Marlene DietrichSam JaffeC. Aubrey SmithEdward Van Sloan
The Scarlet Empress
Medium: film
Year: 1934
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Writer: Catherine II [diary], Manuel Komroff
Keywords: Catherine the Great, historical
Country: USA
Actor: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith, Gavin Gordon, Olive Tell, Ruthelma Stevens, Davison Clark, Erville Alderson, Philip Sleeman, Marie Wells, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Gerald Fielding, Maria Riva, Edward Van Sloan
Format: 104 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 2 November 2011
I watched this because of Paul Magrs's Doctor Who book, of course. How could I not? They're nothing like each other, though. I'd guess the main significance of Paul borrowing the title is a love of Marlene Dietrich.
The movie is a historical about Catherine the Great. There are quite a few of these, to the extent that this isn't even the only one from 1934. The other stars Elisabeth Bergner and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, although I haven't found anyone yet who thinks it's better than the Marlene Dietrich one. I'd be astonished if it were more peculiar. Today's film doesn't have much of a storyline and it's no surprise that it flopped at the box office, but it still stands out a mile for its hallucinogenic set design, fevered sexuality and Dietrich-worship. Historically it stays closer to the facts than you might expect, except that it rewrites Catherine's already lurid life as a three-act fable of power, sexual discovery and the terrible things that happen to innocence.
Like I said, peculiar. I wouldn't exactly call it enjoyable, but it's almost hypnotic.
Its plot problem is an easy trap to fall into if you're trying to turn history into drama. History books work on a completely different scale and quite often their emotional power just doesn't seem to work within a conventional framework of actors in scenes. More importantly, though, the big danger is to find yourself writing stuff just because it happened. The real Catherine II was one of the greatest figures of Russian history and her life was full of drama... but for most of this film she's passive. Almost until the end, she does almost nothing that affects anyone but herself. The young Catherine, then called Sophie, is whisked off to Moscow for an arranged royal marriage, in which her duty is to burp forth a son. She has no other roles or responsibilities. She's defined by her genitals, basically, and she gets slapped down if she tries to be anything else.
This is Catherine v.1, if you like. Dietrich plays her as even younger than her years, childish and fawn-like in a way that often made me laugh. She's also a strongly sexual creature, but in a romantic way. She doesn't act on her desires, or even understand them. She's innocent. She's all big eyes and a desire to be loyal and good, which she learned from an avuncular Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, Dracula).
Most of the film stars Catherine v.1 and her journey is entirely sexual. She learns of men and husbands, which turns her into something one presumes she wouldn't have chosen but nonetheless comes to relish. Is she a villain or a victim? Neither. The question is simplistic, which is what makes the film difficult. Furthermore late on though we jump forward from the mid-1740s to 1762 and the death of Empress Elizabeth, at which point we meet Catherine v.2. This version is a sexual tyrant who takes her pick from the palace soldiers every night and would be a frightening opponent if you crossed her. This makes the film much more entertaining. It's clear that the story will be going places in this third act and it's unlikely to be favourable for anyone who pisses off Dietrich.
Hilariously the film claims to be complying with the Production Code. Clearly this was still a work in progress in 1934 and they hadn't yet decided on a policy about naked women being tortured to death.
That's what the film's saying. It's lurid stuff, but so is everything else here. The set designs are unbelievable. They must be historically accurate, because only a power-crazed despot from the Middle Ages could have thought it up in the first place. There's the throne to end all thrones. There's a cuckoo clock, except with a figure of a nude woman flashing. There are statues so extreme and deformed that they're basically gargoyles. There are banisters so kitsch that I couldn't stop looking at them even when a troupe of horsemen had charged into the palace and was going up the staircase.
Everything in this movie is extreme. It's putting the boot into Russia with such enthusiasm that it comes close to getting across how extreme and unbelievable the historical period really was. Obviously 1930s America wasn't going to lose sleep about bashing Russia, but even so every choice in this film is as colourful as possible. Catherine is apparently "the ill-fated Messalina of the North." (That's the Roman empress Valeria Messalina who according to Pliny the Elder once had an all-night competition with a prostitute to see who could service the most men and who in addition gave her name to the Messalina complex, i.e. nymphomania.) Russia is apparently "a vast empire that had built its foundations on ignorance, violence, fear and oppression." The film also has montages of meaningless killings, torture, topless women and a naked man being used as a bell clapper which transitions into a shot of a girl in a hoop skirt on a swing.
Sometimes this is even funny. You'll love the scene where it's a plot point that hardly anyone can read, including Empress Elizabeth. They even acknowledge the story of Catherine the Great having sex with horses, if you notice who's sharing the screen with Dietrich in her moment of triumph at the end.
Turning to the performances, obviously it's Dietrich's show. She's detailed, funny and so convincing as each of the very different Catherines that you'd swear she was surely just playing herself if they weren't side-by-side in the same film. There's one scene where she even seems to be channelling Queenie from Blackadder II. However the retarded, scary and similarly childlike Peter III is also distinctive and well worth watching, if only since it marks the start of Sam Jaffe's prestigious and Oscar-nominated career.
Is this a great film? I don't know if I'd say that. I think it's a demented achievement, but it's also not particularly involving when Dietrich is still Catherine v.1. Unfortunately that's most of its running time. Act Three is more compelling. However it could be seen as a feminist fable several decades before its time and it's a landmark in the famous collaboration between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg. I also suspect it'll be fascinating on repeat watchings.
"I'm going to tell my mother all about you."