historical yarn, but I felt it could have been better with another actress in the leading role. 6/10

    A goof. The film begins and ends with a rousing rendition of the Russian Imperial Anthem, "Tsarya, Bozhe, Khrani", but this hymn was not written until 1833, long after the date when the film is set.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Although Marlene Dietrich was a far more glamorous Catherine the Great, closer to the real one was definitely Elizabeth Bergner in this British production from Alexander Korda.

    The former Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, one of many small pieces of turf in Germany before that country became a country instead of a geographical expression, pulled off something unique in history. She came as a promised bride to the tsarevitch who in this case was Peter, nephew of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Through her own will and genius for intrigue, this Queen Consort, without a drop of royal blood of Russia in her, got to rule Russia and well for over 30 years after deposing her husband. Woman must have done something right.

    The film here like the one in Hollywood ends with the deposition and death of the Czar and Catherine taking over. We don't see the regal, confident, and promiscuous empress Catherine was to become. We see her as a shy and overwhelmed German Princess who grows in her role as her husband won't in his. Catherine grows in her character as Elizabeth Bergner does in this part.

    Sam Jaffe as Peter is far closer to the mark of the real character of that unfortunate soul than Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is in this film. Yet Fairbanks gives an extraordinary performance, far from the swashbuckling parts that his father patented on the silent screen. In fact both the Fairbanks were in the UK at the same time. Fairbanks senior gave his farewell screen performance in the Private Life of Don Juan and his son did about seven films for four years of which this is probably his best effort.

    The pleasure loving Empress Elizabeth as done by Flora Robson is light years different from Queen Elizabeth in Fire Over England and The Sea Hawk that Robson did later, but still very nicely done.

    Alexander Korda perfectly captured the mood and feel of old Romanov Russia as taken over by a usurper, a popular one, but still a usurper.
  • From the new Eclipse box set Alexander Korda's Private Lives. I debated on whether or not to buy this one. I love The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton, but haven't seen the others. They don't have very good reputations. And I usually say that I like neither biopics nor costume genres. Yet, strangely enough, I do like loopy historical biopics where the filmmakers have no real sense of history. They can be a lot of fun. The Rise of Catherine the Great is a pretty uneven film. It has its overly stuffy moments, and the acting is all over the place. The sets and visuals are nice, though not quite as opulent as in the other Catherine the Great movie made the same year in Hollywood, The Scarlet Empress. Neither of these movies are great, unfortunately. Neither are very well directed. The Rise of Catherine the Great works somewhat because of a couple of performances in it, as well as a small handful of excellent scenes. Elisabeth Bergner plays the titular character. Unfortunately, she's one of the most uneven parts of the film. As the ingénue Catherine, she's quite annoying. Her strong German-accented English makes her sound mentally retarded at times. But she is rather good later in the film when she is learning the ropes of royalty, or when she's trying to quell her husband's anger. The husband, Grand Duke Peter, is played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He might be the best thing about the film. Can't say I'm overly familiar with his career, but his performance is extremely good here. Flora Robson is also quite good as the empress Elisabeth.
  • 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.