Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

For director Josef von Sternberg’s sixth pairing with actress Marlene Dietrich we see a very stylized view towards the story about the rise of Catherine the Great, Russian monarch of the eighteenth century. Earlier in the year of 1934 we had seen a historical drama about Catherine II in the British film so eloquently entitled The Rise of Catherine the Great, but here in von Sternberg’s film, The Scarlet Empress, we see a different interpretation, supposedly inspired by the diaries of Catherine herself. The picture is elaborate with stylized, dark undertones, making for an interesting collaboration between director and star.

The Scarlet Empress is a historical drama about the rise of Catherine the Great, from humble, na├»ve noble lady, to tormented duchess, and finally overthrowing her husband, the tsar, to become Empress of Russia. Marlene Dietrich plays Sophia, a young daughter of a German prince who is arranged to marry the Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). It was by the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) by which Sophia was appointed to marry the Grand Duke, purely for the reason of producing a male heir to the throne. The great overbearing nature of Elizabeth, who renames Sophia Catherine to change one of many things in her life to Hellenize her into becoming more Russian, and the pure lack of interest by the buffoon of a Grand Duke, crushes the idea of love in the head of Catherine (err… Sophia. No, let’s stick with Catherine). To fill her interests Catherine shares an affair with the handsome womanizer, Count Alexey (John Davis Lodge), followed by many more affairs with members of the royal army. After the passing of the Empress and the demented nit wit Peter is proclaimed Tsar, Catherine is further tormented by her husband until Catherine uses her favor with the army to overthrow Pater and be proclaimed the new Empress.

The story itself is rather shaky at time, suddenly jumping forward in time, using title cards explain circumstances and to further the plot, and the overall ensemble of characters who are rather unlikable. What saves the production are the visuals that von Sternberg bring to the screen. His use of light and shadow, as well as the overall feel to the set pieces give the film a stylized feel to the historical Russian setting. With many dark visuals including various grotesque gargoyles, extremely large doors that take a a gathering of people to open and close, and even the human skeleton as one of the centerpieces at the wedding feast, von Sternberg allows the art direction to create a sense of discomfort for Catherine as she is in a place far from where she grew up. No one else knew how to light the beautiful Dietrich like von Sternberg either, creating a heavenly glow on a woman that becomes powerful for her seductive nature, she cultivates through the picture.

This would be the sixth of seven pairings between the director and actress going back to their first film together, the 1930 German picture The Blue Angel, an international success on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. No doubt the two were a strong team together, but it was not all peaches and cream on set. It is know that they had loud, animated arguments on set many times, to the point where they would not talk to each other unless they absolutely had to. Usually the silence would cease when Dietrich would fake passing out and von Sternberg would come to her aid apologizing for the mental strain he put on her. In any case von Sternberg was exactly what his name implied, stern, while Dietrich was a marvelous star of great seductive quality for the screen. The two made a great team for Paramount pictures while together.

In The Scarlet Empress we are introduced to Sam Jaffe for the first time in his film debut, playing the madly buffoonish Peter. Jaffe’s sadistic, mad look that he gave as Peter can rub one the wrong way at being too over the top, with his very silly grin, but no doubt it portrays Peter as being absolutely unstable in the head. Joining the cast as well is John Davis Lodge as Count Alexey, the handsome, angular nobleman/soldier who shares the affair with Catherine and inspires her to discover just how powerful she really is. The character of the Alexey is villainous one as he breaks Catherine’s heart, but aids her in her rise to power. Lodge would not be known for his Alexey or any other role he played in his acting career, for he would eventually turn his eyes to politics, serving in Congress and even as Connecticut’s governor in the future.

The production of The Scarlet Empress would be a modest one, not nearly as successful as Shanghai Express, Dietrich and von Sternberg’s great commercial success together. However this would be by far the most wonderfully stylized picture they had done with each other. It would seem that the team, though still very creative and attractive to the movie going audience, was on the downhill of their collaborations. They would produce one more picture together in the coming year with The Devil is a Woman.

This film, of course, had many of its own issues. The credit of being inspired by the diaries of Catherine II is quite a statement, as the production team took many liberties with actual history of the matters and stories. The film was also one of the final pictures produced during the time when the production code was taking control over Hollywood, censoring studios and what is seen in motion pictures. The film contain many brief moments of nudity, as well as grotesque imagery deemed morally objectable by the League of Decency, a Catholic organization that would officially condemn the picture. I’m sure Dietrich’s sexual advances on many soldier in the film also played a part in the condemning as well.

Overall the film is mediocre at best. For the fine film aficionado you can enjoy yet another von Sternberg/Dietrich pairing, as well as the masterful art direction and von Sternberg’s creativity. To the simple movie watcher, this is one to pass on. It can be very silly and over the top with its character actors playing rather impractical two-dimensional roles. It is not Dietrich’s or von Sternberg’s best, nor does it make them seem any better than the work they had already produced. It takes a little effort to get through this film. For those who can sit through it please try to enjoy. Many critics seem to enjoy the film, but I find  it hard to believe other than those that enjoy watching films of elaborate royalty in old movie will truly take pleasure in this motion picture.

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