The Scarlet Empress – 104min – Approved
German princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) is chosen by the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) to Mary her half-wit son Grand Duke Pete (Same Jaffe) in order to produce an heir to the throne. She is brought to Russia by Count Alexei (John Lodge) a suave member of the court who has designs on the young princess. She arrives and the Empress renames her to Catherine makes her life a living hell, and her husband is a dim wit and wants nothing to do with her. She looks to Alexei for comfort but finds out he is the Empress’ lover. She then finds comfort in the arms of the officers in the Russian Army. When the Empress dies after 17 years, Pete takes the throne and decides to remove his wife, the Russian Army backed Sophia in the power struggle and she became Catharine the Great. This story was put together with great liberty from a journal and many of the facts were adjusted to make a better story.
First and foremost I just want to say what a wonderful actress Marlene Dietrich was. In this roll she had the naiveté of a country girl who is not very experienced in the ways of the politics of court or of sexuality. She then towards the end shows us a woman who has been beaten up and proves to be stronger than the things that she is up against. She uses her knowledge of court and successfully runs a country. She is also a very attractive woman and looks completely innocent at the start of the film and then transitions into a woman of sensuality and power. She is truly stunning to watch. Josef von Sternberg has a wonderful grasp of the fell of the two settings, at the start of the film we feel warmth in each shot and an great feel of comfort from the images, as we enter Russia the images get a darker feel and they start making the viewer more uncomfortable. Sam Jaffe is Very troll like in this film, I recognized him but only just. He does a wonderful job of making Pete an unsavory character.
As the Last feature length film distributed before the Hays Code became the standard, I saw some things in this movie that I would not have thought I would see in a black and white film. When I went through film school I learned about the hays code and how that affected Hollywood. I grew up in a post code world so in my mind all black and white films were tempered with the code. It was refreshing to see a film that was timeless in its themes. Even though this movie was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for its “morality” it does have a lot of great cinematography and set design as well as an outstanding cast.
My take away:
Marlene Dietrich was a hottie and an excellent performer. I loved the work that Josef von Sternberg did with the scenes of this film. His dark and broody castle and overly exaggerated castle sets gave the Russian Empire an evil subtext. Setting and set design are vital to a production, when you see the family house at the beginning of the film and look at the Russian imperial palace you can see the huge difference in look, feel, tone and perception.