Monday, November 14, 2011

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934)

A tale about mental instability and lack of a steady head is the story you see in the historical drama The Rise of Catherine the Great. Here we have a British motion picture about the monarchy of Russia in a fine production by London Films in 1934. From time to time it is good to look at what is being made outside the boarders of American cinema, even looking at the finer films produced by our cousins across the Atlantic, as they produce a Hollywood-sized film about love, power, and royalty.

The Rise of Catherine the Great tells of the ascension of small princess to becoming the Empress of all the Russias, becoming known as Catherine the Great. Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner), originally Princess Sophie of what would be the lands of Germany, is arranged to be married to the nephew of the Russian Empress, Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). With the Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) being childless Peter is next in line to rule all of Russia; making their marriage a very significant occasion to greater Russia, but Peter shuns Catherine on their wedding night. With a history of mental instability within Peter, his relationship with Catherine becomes complicated. Peter’s massive mood swings are trying for Catherine, who has become a primary aide for the Empress, and with Elizabeth’s death, Peter is proclaimed the land’s new tzar. Troubles continue between Peter and Catherine, as he grows tied of the throne and of Catherine herself. After a very public affair with another woman and humiliating Catherine in front of many highly appointed people, Catherine comes to stop loving Peter and overnight takes over government, having Peter arrested; having herself being named the new Empress. Her culmination is marred by the unfortunate news that Peter was murdered despite her orders not to do so, discovering the weight the crown has on the head of the one that sits on the throne.

The picture is a slow moving film with little drive and equaled interest in the emotions of the charters. Despite some rather good acting and art direction, the film still plays off like a history lesson. I am sure for its time the film was considered a fine piece of cinema out of London. The direction, the stars, and their acting, as well as the beautiful sets made a grand film. You feel for Catherine, but leaves you wondering why she puts up with Peter, even “loves” him, other than for political purposes. We watch as she grows from an innocent, na├»ve princess into a more mature and determined woman that cannot stand by her dysfunctional ruler of a man. Peter comes off as the well-to-do “gentleman” that cares nothing about anyone else other than himself, making for a fine antagonist. Overall, the drive of the movie (for me) is just not there. While watching the picture and seeing the poor treatment of Catherine, as well knowing the title of the film, I was simply waiting for the conclusion to come rather than enveloped in the story about seeing how control is quickly shifted. The film does end on a powerful note as Catherine cries over the murder of her former husband, showing that despite everything she still had affection for him, and she, as empress, did not want to be stained with this blood.

Produced out of England’s quickly rising London Pictures, the film was directed by Paul Czinner, a Hungarian born filmmaker who had a passion for production. His zeal is displayed in this picture with the fine production quality of the film, doing his best to convey the emotions from his story, the cast, and the artistic vision of the picture.

The film starred three notable names for England, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Elisabeth Bergner, and Flora Robson. Fairbanks, son of the onetime immensely popular silent film star from whom he received his name from, shows off his wonderful acting skill in this picture. Having divorced his first wife, the Hollywood A-list star Joan Crawford, just months prior Fairbanks must not have been at his best emotionally, but that could have played well in this production as he comes across as cold and erratic as the selfish tzar Peter. Bergner, like director Czinner was Hungarian and who both fled to London to avoid the rise of Nazism of their natives lands, was a finely seasoned actress, hailed as one of the finest Shakespearean thespians at a very young age, turning it into a fine movie career. Robson was a well respected charter actor of her time within British motion pictures, known for playing great queens or villainesses.

Altogether The Rise of Catherine the Great was a fine piece of British cinema. In the States the picture was released by United Artists, a studio more open to Hollywood outsiders than others. The film feels like an American film, no doubt with the help of the famous name Douglas Fairbanks Jr. attached to it. A must see movie? No. A good movie? Perhaps. If anything it showed that Europeans could make movies just like the ones in America. But why bother? I personally like the differences European films of the time brought to the big screen. This wouldn’t be one of those cases, but a fine production nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. Could be that expectations are everything, because I had very low expectations for this film but then was impressed. I was lukewarm about the other Korda historical pieces, and this one comes with no big stars. But I really loved Robson, and Bergner was effective as well.

    Looking at the historical context, it's interesting to reflect on an 18th Century story of a German princess becoming a beloved Russian leader, when in the 20th Century a resumption of hostilities between Russia and Germany (a part of WWI) was pretty guessable given the rise of the Nazis and repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles.

    I perked up as the film leaned toward a pacifist message, as was seen a few months earlier in the Garbo vehicle Queen Christina (1933). But in the end Catherine the Great stays pretty ambiguous as to whether it is cheering for war or peace, since Catherine in her Eva Peron pose promises "victory and peace."

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