Marlene Dietrich's own daughter Maria Riva portrayed young Sophia at the beginning of the film.
This film is notable for its prolific use of title cards in the mid-1930s. By the film's release in 1934, film title cards had fallen out of favor, particularly when used to advance the action or plot of a film. Film historians believe that this film has one of the most-frequent usages of title cards since the silent era.
Marlene Dietrich's and Josef von Sternberg's professional relationship briefly soured during the making of this film. Production delays and von Sternberg's controlling directorial style wore on Dietrich, who had worked almost exclusively with the director since her film debut. The film's poor box office showing exacerbated the discord between the two. When production wrapped, both believed this would be their last project together. However, von Sternberg convinced Dietrich to take the lead in The Devil Is a Woman (1935) the following year. Dietrich would go on to say that was her favorite of all of her films and her admiration for von Sternberg returned. They remained lifelong friends.
The film was a tremendous commercial and financial failure at the time of its release. Paramount blamed the failure on the opulence and excess of the picture while the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Given the distance of time, modern critics have come to embrace the film and its elaborately-designed sets and impressive crowd sequences.
The commercial failure of this film was so spectacular that it soured the relationship between Paramount and director Josef von Sternberg. Von Sternberg's contract had stipulated that Paramount was due a film of the studio's choosing following the release of this picture; however, the box office returns were so poor that studio heads released von Sternberg from that commitment. Freeing him from the commitment allowed von Sternberg to complete The Devil Is a Woman (1935).
In his autobiography, director Josef von Sternberg claimed that he borrowed ten feet of film (all of which was a crowd scene) from Ernst Lubitsch's film The Patriot (1928). When von Sternberg showed the film clips featuring the borrowed footage to Lubitsh, he not only failed to recognize his own film, he chastised von Sternberg for "willful waste and disregard of costs."
Film production was reportedly held up for several weeks over Marlene Dietrich's desire to wear a large, fur hat. Costume designer Travis Banton initially refused to relent to Dietrich's demands, because he felt that such a hat was worn by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) and he did not want to copy the design. Dietrich argued that audiences would not remember what Garbo wore; Banton ultimately relented and Dietrich got her hat.
Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
During production, when director Josef von Sternberg's perfectionist style of film making proved to be too overbearing for Marlene Dietrich, Dietrich and her friend and purported lover, Mercedes de Acosta, hatched a plot to convince the director to abandon his grueling directorial style. In a particularly-frosty period of production, when Dietrich and von Sternberg had not talked to one another off set for three days, de Acosta told Dietrich to fake an injury by falling off of a horse. Dietrich did as her friend asked, toppling from a horse during filming and pretending to be unconscious. De Acosta had supplied a "doctor" for the situation and the doctor rushed to Dietrich's side. The doctor claimed she had passed out from overwork. The incredibly-contrite von Sternberg took it easy on his starlet for the rest of the shoot, and their working relationship was repaired.
Paramount had originally settled on "Her Regiment of Lovers" as the title of the film. Censors at the Hays Office, however, forced the studio to change the film title.
Sixth, out of seven, feature-film collaborations between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.
One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. This was released on DVD 8 May 2001 as part of the Criterion Collection, and, since that time, has also enjoyed occasional airings on cable TV on Turner Classic Movies.
Paramount held up the release of this film after it had wrapped for some months, so as to avoid competition with the similarly-themed film, The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934).
The studio considered alternate titles for this film, include: "Her Regiment of Lovers," "Catherine II," and "Catherine the Great."
Although there are no music credits for "The Scarlet Empress", five men worked on adapting/arranging the score. The bulk of it consists of excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (the early German scenes) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (the Fourth Symphony, "1812 Overture", "Marche Slave"). Josef von Sternberg also claimed to have contributed a violin piece to the wedding feast scene.
According to his autobiography, Josef von Sternberg wrote a violin composition for the film. The piece was played by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and included in the film.