logo2.jpg
   THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934) 

[Get the Poster]

CAST
Marlene Dietrich
John Lodge
Sam Jaffe
Louise Dresser
C. Aubrey Smith
Gavin Gordon
Olive Tell
Ruthelma Stevens
Davison Clark
Erville Alderson

DIRECTED BY
Josef von Sternberg

PURCHASE


DVD




About Dietrich




Glamour Collection




Time: 104 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Drama/Romance


SYNOPSIS: The radiant Princess Sophia Frederica gets taken to Russia, renamed Catherine, and married off to the Grand Duke Peter. Peter is "a royal half-wit" with all the physical (and intellectual) appeal of a halibut. Luckily, even before the wedding Sophia-Catherine has already fallen in lust with the handsome, womanizing emissary Count Alexei, the first of many uniformed conquests.

BOTTOM LINE: This sixth pairing of Dietrich with director Von Sternberg has to be one of the strangest epic romances to ever grace the screen. Von Sternberg's love for his leading lady is showcased in every frame of her lovely, perfectly lit face. Her transformation from a naive, pampered, young princess to empress of all Russia is what keeps this intensely wacky interpretation of history afloat. Unfortunately, through much of the film she's a mere pawn to the wims of others and isn't allowed to show much intelligence or ambition – unless she's trying to woo a soldier into her bed. For good or ill, the film focuses on the sexual side of her life, leaving the character quite one-dimensional, despite the flair and charisma Dietrich brings to the role. From the instant she shows up onscreen there's just something entrancing about her, which I believe is part star power and part direction. Whether's she's talking or not, she's the focal point of every scene with everyone else playing sloppy seconds.

She has OK chemistry with John Lodge, who plays her first lover Count Alexei, but their connection fails to really ignite the screen. He helps her become a woman and is then supposedly jealous when she tosses him aside for fresh blood. However, he failed to convince me of his passion for her, which leaves the romance angle a bit flat. Sam Jaffe stands out as her outlandishly odd husband, the Grand Duke Peter, who's more interested in his toys than his new wife. The wedding scene, where he looks like a deranged Harpo Marx, would be funny if it weren't so tragic. One can hardly blame Catherine for taking lovers when you see who she was forced to marry. Granted, arranged marriages were the norm back then, especially for royalty, but this crazy bastard would be hard to bed for even the most cynical of princess's. Jaffe manages to be both childish and creepy, which only adds to the gothic aura of the piece. He steals every scene he's in, but not always in a good way.

The only other actor to stand out is Louise Dressner, who plays the Empress Elizabeth, the current ruler of Russia and the woman who makes Catherine's live a living hell. With no heirs of her own, she is forced to take a firm interest in the relationship of her nephew and his young bride. She knows he's crazy, but still faults Catherine for failing to get pregnant and secure the future of the Romanov dynasty. This is a great part, unfortunately, Dressner is completely miscast. You can dress a woman up, but clothers can't turn her into a lady – or an empress. All bluster and no class, she made me wince everytime she opened her mouth, which unfortunately was a lot. She has the most lines and tries to use swagger to convince you of her power, but it just doesn't work, making many scenes just painful to watch. If the camera didn't love Dietrich so much, she would have disappeared under the weight of this performance.

Will the acting is uneven and the plot a bit one-dimensional, the art direction, costume design and cinematography outshine most of the films of this period. The attention to detail is astonishing, if more than a bit bizarre especially when it comes to the dining room set. Clearly, von Sternberg wanted to transport the audience to a different place and time and he does that well, though I'm sure his ideas are quite far from the actual reality of palace life. The castle is large, cold and oppressive, filled with gothic imagery designed to make you feel like you're in another world or stuck in a strange dream that you can't wake up from. It's disorienting and plays like another character in the piece. It reflects Catherine's isolation and fear of her new life perfectly.


"If you must know, I haven't had enough time to recover from the shock of finding my husband a trifle different than you described him."

Despite being annoyed by her, once Dressner disappears from the film, it loses it's energy and quickly moves to its' inevitable conclusion – Catherine taking over the throne. The problem is that the film never devotes enough time to developing her character – into turning her into a real, complicated and competant woman – to deliver any satisfaction by this turn of events. Sure, she has to be a better ruler than her crazy husband, but I found it hard to care. Her character is flighty and elusive through much of the film, more a bystander than a player in the quest for power, that as luminous as she appears, in the end, she fails to make a lasting impression. It's a film to watch if you want to see what star power is all about, but it's certainly not one of her better acting efforts. A visually stunning, yet emotionally empty historical drama that fails to excite either the mind or the heart.



home | reviews | actors | actresses | film heaven | all reviews