The Scarlet Empress

Ring a Ding Ding

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

If there ever was a woman to play the ruthless empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, it would be Marlene Dietrich. Much of The Scarlet Empress, however, is marked by the rather innocent time in the young royal’s life, which brings out a delightful side of Dietrich we rarely enjoy.

Dietrich is German Princess Sophia Frederica who is selected by Russian Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) to marry her nephew. John Lodge as Count Alexi escorts the beautiful young woman to the frigid country, encouraging her by saying the prince is fabulously handsome. Once in her new homeland, and renamed by the Empress as Catherine, the girl discovers her husband-to-be is an ugly “half-wit”. She goes through with the marriage to Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) but never sleeps with the man, who tells his aunt he hates the woman. The Empress is demanding a son from Catherine to take over the throne, but it is not until the German discovers the Empress herself has a lover in Alexi that she beds a palace guard. The result is a royal son, but knowing it is not his kin, Peter is enraged.

Once Empress Elizabeth dies, Peter’s insanity grows as he terrorizes the country as czar. He wants to marry his mistress once he disposes of Catherine, but his wife has been busy making sexual allies of every man in the Russian military and is able to overpower her spouse, leading to her reign.

Dietrich is unrelentingly beautiful in The Scarlet Empress. This was her sixth film with Director Josef Von Sternberg –the one who “discovered” her in Germany– and the man had sought to make the most beautiful movie ever. I do not think I would go that far, but it is visually stunning and at the time might have been the most lovely thing to appear on screen. The blonde Dietrich spends the majority of the movie with her mouth open, which combined with wide eyes produces an effect of innocence and ignorance. She stares mystified at most of what she sees and speaks in a breathy voice when she speaks at all. Given Catherine’s subordinate position in the palace, she typically speaks only when spoken to. All that changes, of course, when the queen dies and Catherine takes control of her sexual possibilities and power. She blatantly inspects a military troop and selects a captain as her conquest. He will eventually lead a magnificent storming of the castle with all soldiers on horseback cantering up the palace stairs.

Sam Jaffe as the imbecilic prince is outstanding. This wonderful character actor is not only hideous with his crooked teeth and disheveled hair but his queer manner of speaking that is utterly creepy really makes for a hateable man. His character is infantilized by his mistress companion who is constantly retrieving the man’s toy soldiers from the various rooms where he leaves them. One finds it hard to believe he could have any sexual impulse to need such a mistress, given his seeming level of immaturity.

The fantastic sets add a whole other layer of bizarre to the movie. The palace is filled with grotesque statues of disrobed, decrepit men, some holding candles, others acting as chairs. Any young woman entering such a setting would be terrified, but Dietrich as Catherine takes it all in the stoic fashion required of a young woman in those days.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

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