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SCARLET EMPRESS, THE (director: Josef von Sternberg; screenwriters: based on Catherine II’s diary/Manuel Komroff-arranged the diary; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editors: Josef von Sternberg/Sam Winston; music: Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky; cast: Marlene Dietrich (Princess Sophia Frederica/Catherine II), John Lodge (Count Alexei), Sam Jaffe (Grand Duke Peter), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizabeth Petrovna), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince August), Gavin Gordon (Capt. Gregori Orloff), Erville Alderson (Chancelor Alexei Bestuchef), Marie Wells (Marie Tshoglokof), Ruthelma Stevens (Countess Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’), Gerald Fielding (Lt. Dmitri), Olive Tell (Princess Johanna Elizabeth); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Josef von Sternberg; The Criterion Collection; 1934)
“Von Sternberg’s most realized film that combines a brilliant spectacle of royal pomp and mise-en-scene with Harpo Marx-like silent comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on Catherine II’s diary (though mostly fictionalized it’s nevertheless believed to be an accurate account of events), Josef von Sternberg’s (“The Blue Angel”) visually stylish dramatic masterpiece tells the intriguing story of Russia’s 18th-century monarch. She was transported from Prussia to be married to the half-wit Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). She was nicknamed Catherine the Great when she eventually ruled the country with an iron-hand and became a legendary ruler. Her story is chronicled sympathetically from her point of view from her innocent romantic beginnings as a child to being crowned empress in a palace coup when she uses sex as a weapon to manipulate those around her to eliminate her imbecilic tyrant hubby. It’s von Sternberg’s most realized film that combines a brilliant spectacle of royal pomp and mise-en-scene with Harpo Marx-like silent comedy, but nevertheless comes through as a hard-hitting attack on the corruption and venality of monarchy. Stringing the narrative together to make it lucid are a number of intertitles. The team of von Sternberg and the sexy Marlene Dietrich were in good form in their penultimate film, which is their most stirring and sexiest film (Dietrich was never more glowing and appealing, as von Sternberg takes pleasure in shooting many close-ups of the beauty).

The Prussian princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) in 1744 is told by her royal father that it has been arranged for her to marry the grand duke of Russia. The Russian Count Alexei (John Lodge) bearing valuable gifts represents the Russian empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) and escorts her on the seven week journey to Moscow. Sophia is accompanied by her nagging mother, who goes gaga over the great honor bestowed upon her family. On the journey, the dashing Alexei kisses Sophia and proclaims his love for her risking being charged with treason. In Russia, the haughty empress changes Sophia’s name to Catherine and states she’s been chosen solely to give her a grandson to become Tsar. Catherine and Peter are wed even though they don’t hit it off, with Peter keeping his mistress Countess Elizabeth while Catherine learns fast the rules of the game around the Russian court and takes Alexi as a lover. The empress upset that Catherine is not pregnant, bans her son’s mistress from the court. When Catherine finds the heartbreaker Alexi romancing her much older mother-in-law, she branches out by taking many lovers among the army. On one such encounter Catherine gets pregnant by making it with an anonymous palace guard, and makes the empress happy when she gives birth to a son. Soon the empress takes gravely ill and dies. Threatened with death by her husband, the manipulative Catherine dresses in drag with an army uniform and has her loyal army followers, led by the barracks captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon), overcome the Tsar’s Hessian guard and strangle Peter in his chamber but not before announcing “There is no emperor. There’s only an empress!”.

Despite all the gloss thrown together, von Sternberg makes sure that the Russian empire is shown to be built on violence, fear and ignorance. It’s the kind of film where in one scene the Empress Elizabeth while grabbing for her scepter is mistakenly handed a turkey leg.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”