The Scarlet Empress
|The Scarlet Empress|
French film poster
|Directed by||Josef von Sternberg|
|Produced by||Emanuel Cohen
Josef von Sternberg
|Written by||Catherine II (diary)
Manuel Komroff (diary arranger)
C. Aubrey Smith
|Music by||Bernhard Kaun|
|Edited by||Josef von Sternberg
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
The Scarlet Empress is a 1934 American historical drama film made by Paramount Pictures about the life of Catherine the Great. It was directed and produced by Josef von Sternberg from a screenplay by Eleanor McGeary, loosely based on the diary of Catherine arranged by Manuel Komroff.
Even though substantial historical liberties are taken, the film is viewed positively by modern critics. The Scarlet Empress is particularly notable for its attentive lighting and the expressionist art design von Sternberg creates for the Russian palace.
Sophia Frederica (Dietrich) is the daughter of a minor German prince and an ambitious mother. She is brought to Russia by Count Alexei (Lodge) at the behest of Empress Elizabeth (Dresser) to marry her nephew, Grand Duke Peter (played as a half-wit by Jaffe in his film debut). The overbearing Elizabeth renames her Catherine and reinforces the demand the new bride issue an heir to the throne.
Unhappy in her marriage, Catherine finds solace with the womanizing Alexei, first and foremost a paramour of the much-older Elizabeth. Rebuffed at this discovery, she takes lovers among the Russian Army to court its favor. When the old Empress dies seventeen years into their marriage, Peter ascends to the Russian throne and takes steps against his wife. Soon Catherine plots and exercises a coup, beginning a reign as Empress that will leave her known to history as Catherine the Great.
Josef von Sternberg described The Scarlet Empress as "a relentless excursion into style". The historical accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of "a visual splendor verging on madness". To show Russia as backward, anachronistic and in need of reform, the imperial court was set at the Moscow Kremlin rather than in Saint Petersburg, a more Europeanized city. The royal palaces are represented as made of wood and full of religious sculptures (in fact, there is no free-standing religious sculpture in the Orthodox tradition). Pete Babusch from Switzerland created hundreds of gargoyle-like sculptures of male figures "crying, screaming, or in throes of misery" which "line the hallways, decorate the royal thrones, and even appear on serving dishes". This resulted in "the most extreme of all of the cinematic representations of Russia". In film critic Robin Wood's words:
- a hyperrealist atmosphere of nightmare with its gargoyles, its grotesque figures twisted into agonized contortions, its enormous doors that require a half-dozen women to close or open, its dark spaces and ominous shadows created by the flickerings of innumerable candles, its skeleton presiding over the royal wedding banquet table.
The Scarlet Empress was one of the last mainstream Hollywood motion pictures to be released before the Hays Code was strictly enforced, and the film depicts topless women being tortured and burnt at the stake. The Scarlet Empress remains one of Marlene Dietrich's most frank and suggestive films, portraying Russia's future queen Catherine the Great first as a wide eyed innocent, quickly becoming a sexually-hungry dominatrix. The film is filled with erotic images and motifs.
Cast (in credits order)
- Marlene Dietrich as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, later Empress Catherine II
- John Davis Lodge as Count Alexey Razumovsky
- Sam Jaffe as Grand Duke Peter, later Emperor Peter III
- Louise Dresser as Empress Elizaveta Petrovna
- C. Aubrey Smith as Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst (father of Catherine)
- Gavin Gordon as Captain Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov
- Olive Tell as Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp (mother of Catherine)
- Ruthelma Stevens as Elizaveta Vorontsova, mistress of Peter III
- Davison Clark as Archimandrite Simeon Todorsky / Arch-Episcopope
- Erville Alderson as Chancellor Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin
- Philip Sleeman as Jean Armand de Lestocq
- Marie Wells as Marie Tshoglokof
- Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Ivan Shuvalov
- Gerald Fielding as Lieutenant Dimitri
- Maria Riva as Sophia (child)
- Box office / business for The Scarlet Empress (1934) at IMDB
- Roger Ebert, The Scarlet Empress Review, January 16, 2005.
- Derek Malcolm, Josef von Sternberg: The Scarlet Empress, May 25, 2000, The Guardian.
- Josef Von Sternberg. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. Mercury House, 1988. P. 265.
- Charles Silver. Marlene Dietrich. Pyramid Publications, 1974. P. 51.
- Robin Wood. "The Scarlet Empress". The Criterion Collection Online Cinematheque.