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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


The Blue Angel (Musical Countdown #53)


The Blue Angel (1930)

The Marlene Dietrich of the German-made Der Blaue Engel is almost unrecognizable as the Dietrich that would reign supreme in Hollywood in the decades to come, and yet it was through this film that the prominent image of later years would begin to take shape. The deep speaking and singing voice are absent here, and the face and body are softer, but the role is unmistakably Dietrich.

     The Blue Angel was chosen by director Josef Von Sternberg from the 1905 story “Professor Unrat” by Heinrich Mann as prominent German actor Emil Jannings‘ first talkie. Austrian-born Von Sternberg established his home permanently in the U.S. at age 14 and was already established in Hollywood by the time this project arose. He was selected to guide Jannings through his first sound film because Hollywood was far ahead of Germany and its main studio Ufa at this time. Von Sternberg’s place at Paramount also was thought to be a decent link for the film to reach American audiences. The story, that of a prudish high school professor who finds himself seduced and then humiliated by a cabaret singer, appealed to the two men for separate reasons. Jannings reveled in characters who were subjected to humiliation and degradation as Professor Rath is in The Blue Angel. Separately, Von Sternberg’s disdain for the female sex had him often pursuing stories that illustrated the destructive nature of women. This “erotic humiliation” as one author put it* would be the subject of a number of Von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations.

Jannings would eventually find himself quite unhappy with the picture as it transformed from a film featuring him to one featuring a new star. The role of Lola-Lola, the burlesque singer, was highly coveted and it was not easy for Dietrich to land it with certain members of the studio set against her. The Dietrich legend has often established The Blue Angel as the woman’s first movie, but that is far from the truth. She had been well established on the German screen for years in addition to stage roles. It was in a play “Two Neckties” that Von Sternberg saw in Dietrich what he wanted for his Lola-Lola. Her side role offered up an air of indifference and the costuming allowed for her figure to be evident as well –a necessary attribute for the scantily clad Lola-Lola. Von Sternberg began his work that would continue in their films to come of lighting Dietrich in a specific way as to bring out the best shapes of that unique face (the star would later be falsely rumored to have had dental surgery to create the hollows beneath her cheekbones). The director primarily lit her from above, which accentuated her brow and made smaller her nose. Three “dinkie” lights were used in close ups to slim her nose as well. A Rosher Bullseye lens was employed to bring the actress’ eyes into sharp focus while letting the rest of her features appear soft.

The plot follows Professor Rath, whose disrespectful students like to call Unrat or “garbage”, as he tracks the source of his pupils’ “pornographic” postcards to The Blue Angel night club. There he finds the subject of the photos, Lola-Lola, and is taken aback by her upfront sexual attitude while lolling in her dressing room. Having left his hat behind and taken Lola’s panties with him instead, Professor Rath is forced to return the following night. This time he defends Lola from the advances of man looking to turn the gal into a “champaign hooker” and Lola is impressed by his protection of her. After too much drink, Rath spends the night. Reaching school late the next day, his students mock his love of Lola, which they witnessed at the club, and the professor is asked to resign. He seeks Lola’s hand in marriage and takes to the road with the troop.

Five years pass and we see Rath applying clown’s makeup while Lola traipses about in housewife garb. Rath appears incredibly worn down and old while Lola still radiates youth. The troop manager/magician informs the couple their next stop is the Blue Angel where they are sure to profit off Rath’s hometown acquaintances coming out to see his new profession/disgrace. Rath tries to resist but Lola insists upon the performance. Once back at the Blue Angel, a french performer stays on when he eyes Lola and begins to chase her about in front of her husband. Now depressed into an unmoving trance, others must apply Rath’s makeup and wig and lead him onstage where he is thoroughly made a chump. Offstage, Lola is allowing the Frenchman to seduce her and spying this, Rath leaves the stage to strangle his spouse and fight others. The sequence is the most uncomfortable in an already unpleasant story as Rath crows as a crazed rooster while Lola and others scream and spectators take on expressions of horror. Rath eventually stumbles into his old classroom and dies gripping his desk.

Throughout the first half of the story an ever-silent and emaciated-looking clown figure often walks through the dressing room eyeing the initial contacts between the professor and Lola. His expression, emphasized by makeup, is one of sheer sadness as if he is witnessing what once happened to him at the hands of this siren, which perhaps is substantiated by Rath’s later stage role.

The English-language version of The Blue Angel was filmed simultaneously with the German one but the latter has become the preferred version as the strong accents of some actors make the English take difficult to understand at times. Dietrich is the most comfortable in the English rendition as her speaking of the language is quite adept and her character even suggests that it is her native tongue. Jannings can be a challenge to understand, and he mingled German in with his English lines further complicating matters. Many of the side characters’ lines and any background chatter is also maintained in the performers’ native language. Although the version destined for America cuts away from a stage performance by Lola that shows the woman’s skirtless backside, it maintains all other scenes depicting the undergarment-laden singer. Another variance is in the lines of the most notable song of the movie: Falling in Love Again. In German the words translate to “From head to toe/I’m made for love…for that’s my world/and nothing else at all.” The more cynical English version is “Falling in love again/never wanted to/What am I to do?/Can’t help it.”

Besides being a terribly unhappy story, The Blue Angel is essentially flawless. All performances are quite compelling and standout above the more technical aspects of the film that merely act to propel the story forward. As predicted, The Blue Angel did launch Dietrich’s international intrigue, and she took to Hollywood the night of the film’s premiere. She would leave behind a husband and daughter as she began work on other Von Sternberg pictures, but they would join her in Hollywood years later.

This post is part of the Musical Countdown onWonders in the Dark that runs through Nov. 10.

*Source: Marlene Dietrich (Applause Legends Series) by Alexander Walker

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