Take a Drink: for boobies- bet you didn’t expect to see those
Take a Drink: whenever the movie slams Russia
Take a Drink: for plot-dumping intertitles
Take a Drink: for kinkiness
Do a Shot: for dashed hopes and illusions
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Catherine the Great is a fascinating historical figure just sitting there waiting for a quality biopic. She was one of the most powerful women in history, seizing the Russian throne from her halfwit Russian husband even though she was a German who married into the royal family, then going on to build her adopted nation’s glory to arguably the greatest it’s ever been. Along the way, she was a liberated woman, with a legendary sexual appetite and several illegitimate children, even though she looked kind of like Jeff Daniels.
Of course, on film she always looks like this.
Most of her biopics focus on the earlier, ostensibly sexier, part of her reign, and The Scarlett Empress is no exception. The young, naive Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) is promised to, as described to her, the dashing heir to the throne of Russia. However, she arrives to find that her Peter III is a hateful halfwit (Sam Jaffe) under the thumb of his tyrannical mother, Empress Elizaveta (Louise Dresser), who gives Sophia her new name, Catherine, but soon becomes livid at her inability to provide an heir. Veil lifted, Catherine begins her own maneuvering in the throne room and the bedroom, to ensure her life and eventual reign.
While on paper this historical epic and the narrative more or less follows the particulars of Catherine the Great’s winning of her crown, in practice director Josef von Sternberg turns it into a dark fairy tale that would make the Brothers Grimm proud. Catherine goes from virginal innocent (not in Marlene Dietrich’s wheelhouse) to disillusioned, conniving sexual carnivore (all up in there), in a world that doesn’t resemble ours so much as one that stout Germanic mothers create to terrify their children.
Oh, won’t clean your room, will you?
The set design is spectacular, full of doors it takes a whole crowd of women to open, many imposing to the point of ridiculousness chairs and thrones, and positively lousy with nightmare-inducing statuary. This court that Catherine finds herself in is twisted to the core. Josef von Sternberg shoots all this claustrophobically- the closeups at Catherine and Peter’s wedding are masterful- and edits it ambitiously, with sharp cuts and dissolves delineating safety and danger, atrocity and idyll. This was one of the last major Hollywood releases before the Hays Code banished sex, drugs, and ragtime, and von Sternberg takes full advantage.
Dietrich isn’t entirely believable as the starry-eyed fiancee, but she kills it as the scheming vamp, particularly adept at delivering the script’s often razor-sharp dialogue. Even better is Jaffe, who is the very image of inbreeding as Peter III. Beneath that plastered on idiot’s grin, though, is a simmering hatred for his controlling mother and disdainful bride, and he’s got just enough intelligence to try and do something about it.
Bernhard Kaun’s score is over the top even for the time, and not a little schizophrenic. It’s a party! It’s a torture jamboree!
It’s both at the same time!
There’s also a definite political bent to things, as von Sternberg goes out of his way to put down the decadent, wicked Russian monarchs at every opportunity. It’s polemical as all hell, and it’s not even clear why. Solidarity for Communism? Good old fashioned ethnophobia? Whichever, it’s heavy-handed as can be. Even more disingenuous is how the film presents Catherine’s ascension to the throne as a triumph for the common people. Nope, still a monarchy.
Its politics have aged about as well as politics usually do, and its focus is a bit narrow, but Dietrich is a legend for a reason, and few then or now created atmosphere quite like Josef von Sternberg.