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  • This picture is absolutely one of the oddest damn things ever to come out of the old Hollywood studio system. Von Sternberg himself called it "a relentless exercise in pure style" and he wasn't kidding. Where to begin? For starters, it marks the apex of Sternberg's worship of Marlene Dietrich (worship is hardly too strong a word; it might not be strong enough). His justly famous expressionistic lighting, brilliantly shot by Bert Glennon, dazzles the eye throughout. During the wedding ceremony, for instance, the whole scene is lit by what must be 10,000 candles and is shot through a variety of diffusion materials; in one shot Dietrich's face can hardly be more than a foot from the camera lens but there is a candle between them, and fabric as well, making her face waver and melt into the sensuous texture. This scene is largely silent, and the movie as a whole, though made in 1934, is often silent with music only. Rubinstein's "Kammenoi-Ostrow" arranged for chorus and orchestra plays through the whole wedding scene while Sam Jaffe, a wonderful and versatile actor, plays the insane Grand Duke Peter like Harpo Marx on bad acid. The dialogue throughout is just plain weird, and the mise-en-scene far weirder. Sternberg has created an entire fictitious style for this movie that might be called Russian Gothic. The buildings in no way resemble the airy rococo palaces where the real Empress Elisavieta Petrovna spent her time; rather we are given a nightmarish phantasmagoria of wooden architecture with railings and balustrades carved into the shape of peasants in attitudes of great suffering, and vast doors which armies of ladies-in-waiting struggle to open and close. The aftermath of a brutal feast is portrayed with a skeletal tureen stand presiding over the indescribable flotsam and jetsam. Louise Dresser is a hoot as Empress Elizabeth, never mind the accent; and I also like John Lodge, although I didn't at first; the aplomb with which he delivers his outrageous dialogue finally won me over. Please ignore all the stupid stories about Catherine the Great and horses that you may have heard; there isn't an ounce of evidence for any of them. Instead relish the opening of this gloriously crazy movie: Edward van Sloan, in his best "Dracula/Frankenstein" mode, reading to the little girl Catherine about Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, as we dissolve to fantastic scenes of barbaric torture, culminating in a shot of some peasant being used as the clapper of a bell, which dissolves to the sweet young adult Catherine of some years later on a swing. In the 18th century, swings were considered highly erotic, and Sternberg misses none of this. She is called away by a servant, and runs breathlessly into the parlor where her parents are receiving the Russian envoys. Her actions are literally choreographed to the music as she bobs and weaves around the room, kissing hands and saluting her elders. This is pure cinema, and absolutely nuts, but glorious. Take a good strong snort of whatever your favorite mind-expander may be (a dry red wine with a shot of Stolichnaya under it is my recommendation in this case) and blast your brain with a truly strange movie made by real artists.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Josef Von Sternberg thought very extensively about the effects he wanted in THE SCARLET EMPRESS. He wanted to push the cinematic effects to show the huge Russian Empire and to show the spirituality of the Russo Orthodox Church. Therefore the visual effects of THE SCARLET EMPRESS are quite striking, as is the anachronistic sound track (the music by Anton Rubinestein is very religious, but it is not from the middle of the 18th Century but from 100 years later). His use of candles - literally hundreds to get an idea of the Russo Ortodoxy of 1760 - works quite well to display the pageantry of the religion. And note the gargantuan doors used in the Royal palace.

    In THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT, the story line suggested that Elizabeth Bergner's Catherine did fall for a handsome looking, but unstable Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). But in reality Peter was an unstable and cowardly figure. Sam Jaffe's performance is far closer to Peter III of Russia (although one of his lines, when he says: "I hate my wife" is done too crazily to be realistic). He does look forward to ruling Russia, in order to send his wife (after a divorce) to a convent, and to marry whomever he wants.

    But even Jaffe's Peter was not quite the historical one. Peter III may have been insane, but he had a tremendous affection for Prussia and it's ruler, Frederick the Great. Russian foreign policy in 1760 was that of Tsarina Elizabeth (Louis Dresser in this film). The Empress was allied with the French and Austrians against Prussia. One of the major policy changes that Peter III brought was to end this alliance with France and Austria. It affected Prussia's precarious position in the Seven Years War, and enabled Frederick to reorganize and defeat the Austrians and French. None of this is mentioned in either of the two films.

    What Von Sternberg did get right here (not as well developed in THE RISE) was that Sophie/Catherine took the time she was married to the Grand Duke to study up on the Russian people, their religion, their customs. She was a very sharp woman (as her handling of the government would eventually show). Also Sophie/Catherine used her feminine abilities to make inroads with the nobility and military leaders, such as the fictional Count Alexei (John Lodge) and the real Captain Gregori Orlov. Many did become her lovers. One of them may have fathered the boy who would one day become Tsar Paul I of Russia This is hinted at in THE SCARLET EMPRESS (the scene where Jaffe is congratulated about his new heir gives that performer a chance to be quite indignant - a welcome change from his insanity characterization). Marlene Dietrich's cool beauty and wits come across as Catherine learns the fundamentals of her new country, and becomes fully prepared to take it over from her incompetent husband's hands.

    I liked THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT, but THE SCARLET EMPRESS is a better done movie on all sides.
  • An innocent & obscure German princess is sent to Russia to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. Her romantic dreams are shattered when she finds her new husband to be a childish imbecile. Quickly growing wise, she soon begins taking lovers from among the military guard. So begins the legendary life of Catherine, Tsarina of Holy Russia, The Messalina of the North, THE SCARLET EMPRESS.

    A riotous feast for the eyes, this is one of the great, unheralded films of the 1930's - enthralling for its visual impact alone. Seldom has an American film been filled with such lush imagery - tactile, grotesque, fascinating. The Russian royal palace is a charnel house full of ghouls & gargoyles - human & artistic. The actors share the scenes with fantastic statuary, twisting & writhing in silent, unspeakable pain. (Notice the tiny skeletons on the dining table.) Everywhere is death, moral decay & barbarism, even in the most powerful court in Europe.

    At the center of this ossuary is the gorgeous Marlene Dietrich. Her beauty radiates, but never dominates, throughout the film. She is splendid as a young woman in a very dangerous place, who gains courage & great determination in her ordeal. Equally good is Sam Jaffe as Peter; with his leering grin & demented eyes he is the very picture of a murderous madman.

    Louise Dresser, as the Empress Elizabeth, is very effective as a comic bully. John Lodge & Gavin Gordon, as Catherine's military lovers, are both stalwart. Wonderful old Sir C. Aubrey Smith has a small role as Catherine's princely father. Film mavens will spot an uncredited Jane Darwell as Catherine's nurse.

    The highly emotional soundtrack, an amalgam of themes by Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn & Wagner, explodes in the film's final moments into musical pyrotechnics.
  • Two gnarled statues of grotesque beasts make love in the garden, a perverse cuckoo clock exposes female bodily organs, a skeletal figure shot through with arrows twists its face in a silent wail towards heaven. This is the decor of "The Scarlet Empress," furnishings which speak more of the film's themes and ideas than the plot could ever be allowed to. The actors remain intentionally wooden; it's as if the world around them was an expression of their suppressed emotions. Shame takes the guise of chairs, but chairs in the shape of gargantuan, deformed old men hiding their stricken faces in hideous fingers. Masochism is occasionally a clock, lust a decorative food display, but all perverse, leering. And death... Everywhere is a ghastly preoccupation with death, icons proudly display decapitation, skeletons stretch themselves over boiling cauldrons, while ghastly statues of tortured corpses lurk in every shadowy corner. Together this creates a world of painful decadence, a disgusting, yet fascinating dreamscape of visual pleasure.

    All this takes form and depth, is sculpted by director Sternberg's haunting lighting. It is "his" light, he lords over it, and with it anything is possible. He can make a face beautiful or ugly, innocent or evil. He can accentuate a certain side of a person's nature, or how a specific set piece relates to it, all with the proper illumination.

    If his lighting is astounding, equally so is Sternberg's use of the visual motifs in his mise en scene (bells, veils, figures, specific set pieces, etc...) to transport the viewer back and forth through the film. For instance, the binding of Catherine and Peter's hands at their marriage is later echoed by an unquestionably similar knot Catherine ties in a napkin she is fondling, and then tosses onto the table of she and Peter's last meal together. The initiation of their marriage and the initiation of its end are in this way linked, and the audience is forced to take into account the changes in both their characters. Not only does the rhythm of these motifs remain figurative. The movement of the film takes on a distinct rhythm as well. A swinging motif is evident throughout, the bells, the incense burners, Catherine's swing, the hoopskirts, a baby's basket, and so on. In this the film takes the feel of a frenzied, but excellently choreographed dance.

    But in all this there is one thing more noteworthy. Marlene Dietrich radiates! Quite possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived, she begins innocent and virginal (seemingly intentionally melodramatically), standing out in a world of amorality. She is both the happiest and saddest point of the film. Her wedding to the vulgar Peter in an immense, yet claustrophobic cathedral is the most emotional part of the film. As it is filmed entirely in a series of close-ups of individuals, and long shots that blur their faces, there is no discernible eye connection between any of the characters. She is completely alone. As a voyeuristic camera cuts closer and closer to her trembling, veiled face, we suddenly feel the need to turn away. We know now that this last thread of decency is about to be crippled. Soon enough her innocence begins to fade before her sexuality, and the surroundings that once nearly suppressed her, she lords over, a queen of immorality.

    "The Scarlet Empress" expresses the essence of film, and why it succeeds as an art form. It creates the possibility of a world almost wholly artificial, divorced from anything that ever was. It retains only fragmentary reproductions of something that existed in a pre-filmed state, combining and distorting them to effect something 90% fake. What's more that seems all it is interested in. No other artistic medium (aside from painting) is viewed worthy of its visuals, and all theatrical, literary, or other requirements are given little attention. They are flippantly thrown in only to please a narrow minded audience, and occasionally (but very, very rarely) to accentuate the films themes. Yet painting, ah yes, painting. That was a medium worthy of a brilliant visionary like Sternberg, and one he transferred to the screen with gusto. "The Scarlet Empress" is to Dali in its obsession with the bizarre, da Vinci in its detail, Picasso in its complexity of associations, but entirely Sternberg in its conception.
  • I am a hypocrite; I only like movies which have great dialogue. My hypocritical exception is "The Scarlet Empress." You won't find great dialogue here, but don't fret; to ME, the dialogue is insignificant. This one must be SEEN to be appreciated.

    Director Josef Van Sternberg, dubbed (correctly) "A lyricist of light and shadow" by one critic, proves this point in "Scarlet Empress" more than in any other of his films. Sternberg also knew he was losing Dietrich, and I like one scene where an actor is made up (from a side view) to resemble Sternberg. This actor is essentially the only one Marlene refuses her bed to, despite having no qualms about bedroom antics with half the Russian court. Sternberg projected himself into the role of Count Alexi, a character who has more screen time than anyone other than Dietrich. Alexi is teased by Dietrich and in the end he, um "doesn't get the girl." Sternberg knew he was no longer getting Dietrich and put this knowledge on celluloid with an awe-inspiring, even malicious fire. There are two things in this film which I really LOVE. The grotesque replicas which saturate the film are of course indicative of how the film will play out. The replicas, I suspect, were not easy or inexpensive to make--which makes them all the more fascinating, horrifying and MESMERIZING!

    The background score. I have never seen a drama from the 1930s which used music more brilliantly than "Scarlet Empress." In a scene in a stable, when there is a chance that the two principals may make love, they are interrupted by the braying of a horse, which had been out of sight of the two. (According to many historians, this scene has much, MUCH deeper significance than it seems.) I cannot write what the historians have told to me on this board. It would be inappropriate. But before the horse neighs in that scene, Dietrich is twirling from a rope, and the music in the background lends immense eroticism to the scene, as does a straw which keeps going into and out of Marlene's mouth. The music combined with the beautiful lighting is stunning! There is also an opening torture scene which features a man swinging to and fro inside a huge bell, his head causing the bell to peal. Then, a quick dissolve to an innocent young lady who is flying high on her swing. THAT is a feat of genius!

    If you can ignore some historical inaccuracies, which I suggest you do, and allow yourself to gorge on the beautiful lighting, music, as well as most scenes, I dare you to tell me that the film didn't MESMERIZE you! A TEN!

    This pre-Production code film is a treasure throughout
  • This is an absolutely amazing film to watch. I have seen several other collaborations between director Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and I think this is the best--mostly due to it being like a giant painting or tapestry that was almost mesmerizing. The film is a rather odd look at a brief period of the life of Catherine the Great of Russia. It follows her from her betrothal (when she is a Germanic princess) to her ultimately killing her husband and assuming the throne--the space of just a few years).

    During the entire picture, what stood out were the amazing sets. The film begins with some very graphic torture chamber scenes that are definitely "Pre-Code" in that they are so frightening and because of the copious amounts of gratuitous female nudity. While this never could have been allowed once the stronger Production Code was implemented around 1935, it is a captivating and bizarre introduction to the movie and it certainly got your attention!! Then, throughout the film, the sets were magnificent and very twisted--almost like they had been inspired by a combination of LSD, Jean Cocteau's version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch! Twisted and grotesque anthropomorphic statues, banisters, candelabras, chairs, etc. grace practically every scene inside the palace--making it look like a combination of Hell and whimsy!! You really just have to see it all to believe it. What was also amazing was how Paramount was able to construct all this without the production bankrupting the company!!! While the dialog and acting is fine, they take a definite backseat to the sets. It's very obvious that Von Sternberg really wasn't trying to humanize the characters or shed too much light on the life of Catherine--it was really more of a work of performance art. And if you accept it as this and NOT an absolutely true recounting of the life of Catherine, then you will be in for a treat.

    As for the historical side of the film, there has long been some disagreement about the coup and subsequent execution of Catherine's husband. While it is almost undoubtedly true she orchestrated it (after all, they made her their leader after Peter's death), what isn't so certain is the character of Peter. Some accounts have described him as half-witted or insane (exactly how he's shown in the film) but others doubt if this was exactly the case--it could have just been propaganda used by Catherine to justify her actions. Plus, when Peter died, some apparently reported this was of natural causes and not murder! Considering everything, though, the film had to portray Peter III some way and the evil half-wit was an enjoyable choice--as Sam Jaffe looked so crazed and made the part come alive with his insane-looking eyes and wonderful delivery! Dietrich herself was also very good (perhaps due to her not being so "artificial-looking" like she was in some of her other films due to excessive makeup), but her performance was definitely overshadowed by the sets and Jaffe

    By the way, I originally gave this film a very respectable score of 8. However, after seeing "The Rise of Catherine the Great" (which was made the exact same year and covered the exact same material), I saw that this Dietrich film was a lot better by comparison. I especially think that Dietrich and Jaffe were a much better Peter and Catherine than Elisabeth Bergner and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the other film.
  • jimi999 August 2002
    The equine theme running through this bizarre, campy, creepy, cynical, disturbingly beautiful bio-pic is quite significant, given the facts of the life and death of Catherine the Great, culminating in the wildly over-the-top final shot. This movie just drips with European social and sexual decadence, and also with incredibly lavish and languid imagery throughout. Dietrich and von Sternberg seem determined to prove that they could make the transformation of a naive romantic girl into a lascivious power-mad monarch somehow heroic, and also that American audiences would lap it up while denying the depth of the depravity they were embracing. This movie succeeds on every level, especially the subversive one...
  • Warning: Spoilers
    By all accounts Catherine the Great was one remarkable woman. The Queen Consort of Czar Peter III of Russia, she got the throne from him in a palace coup d'etat and ruled for 33 years. She was also a woman of some lusty sexual appetites just like the woman who portrays her in The Scarlet Empress. It's what distinguishes The Scarlet Empress from the Alexander Korda production of Catherine The Great that starred Elizabeth Bergner and came out the same time.

    Both tell the same story from young Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst chosen as a bride for the Russian Tsarevitch. But Bergner plays her almost as an innocent though you see traces of the lusty woman Catherine became. Marlene Dietrich loses her innocence and you see a woman who used sex to get her way whether it was political gain or sexual satisfaction that she wasn't getting from the imbecile who was her husband.

    As for Czar Peter, though Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gives a fine performance, we see a psychotic Czar in him. Sam Jaffe is far closer to the truth, the childlike imbecile who was overwhelmed he didn't measure up in the bedroom or the throne room. This film was Jaffe's screen debut, a far cry from Dr. Reifenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle or the High Lama of Shangri-La, all three very different parts.

    In fact historians and scholars debate to this day whether Paul who succeeded his mother was Peter's child or was sired by one of Catherine's many lovers.

    Gavin Gordon and John Davis Lodge play two of her lovers. Lodge was a man like Ronald Reagan who made it big in two different careers. A member of THE Lodge family of Massachusetts, the younger brother of Henry Cabot Lodge, Ike's UN Ambassador, this Lodge left the law for acting and then after Navy service in World War II became a Congressman, Governor of Connecticut, and Ambassador to Spain.

    To me it's tossup between Flora Robson in Catherine the Great and Louise Dresser as to who the better Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter the Great, aunt of Sam Jaffe. Her appetites were as big as Catherine's, but her ruthlessness somewhat less. Like Elizabeth I of England, she never married and produced an heir to the throne, but also no one bothered to keep up any fiction about the Russian Elizabeth being a virgin.

    With some footage from Ernst Lubitsch's silent classic The Patriot, Joseph Von Sternberg crafted one of the better efforts from his collaboration with Marlene Dietrich. He also drove the Paramount Pictures bean counters absolutely crazy by going over budget. The Scarlet Empress was expensive and looks expensive. Von Sternberg spent Paramount's money in a way they could only justify with Cecil B. DeMille.

    Von Sterberg made good use of music to cover many stretches of no dialog. And after seven years of talking pictures, he also used title cards and effectively when 99% of films had dropped them for good.

    Paramount did not appreciate the money they lost on The Scarlet Empress, but Marlene, Von Sternberg, and even the bean counters know now they made a classic.
  • This biopic about the rise of the German Princess Sofia to Empress Catherine of Russia, from naive and deferential innocent to rapacious predator, is accurate only in the broadest outlines. Even the opening credits indicate a loose approach to fact: "Based on a diary of Catherine," "arranged by Manuel Komroff."

    In the first half Marlene Dietrich in the title role overplays breathless awe so emphatically that one can only wonder if she was strictly directed to do so; after her sexual awakening after months of resisting the stirring of her passions by a rakish courtier (John Lodge) and crazed with frustration by her unconsummated marriage to the repellent Tsar-to-be Peter (Sam Jaffe), she melts into the arms of a palace guard during a sudden moonlit encounter.

    It's hard to believe this film passed the 1934 censors, given its open suggestions of out-of-wedlock sex (and subsequent pregnancy); Dietrich's posturings call to mind pre-Code Mae West (who was a friendly acquaintance of Dietrich's on the Paramount lot where they were working at the same time). Perhaps the keepers of the Code were too distracted by the shimmering vision of the blonde icon as lit by Josef von Sternberg. And make no mistake about it, this movie is a paean to Dietrich as a work of art. The "Catherine the Great" plot, scenic design and supporting players are the scaffolding and trappings supporting and surrounding the living goddess.

    These trappings are highly stylized and elaborate as, for example, the Lubitsch-like ritual of Princess Sophia (the future Empress Catherine) kissing the hands of all adults present whenever she enters or exits a room; when she isn't engaged in strictly supervised activities she is kept locked in her bedroom several flights above the main floor of her house; her mother is such a disciplinarian that she scolds the child even when the child obeys. Empress Elizabeth of Russia (Louise Dresser) is introduced on a grand throne in forbidding surroundings decorated with huge grimacing gargoyles festooned with dripping candles and attended by over-dressed lackeys, only to open her mouth and jabber like a bilious small-minded housewife. And the future Tsar Peter whom Sophia is sent to Russia to marry is an imbecile and described as such repeatedly in intertitles in case we miss the point.

    In fact the flow of exaggerations and extremes is more or less constant so that the viewer is alternately hypnotized and amused. If Dietrich is not your cup of tea, the movie will repel you, because it's all about her.
  • Truly one of the greatest films ever made (see the International Film Critics' Top 100 Films list as well). Dietrich was never more luminous, nor cinematography more gorgeous, than in THE SCARLET EMPRESS. It's in black and white, but you'll feel like it's in full and glorious color. History it's not, but who cares? This is the way things should have been.
  • It may be kitsch and the most OTT of all spectacles but it has its own magnificence, (it's a masterpiece of kitsch). There is a delirium about the film that very few film-makers have matched. Today few film-makers would want to. In a way it re-defines camp; it has all the trimmings but with an intelligence and a bravura sense of cinema that lifts it into a different dimension altogether. The 'deliberate' ham acting of most of the cast, the broad American accents and the idiosyncratic dialogue are all at odds with the whole look of the film, its visual extravagance and the huge Expressionist sets. At times it looks like a silent film with its wordless passages and use of inter-titles and like the great silent epics it uses its imagery to propel its narrative.

    It's not about the reign of Catherine the Great, (it ends when she comes to power), but rather it's about her early life at the Russian Court and her disastrous marriage to the mad Grand Duke Peter, (Sam Jaffe, emoting like a demented Ken Dodd). But the plot doesn't seem to matter either. It's as if Von Sternberg only seems interested in the trappings of power, in the minutiae of court intrigue rather than in the intrigue itself, (in this respect it's a bit like Sofia Coppolla's "Marie-Antoinette"), and, of course, in Dietrich he has a magnificent Catherine. Dietrich may have been the greatest 'non-actress' that ever lived. Beloved by the camera, she simply had to react. No director ever had a subject as fetishistically adored and of all their collaborations this was their greatest achievement.
  • ......I saw this years ago, but some of the images-Marlene on a swing, the charging horsemen, the bits w/ Sam Jaffe and C Aubrey Smith, most certainly stand out. It was definitely the director's way of putting his worship of Marlene on display for all to see, Catherine might as well have been Cleopatra or Eleanor of Aquitaine for all the historical accuracy-ha ha-they use.

    This was a movie about excess as much as anything, curtains that go on forever, huge doors, loud music, etc. They just don't make them like this anymore and certainly couldn't afford to then, either.

    I don't think I ever saw Marlene anymore sensual than in this film, and I agree, her idea of playing a 'poor innocent gal'-that isn't put across well at all. Sometimes you just can't fake it, no matter how hard you try.

    *** outta ****, style over everything.
  • Rarely do I respond like this to a film from this era! How on earth this piece of surreal art got made is astounding! The art direction, the costumes, the huge sets and outlandish props, the lighting (so many candles!), the visual effects, the great camera movement. All way ahead of its time.

    And Paramount executives approved all this grotesqueness? Well, someone at Paramount had the sense to allow it all to get the green light! And Sternberg--what medications was he on? The horse symbols well, we can all speculate what was going on there. But insanely as everything is, it is great cinema indeed. Several references I checked called this an historical drama! I was laughing so much through this film, I thought for sure it must be high comedy. The category doesn't matter's just a great camp film and absolutely requires multiple viewings to take it all in.

    I loved Dietrich so much here...those eyes! What actress today would dare to be so effective in non-speaking camera shots...she is so demure and quiet in the opening half of the film! subtle and smouldering underneath and beautiful..Glennon filmed her so exquisitely with his lighting camera-work (Sternberg was also a master of lighting). Just like William Daniels whose camera fell in love with another goddess (Garbo).

    I can't recommend this film enough!! My only complaint is that the opening credits did not credit the art directors,costumes,film editing, etc. nor the great music used (yes they are re-arranged selections from Tchaikovsky,Wagner, etc.) but who arranged it all in the first place? Was it Sternberg? Anyway, superb use of the music for its time.

    An absolutely unbelievable film and the pace never lets up for one minute!!! Some earlier Sternberg entries lagged in places and made me sleepy. Not this one! We will never see anything like this again!
  • Historically speaking, the film must count as one of the grossest abominations in a Hollywood which for the longest time envisioned anything laying east and south of the Danube as uncharted, barbarous darkness. Young Catherine arrives in Russia practically a child, only to be greeted by the scoldings of another overbearing mother, an Orthodox patriarch perched beneath an ungodly gargoyle, and a half-mad imbecile for a husband.

    The whole of the Russian court turns out to be not much different from the vile stories of atrocity she was narrated to as a child, one after another a series of machinations at the hands of the half-mad.

    But of course history was never the purpose for Sternberg, these stories at the beginning of the film he visualizes in the manner of pages from a book. So a fiction malformed from history, a book of images, ostensibly based on the diaries of the real person, in turn a history malformed from the real thing, with Dietrich stage center, shining, radiant.

    It was always Dietrich that validated film for Sternberg, the image of seductive beauty that could seduce beauty from the camera. But in several ways, I feel that Sternberg deteriorated upon joining up with her much like the hapless professor in Blue Angel. His art was tortured before, anguished with emotion, but since Dietrich it seemed to be solely consumed by her at the expense of all else.

    Nowhere is this more evident than here, no pretense about it anymore. Dietrich is quite literally queen, destined to be, and the whole thing around her merely provides the tortured circumstances for the scene of triumph.

    There is so much cacophony when she does finally triumph that it makes you think Sternberg has finally gone unhinged from so much pained adoration, that he doesn't quite know when to separate one feverish fantasy from his own. A cavalcade storms inside the palace and up the expansive staircase, a bell rings, ringing bells across the country, crowds rejoice, that were earlier silently praying, and Dietrich is finally ushered on shoulders into the church swarmed with banners on all sides to be crowned empress. Ride of the Valkyries clangs away in bombast for the duration.

    But this is the thing that strikes the most vividly, the crowning luxurious decadence of the whole enterprise. Even in the grip of what seems like lovestruck paroxysm, Sternberg could envision farther than most at the time. And when he failed, he failed more spectacularly than anyone could, in the most interesting ways to see.

    It baffles. It exhilarates with the sheer monstrosity of the caricature. It overwhelms any sensibility that is fine, any sense of good taste. You will never see more a outrageous depiction of an Orthodox church ever, the frescoes of saints bordering on a surreal that is blasphemous. Or more styrofoam gargoyles in one studio lot palace.

    So the frame is overflowing with anguished, fiendish luxury; but everything that is grossly portrayed here, was actually taking place on that studio lot. Whatever was going on in 18th century Russia, at least this thing was actually happening in Hollywood, that would go to such lengths to envision and stage such a dazzling darkness. A cavalcade was made to storm up a staircase. And there was this woman at the center, flickering before the camera like the flame of the candle she holds at one scene, finally lighting up the place.

    So it is apt to recast the whole thing as Dietrich's journey, mirrored from the other, from her faraway home into the court of a foreign country, with every spotlight on her, every male pair of eyes.

    The first part is sourced out as a kind of Alice in Wonderland; the girl enters a strange world, apprehensive, fearful, a world that would reduce her to size, where she must fit through doors too big, wait for the queen or lose her head, finally descend into a rabbit hole and come out the other end the mother of a heir.

    But in the second part she becomes the Dietrich we know and have come to see conquer with fierce beauty, the Lola that first broke hearts in Blue Angel; the whole film around her transforms into the restless dream that men were dreaming about her. The idea is that she becomes that dream, operating the image from inside.

    It is not a good film all else considered, the overcooked bombast, the intertitles that never shy away from revealing the full implications of the most obvious detail, but it's a mess you should see, just for how madly passionate.
  • Apparently European royalty (especially attractive daughters of royal land rich and cash poor families) shuffled about, intermarrying into other lineages in order to maintain power and prestige. Thus Princess Sofia Fredericka of a not so well off German principality, was sent off to Russia in an arranged marriage with the sadistic "idiot son" Peter, (Sam Jaffe) of the aging, iron-willed empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser), in her hope (Elizabeth's) that their marriage (Fredericka's and Peter's) would produce a son to take over the Russian throne, in order, apparently, to keep Peter from power. Imagine how he must have felt? In any event, Josef Von Sternberg made this "fantasia" (Halliwell's Film Guide, 1995) about that particular point of history, giving it its own life by utilizing just about every inch of available space on the screen to stuff it with courtesans, gargoyles, statues, paintings, horses, etc... and in the midst of it all, the innocent, lovely, smart, witty, scheming, highly seductive Fredericka (annointed Catherine) played by Marlene Dietrich, whose face is photographed (Bert Glennon) behind various veils and other transparent fabrics, as she personally seduces the palace guards and works her way into power, avoiding decapitation by Peter and his host of opportunistic followers.
  • The best directors are adaptable, able to turn their talents to the needs of story and stars. On the other hand, a stylistic individualist such as Joseph "von" Sternberg may be excellent at what they do, but completely inflexible and as such their work tends to be uneven. However, although Sternberg was unable to bend his style to suit the material, there is always the chance that sooner or later the material would come along to suit his style. Enter The Scarlet Empress.

    It may be based on a true story, but The Scarlet Empress makes only fleeting contact with reality. It is a macabre, nightmarish fairytale imagining of history. As such Sternberg can go all out with his bizarre stylisation and disregard for convention. All those things which made a mess of his other pictures – the odd angles, the distracting foreground clutter, the hammy acting – they all fit in here. Sternberg was never one to elucidate plot or draw out emotional depth, and The Scarlet Empress is the one picture where he doesn't really need to.

    In this light, we can actually take time to appreciate the excesses of Sternberg's technique. The early scenes in Germany are comparatively light and airy. When Count Alexei arrives he introduces a swathe of blackness. From this point on Sternberg literally darkens the picture, not just from scene to scene but from moment to moment, for example when Alexei's cloak envelops Marlene as he kisses her. The Russian palace is a surreal creation, more like a bejewelled cave than a building. We can see the fine craftsmanship of Hans Dreier, but he was doubtless directed fairly thoroughly by Sternberg himself. It's shot and lit in such a way that it appears to have no limits, its edges lost in shadow. And as for Sternberg's close-ups! They are strange, wonderful, glittering portraits, worthy of the painted icons that are such a part of Russian culture. The only pity is that Sternberg treats his cast as merely part of the mechanical process. To him, a good actor like Sam Jaffe is simply there to be a grotesque, little different to the stone ones adorning every set.

    The exception is Marlene. Ms Dietrich shimmers under Sternberg's lens. Not only does she stand out more here than any other picture, like a shimmering jewel amid the shadows, this also happens to be her very finest performance. When we first meet her, she is a world away from her familiar screen persona, playing the teenage Catherine as timid, naïve and frail. As the plot progresses she transforms into the smart and confident seductress, and finally emerges as the charismatic empress-in-waiting, and this at last is the Marlene we all know. Her development, though radical, is absolutely believable, and throughout her acting is utterly flawless.

    And then, there is the music. The Scarlet Empress is an almost constantly musical picture, with much of the action wordlessly choreographed to a pounding background score. It is a truly symphonic work, what Michael Powell referred to as a "composed film". And it is reminiscent of Russian music purely in its tone – it has that same cruel, stark quality of Mussorgsky and Prokofiev; music from a culture who get a lot of ice and not much daylight. And yet the composer whose work is most prominently used in The Scarlet Empress is Tchaikovsky, by and large a confectioner of nice but plain melodic pieces. His music fits though, especially the Slavic March, and in any case Tchaikovsky has a lot in common with Sternberg – pretty but lacking in depth. And Tchaikovsky still had his masterpieces.
  • tedg7 April 2008
    A life in cinema leads sometimes to a life of and about love.

    Often its fictional or fictionalized love stories that are in the movie itself. But much more fascinating are the love stories that drive the movie, and for me, the most engaging of these are when a director, directs an actress (usually and actress) with whom he is in love — and sleeping with.

    Sometimes it is subtle, but often not — the way the camera lingers, the way the staging is manipulated, the way the situations are bent in the service of love. The least interesting of these engagements is simple worship, as we have here. But in this case its so extreme it has its own charm.

    The story is that there was a mundane but driven filmmaker, a copyist, and a pretty actress with adventuresome sexuality who coupled. This transformed them both and film along the way.

    She developed a stage persona for him, and he leveraged her and his cinematic worship of her into a career. This was their greatest adventure, probably because after 6 years, he had to do something extreme. We benefit. Now this movie is horrible in all the non-worship parts: the acting, the story are miserable. The score is effective but simply bombastic.

    Its all the visuals that are amazing. Some of this is cinematic in nature, meaning related to the camera itself: lights, placement, movement, occlusion. But the key thing is her face — never her body — in the context of these bizarre images and settings. We start with a child, then explicitly sexual torture, then highly eroticized ripeness. These images set the tone for the larger situation: the entry into the perverted reality of Russia.

    She enters this strange, demented version of the church, with odd gargoyles in ordinary rooms, with immense spaces and gigantic doors, everything twisted a bit. Its based on images and setups from Eisenstein's Ivan films. It leverages the fear we've always had about their strange religion, and their dark sexual intrigues.

    Against this, we have three sexual phases starting with the erotic innocent, whose wondering eyes the camera hypnotically explores. Then we have the open sexual opportunist, the schemer, the favor provider.

    And finally the triumphant hedonist, the white furry goddess whose sexual confident stride charms a nation.

    They aren't the roles or context I would have chosen. That they were engineered so is visually intriguing. Curiously rather than sensuously engaging. But engaging nonetheless. Theirs must have been a bed of negotiation, roles, mercurial power and force.

    Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
  • Though von Sternberg insists he is without influences, the look of this movie suggests otherwise—in the montage, the set designs, the shot angles, and the shadowed palaces, the look of Eisenstein and the expressionists is apparent. The movie is both sophisticated and naive at the same time, in the sense that the photography and lighting are complex and the product of genius, and the script is weak, and the acting is almost universally weak. Marlene Dietrich is not very compelling as an innocent young girl, bewildered by the complexities of the Russian court, but she is much better later on, as she becomes Catherine the Great, because she becomes chilly and in control, much more the Dietrich forté. But it's posing, not acting, for the most part. The movie is an odd sort of Euro-Hollywood neobaroque, in its flood of decorative detail, and its imaginative sets—the Russian detail is filtred through a 1930s sensibility, the icons painted with a new world mannerist twist, and the sets littered with ugly, life-sized (or bigger) sculptures in a supposedly eastern style. There's also a streak of sadism by proxy running through the film, associated with the madness of tyrannical czars and figured in brief sequences flogging and torturing nude women. Add to this the implied voracity of Catherine's sexual appetite as she reviews the troops, and her ambiguous allure dressed in a white version of the cossack uniform. The score is an instance of high piracy, stealing from Wagner and Tchiakowsky and other Russians.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Josef Von Sternberg's outrageous masterpiece featuring Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great and Sam Jaffe as Peter, her half-wit foil. It's a thrilling film full of opulence, with Sternberg serving up his most assured direction. This is the best of the director's collaborations with Dietrich. It's full of bizarre touches, including highly ghoulish art direction, a WAY over the top performance by Jaffe and an almost way over the top performance by Louise Dresser (as a very bossy Empress Elizabeth Petrovna). The cinematography by Bert Glennon is stunning and the Travis Banton costumes are outlandish. The film reaches a near camp crescendo when Dietrich dons a uniform and rallies the Russian army to her aid. It's an insane, brilliantly conceived film. Sternberg produced, had a hand in the editing and also worked on the film's lighting (it would be hard to argue that Dietrich ever looked better!)
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I saw "The Scarlet Empress" many times. On TV, in movie theaters. I cannot simply imagine the world without that film, certainly in my Top Ten Favourites list.

    Style is the first word that came to my mind when I think of von Sternberg (he added the von to his name but he clearly deserves it). And "The Scarlet Empress' is purely "un exercice de style". People often use the concept of "Expressionism" to describe the photography or the ambiance of the film but it is simply because it is not a classical Hollywood movie in style or in atmosphere. There is nothing strictly "Expressionist" in "The Scarlet Empress" as the expression of emotions is definitely secondary to the creation of a style as a "raison d'etre".

    The early years of Catherine the Great (before she even become Catherine the Great) as described by von Sternberg are not corresponding to a strict historical version. This is not the point. This is about the transformation of a woman from a tender, naive and gentle "Prussian rose" into a Machiavelian, merciless praying-mantis, cold as steel, hot as Hell. It is probably a bit stretched, but I find a lot of similarities between the depiction of how Sophia Frederica became Catherine the Great and the personal story of Marlene Dietrich. When she was chosen by von Sternberg for the role of Lola Lola, she was active in German show business for years. At that time, she was a bit plump, more "the girl next door" than "she who must be obeyed". Then, "Der Blaue Engel". Then Hollywood, a few more movies with her "creator" and the woman became Legend, something out of this world.

    in a way, the character played (quite well) by John Lodge reminds me of von Sternberg in front of Marlene. When Sophia Frederica sees the handsome, dashing and fascinating Russian envoy, it is Marlene at the time where she was just another actress in the boiling last years of the Weimar Republic. The Count seduces her, makes her falling for him (easily after she discovered her future husband is a raving maniac looking like a monkey on acid). And then, the brutal wake-up: he is the lover of the reigning empress! The little princess throws her broken heart in the sewer and decides to reject everything she was previously: a bit like what did "La" Dietrich after she arrived in Hollywood. And this is were I see the comparison between the character of John Lodge and von Sternberg. Von Sternberg tried to keep the evasive Marlene under his spell for years, making six more movies with (for) her. But she was far away already, long ago. And the face of John Lodge when he discovers than he will never be Catherine the Great's lover, simply because he played with her heart and betrayed her naive love, is a kind of symbol of the filmmaker losing his grip on his creature. But was she ever HIS creature?

    Of course, Marlene dominates the film. She is radiant, more beautiful and glamorous than in any other movie. She is also excellent. She plays, at 33, the young, virginal princess very convincingly, her great doe-like eyes constantly moving from one surprise to another. After the betrayal of the man she thinks she loves, she becomes a kind of Nietschian character, bigger than life, cynical and ruthless. But the close-up of her face, after she dismissed John Lodge and now waits for the Count Orlov, her new caprice, shows a distressed woman. A woman who was betrayed by her first love, and whose revenge is bitter-sweet, if not pathetic.

    The other actors are all brilliant but Louise Dresser as the empress Elisabeth and Sam Jaffe as the Grand Duke Peter, respectively mother in law and husband of Catherine, are particularly outstanding. Louise Dresser plays herself a cynical and ruthless empress who knows her weaknesses but put the destiny of Russia about everything. Sam Jaffe, well, was the character actor by excellence, able to play a Russian Grand Duke or Gunga Din. His Peter is an absolute maniac but he manages to make him more pathetic and pitiful than monstrous. In the end, he is a poor fellow too small for his own crown. You feel almost sorry for him when he dies.

    Von Sternberg acted as a real demiurge in this movie, controlling/creating everything: lights, camera angles and moves, sets and costumes. It gives to the movie this extraordinary atmosphere not only of total art but of fantasy as well (the scenes of rapes and tortures could not have been made six months later, many thanks to the Hays Code). It is extremely claustrophobic in spite of the size of the sets as almost all the action occurs in the imperial palace which looks like a Gothic castle, Russian style.

    During the wedding scene, one cannot forget the close-up on Marlene's face, her eyes terrified and fascinated as well, and the flame of the candle in her hand bending under her invisible breath, like a heartbeat.
  • I think it was during his press conference for 'Excalibur' at Cannes that John Boorman made the observation that his films were the opposite of 'minimalist' in expression. Like Boorman - but even greater in his command of cinema - Josef von Sternberg didn't want to leave anything to the imagination of the audience - it was all there on the screen.

    I just saw 'The Scarlett Empress' for the first time in almost forty years (albeit on DVD rather than on the screen) and I saw that, of all directors in this great and glorious art of ours, von Sternberg knew how to fill the screen with expression. His is a cinema of light and shade, of scale and gesture, of visual expression on a grand scale.

    The story of Catherine the Great is perfect for Sternberg's hyper- abbreviated style. No messing about here. Catherine has been given a bum steer by the handsome Count Alexei with whom, as a cloistered teenager, she has fallen in love. Her fate is to be married to the imbecile Grand Duke Peter - heir to the Russian throne (Sam Jaffe in an extraordinary debut performance). To triumph over this misfortune, Catherine must use all her charisma and sexual guile.

    The rôle of Catherine is perfect for Marlene Dietrich - who, alone in actresses of the Thirties, was, like Marilyn Monroe twenty years later, an irresistible melange of innocence and raw sexuality. It is fascinating to see the way in which Sternberg takes her from wide-eyed ingénue to worldly-wise seductress.

    But the acting is only a small part of Sternberg's creative methodology. The real genius (not a word I use very often) in this film is its use of decor - arguably the greatest piece of set design in history - to reflect the great historical forces that were at work in this 18th Century cauldron. Once arrived at the Kremlin, Catherine is surrounded by gargoyles and breath-taking interiors - headed by the jaw-dropping enormous throne of the Imperial court formed as a menacing double-headed eagle.

    The Art Direction was done by the noted German Expressionist Art Director Hans Dreier, but Sternberg was noted for having a grip of iron over every part of his productions in this era, so I think we can give him the credit for this amazing piece of visual expression.

    No matter - whoever takes the credit, it is magnificent. The film ranks with 'Shanghai Express' as one of Sternberg's greatest achievements and a monument to creativity in studio cinema of the 1930s.
  • This is Von Sternberg's work - this characterization alone is almost enough to describe this picture. As always, the great Master revels in his love for opulence, grand settings, theatrical acting, sex, intrigues, and violence; and since "The Scarlet Empress" was one of the last pictures to 'escape' the full enforcement of the Production Code, he can do so once more without almost ANY restriction.

    It's nothing like a historical movie, of course - except that it goes roughly along the real events in the 17th century: the young German princess Sophia is summoned by the Russian empress Elizabeth to marry her half-wit son and bring some 'fresh blood' into the decadent czarist line. And Marlene Dietrich is a WONDERFUL sight throughout all the picture: how she 'develops' from the innocent young girl that's still hoping for a beautiful prince into a disillusioned, willful, lustful woman; in the beginning she's almost shocked by the advances of the good-looking count Alexej, who turns out to be one of the greatest heart-breakers of the court - but the longer she's forced to live with her literally abominable demented husband, the new Czar, the more she gets to like the idea that 'every woman in the court has got her lovers'; and so she virtually 'commandeers' all the army officers - something which will help her a lot in the counter-intrigue she's forced to spin against the deadly intrigues of her 'husband'...

    So this is a REAL pre-Code movie (and certainly one of the most pompous and extravagant of all) - and it's got a very interesting and unique aspect to it concerning sex: here, the MEN are the 'sex objects', not only for the formerly innocent Sophia, who's become reckless and randy Catherine - but even for the lustful old empress Elizabeth! The only one who'd shown a similar 'attitude' in pre-Code movies was Mae West... (Who'd in fact wanted very much herself to make a movie about Catherine the Great, but Von Sternberg beat her to it; well, she turned her own ideas into a stage play later on...) So, as far away from any kind of reality as it may be - enjoy it as a Hollywood 'fairy tale' (of the 'nasty' kind...); it's one of the most entertaining ones ever made!
  • Bert Glennon's amazing cinematography is the real star here. The film considered as a whole...ehhh. No big deal. You'd think with the rich source material -- Catherine the Great's diaries, whoa -- there would be a compelling story at play here. But von Sternberg's tiresome obsession with Dietrich results in a lot of lingering shots of his perpetually open-mouthed (?) star that slow down any story to a crawl. And let's face it, Dietrich was beautiful but her acting skills were limited.

    Too bad. It could have been a great film. As it is, an interesting but flawed bit of film history.
  • Josef von Sternberg's overpowering masterpiece is "a visual orgy" unparalleled in the annals of Hollywood history – the ne plus ultra of ornate production design, though Bert Glennon's luminous cinematography (occasionally shooting star Marlene Dietrich through a gauze) is equally irreproachable. Movie critic David Thomson, who had singled out the director among the 11 greatest film-makers in an essay on Howard Hawks in his indispensable "A Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema", wrote elsewhere about THE SCARLET EMPRESS specifically that it is "often hailed as the fullest demonstration of Sternberg's genius…in truth…out of control – and it is not a picture he talks about very much in his self-serving autobiography". This is an early example of rival productions being set-up concurrently on the same subject, but it emerges as superior to the contemporaneous Alexander Korda-Paul Czinner British production CATHERINE THE GREAT in just about every conceivable way (even if it proved a commercial disaster that led to Dietrich being declared "box-office poison"!).

    Marlene Dietrich shines, delivering one of her most nuanced performances, as the young ingénue who believably matures into an ambitious Czarina able to lure men into usurping the Russian throne in her name (even leading them atop their steeds in full military regalia during the virtually dialogue-free climactic storming of the Palace!). The fact that Catherine was being portrayed by Dietrich made it conceivable that the Empress should have been sexually active outside wedlock – something that is not possible with Elizabeth Bergner – to the point of being impregnated by a soldier (I wonder just what the Russians made of this particular turn-of-events)! Although like the Korda version there is also a soldier named Orlof, here he only comes to prominence in the film's latter stages and is even made to murder the Czar (he is played by an unrecognizable Gavin Gordon); for the most part, Catherine's love interest is virile ambassador John Lodge (evoking Clark Gable in his one notable role). Even so, she repays Lodge's night-time tryst with the Empress by doing so herself later with Orlof and is seen playing innocent games with her ladies-in-waiting and personal guards as the old Empress lies dying!

    Remarkably, three great character actors appear right in the film's opening scene in which young Catherine (played by Maria Riva, Dietrich's own daughter) is waited upon by C. Aubrey Smith (playing Catherine's father), Edward Van Sloan and Jane Darwell; indeed, the last two never feature in the film again! The film's acting honors, however, are shared between a debuting Sam Jaffe (as a perennially wild-eyed Peter III) and Louise Dresser (as Czarina Elizabeth; she had previously played Catherine II herself in the Rudolph Valentino swashbuckler, THE EAGLE {1925}); all three leads offer a vastly different characterization to their counterparts in the aforementioned British film. The old Empress has an effete lover here, too, but Jaffe's concubine is somewhat less well defined if more insidious (she keeps coming back into a room she has just left to collect the Czar's toy soldiers: in fact, at one point, Jaffe has his army march inside the Palace because of the rain and they actually seem like a pack of toy soldiers!); incidentally, while one would normally scoff at the prospect of a "half-wit" having a girlfriend (there is no suggestion that she was so devoted to him merely out of a desire to secure her own place on the throne), we only need to remember that Nero had Poppea and Hitler his Eva Braun!

    The early montage showing the oppressive behavior of past Russian rulers like Ivan The Terrible takes full advantage of its Pre-Code vintage: one is shown repeatedly and ruthlessly beheading his prisoners; another is gleefully ringing a bell that has a prisoner tied upside down inside it!; and a bevy of nude girls are being tortured! To alleviate the gloom somewhat, we have the odd but effective instance of comic relief: the old Empress grabbing a turkey leg from the banquet table instead of her sceptre and Jaffe is shown drilling a hole in Dresser's bedchamber to look for Dietrich! Indeed, there is here much less reliance on political machinations (making copious use of rather stilted intertitles to further the plot) and soul-searching this time around on the part of Peter III. Even so, the constant barrage of music on the soundtrack – including such instantly recognizable classical pieces as Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" and Tchaikovsky's "1812" – really adds to the authentic recreation of a past era marked by decadence and violence. Interestingly, some of the crowd scenes were lifted from Ernst Lubitsch's THE PATRIOT (1928) at a time when that director was Head Of Production at the studio!; since that one is presumed lost (outside of a theatrical trailer readily accessible on "You Tube"), it is ironic that the film only survives officially in this 'undignified' manner! Given Sternberg's predilection for shooing in a studio, it is possible that Dietrich's involvement in a film not directed by him at this point, i.e. Rouben Mamoulian's THE SONG OF SONGS (1933), was due to the time it took to construct the elaborate sets!

    The print utilized for the Criterion edition I watched is, sadly, quite weak and grainy in spots: one hopes that this film will one day be revisited on BluRay after having undergone the extensive restoration required; the film's running time is officially given in film tomes as 110 minutes but it runs for 105 here (possibly due to the 4% PAL speed-up factor) – even if the IMDb states it should be just 104!
  • THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Paramount, 1934), directed by Josef Von Sternberg, based on the diary of Catherine the Great, as arranged by Manuel Komaroff, reunites its director with his star queen, Marlene Dietrich, for the first time since BLONDE VENUS (Paramount, 1932). For their fifth collaboration, this ranks one of the most stylish, visual experience ever presented. Capitalizing on the current trend of historical spectacles based on various crown heads of Europe, ranging from Charles Laughton's Academy Award winning performance in Alexander Korda's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (London Films, 1933) to Greta Garbo's take as QUEEN Christina (MGM, 1933) of Sweden, THE SCARLET EMPRESS goes a step further having Dietrich's Catherine the Great competing with Elisabeth Bergner's title role in Korda's own interpretation of THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT (London Films, 1934). With the grand scale Korda-Bergner production no doubt an astounding theatrical success, it's THE SCARLET EMPRESS that stands out with its most outlandish flavor of bizarre extravagance.

    Imitating the basic elements of a silent film epic through its continuous underscoring of classical compositions by Peter Tchaikovsky and Felix Mendelssohn, and numerous inter-titles preceding upcoming scenes of events opening with: "About two centuries ago, in a corner of the kingdom of Prussia, lived a little princess - chosen by destiny to become the greatest monarch in her time - Tsarina of all Russias - the ill-famed Messalina of the North," before its two minute prologue introducing seven-year-old Catherine, nee Sophia Frederica (Maria Sieber) of Germany, in bed being examined by her doctor. With her hopes on becoming a toe dancer, her mother has other plans for this future queen. Next scene reveals the adult Sophia (Marlene Dietrich), swinging on a vine surrounded by other young girls, later meeting with her elders with the news of her forthcoming journey to Russia accompanied by her aunt, Princess Johanna (Olive Tell), and young escort, Count Alexei (John Lodge) for an arranged marriage with her future husband. Upon their arrival, Sophia is met by the outspoken Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who not only renames her "Catherine," but demands the heir to the throne to be a boy. Catherine's girlish dreams for a tall, dark and handsome husband are shattered with the meeting of Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovitch (Sam Jaffe), a royal half-wit, whom she is to marry. The marriage goes on as planned at the Old Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, but the honeymoon is practically over as the couple sleeps in separate quarters. In due time, Catherine is slowly driven to affairs with soldiers of the Russian Army, while Grand Duke Peter and his mistress, Countess Elizabeth (Ruthelma Stevens), plot for Catherine's murder.

    In the "cast of 1,000 players," only a few are credited with their names in lower case lettering, including C. Aubrey Smith as Prince August; Gavin Gordon (Gregory Orloff); Jameson Thomas (Lieutenant Ovtsyn); Edward Van Sloan (Herr Wagner); Jane Darwell (Madame Cardell). The one billed simply as "Maria," is Maria Sieber, Dietrich's real-life daughter, assuming her role as a child. For Dietrich's performance, her role of Catherine resembles of the one played in Rouben Mamoulian's THE SONG OF SONGS (1933) through her interpretation of a shy, soft-spoken innocent convincingly transformed to a strong-willed lady of the world during its second half of the story. Although there's much criticism in regards to Sam Jaffe's portrayal of Grand Duke Peter bearing the physical manner of comedian Harpo Marx, from white wig to wide eyes and hideous smile, Jaffe (in motion picture debut) appears to be more believable with this characterization than the much handsomer portrayal given by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the aforementioned British made version. Had THE SCARLET EMPRESS been filmed as a satire rather than an epic spectacle, how amusing, or embarrassing, this production might have been with Harpo's Grand Duke Peter chasing after Catherine and her ladies-in-waiting throughout the castle. Due to her seemingly more American acting style, Louise Dresser comes across as the miscast Empress Elizabeth. While Von Sternberg might have acquired the services of natural Russian born actress as Maria Ouspenskaya, who would have been perfect as she was in the story about Napoleon (Charles Boyer) in CONQUEST (MGM, 1937 starring Greta Garbo. John Lodge, whose acting style and strong deep voice predating that of future actors Orson Welles or Van Heflin, blends in perfectly with his character of Count Alexi, and nothing more.

    Often compared to the directorial style of silent director Erich Von Stroheim with use of camera capturing the slightest detail, Von Stroheim participation in spectacle finds his actors, Dietrich included, competing with reproduction of 16th century Russian exteriors, sets (compliments of Hans Dreier), costumes, devilish plaster of Paris gargoyles, nude statutes, and thousands of lighted candles. The Von Sternberg method of super imposing, tracking shots over guests sitting by dinner tables and soft focus photography (by Bert Glennon) of Dietrich's facial expressions are evident and expected. Catherine's clattering up the palace steps on her white horse and climatic finish through "1812 Overture" scoring are justly famous.

    Revived often on television through much of the 1970s and 80s prior its distribution on video cassette and DVD, THE SCARLET EMPRESS, has the distinction of being was the only Dietrich/Von Sternberg collaboration ever presented on American Movie Classics (1992-93). In later years, has turned up occasionally here it premiered in 2002 on Turner Classic Movies. Possibly Catherine the Great never lived such a life as depicted on screen but Dietrich of Paramount certainly lived out her role as the Scarlet Empress. (***)
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