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The Scarlet Empress Movie Review

catherine film peter sternberg

1934 – Josef von Sternberg –

In his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, director Josef von Sternberg refers to The Scarlet Empress as “a relentless excursion in style.” If anything, that assessment understates the baroque qualities of this film supposedly based, as the opening titles claim, on the diaries of Catherine the Great. (For the record, historian Carolly Erickson finds only a few surface details—like Peter's toy soldiers—that correspond faithfully to the habits of the characters.) Sternberg is less concerned with accuracy than in putting together a highly ornate, cynical film that appeals to the mind rather than the heart.

The film follows the arranged marriage of Catherine (Marlene Dietrich) to the half-wit Peter (Sam Jaffe) and her eventual accession to the throne of eighteenth-century Russia. When she arrives at the palace, she is a naive girl who spends the first forty minutes or so staring wide-eyed at the splendors around her and at the handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge), her preferred choice to Peter. Though the film was made in 1934, Sternberg seems almost to envision it as a silent film with atmospheric music and little dialogue. He uses explanatory title cards to summarize the various stages in Catherine's maturation (which is basically her fall into the sexual politics and cynicism of the court).

The episodic nature of these scenes impedes identification, as do the magnificent sets and props, which literally dwarf the characters. The sets teem with sculpted gargoyles in the background, on the staircase, and around the throne. The throne itself is in the shape of what seems to be a fifteen-by-twenty-foot eagle with wings fully spread. During the establishing shot for this piece of palace architecture, it takes a while to notice that someone, the elderly Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), is actually sitting on this throne. The old empress gives the film much of its unexpected comedy; she cracks wise like a hard-boiled dame in a 1930s melodrama. When she is told that the French and Austrian ambassadors and their wives await, she waves her hand dismissively: “Send 'em home and tell 'em to come for breakfast. I never did like these diplomatic functions. They lead to nothing.” After complaining about her age and wrinkles, she tells Catherine to leave her bedroom by the secret stairs to avoid running into Alexei, her lover, a little tidbit that shatters Catherine's romantic view of the count.

The movie never gets dull, thanks to its many unexpected touches. Peter, grinning like a monkey, tries to spy on Catherine by boring a hole through the bedroom wall with a drill the size of a javelin (on the other side, the drill bit comes spinning out of the eye of a gargoyle). Alexei is caught passing a love note to Catherine by the old empress, who scolds the two of them like a school-marm and then needs an attendant to read the note for her. In the conclusion that depicts the assassination of Peter, dozens of soldiers storm the palace and ride up the grand staircase on horseback, a truly impressive effect. It is tempting to dismiss a film that is so overwhelmed by all these oddities, but The Scarlet Empress never intends to create sympathy for any of these characters. It is content simply to laugh at them for all their decadent excesses and to have the viewer join in.

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Catherine II), John Lodge (Count Alexei), Sam Jaffe (Grand Duke Peter), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizabeth), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince August), Jay C. Flippen (Hamilton Garth), Gavin Gordon (Gregory Orloff), Olive Tell (Princess Johanna), Ruthelma Stevens (Coutness Elizabeth), Davison Clark (Archimandrite Simeon/Tevedovsy), Erville Alderson (Chancelor Bestuchef), Phillip Sleeman (Count Lestoq), Marie Wells (Marie), Han Heinrich von Twardowski (Ivan Shuvolov), Gerald Fielding (Lt. Dimitri) Screenwriter: Paul Osborn, Borden Deal Cinematographer: Bert Glennon Composer: Josef von Sternberg Producer: Adolph Zukor for Paramount Running Time: 110 minutes Format: VHS.

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