THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934) B/W 110m dir: Josef von Sternberg
w/Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, Maria Sieber, C. Aubrey Smith, Ruthelma Stevens, Olive Tell, Gavin Gordon, Jameson Thomas
From the Movie Guide: "For lovers of cinema, this film is practically a religious experience. Like Griffith's INTOLERANCE, Von Stroheim's GREED or Ophuls's LOLA MONTES, this is one of those masterpieces which contemporaries just couldn't grip. Josef von Sternberg's name was scarlet in Hollywood after he made this costly, indulgent box-office failure, but his work has been entirely vindicated by the passing of time. A highly romanticized rendering of the life of Catherine the Great, from her childhood through her arranged marriage to the half-witted Peter (Jaffe) and her later usurping of the throne of Russia, THE SCARLET EMPRESS represents Sternberg's ultimate recreation of a world from his own eccentric mind. Marlene Dietrich exists in this never-never-land like some incredible goddess who manifests various aspects of human personality and desire, from wide-eyed, open-mouthed innocence through cynical worldliness to political ambition. It's a real credit to Dietrich that she's both credible throughout these changes and ironically distanced in a way that she alone could pull off. The crazed intensity of the film pits her aggressive seduction of the entire Russian army versus Peter's rights as heir and his manic desires. Jaffe matches Dietrich in brilliance with his remarkable facial expressions, whispered lunacies and childishly temperamental displays. Stealing much of the film is Louise Dresser as the queen who regrets passing her throne onto Peter and who attempts to prime Catherine to be a baby machine. She plays the role like a pushy, middle-aged matchmaking mother from the windy Midwest, and it works beautifully. Also worthy of mention is the stunningly handsome John Lodge (who later gave up acting for politics) as the emissary who brings the young princess to the Russian court and later becomes her lover. Delivering his suggestive lines through clenched teeth, he makes an ideal object of desire in the lavish Russian court. As his large dark uniform covers the frame during one seduction of Catherine, we get a striking visual rendering of her initiation into court politics.
"In terms of visuals, THE SCARLET EMPRESS is a symphony verging on insanity. From the cuckoo clock of the woman who exposes herself to the long roving shots surveying a grotesque wedding dinner, Sternberg paints a rich tapestry of decadence. Most memorable of all is the statuary of deformed gargoyles and slaughtered people decorating most of the palace. But it's not just the sets which tell the story here. The staging, frame composition and camera movement produce moments of great beauty as well. Consider the shot showing a locket Catherine discards as it bounces down from one tree branch to another, or the scene where Catherine is being hairdressed and garbed for her wedding. Or, for a saucier moment, notice how Sternberg tilts his camera slightly after Peter strips one of Catherine's soldier lovers of his rank. As critic Charles Silver has noted, with the men's groins now in frame as well, we realize that the soldier wears other medals which distinguish him in the Russian court. Sternberg loves to clutter his frame, using veils, smoke and shadows to distance us from his characters. A portrait of Catherine lounging on her bed as she fingers a screen drawn around her focuses so intently on the netting that Catherine becomes an inscrutable blur enmeshed in her own reverie. Greatest of all, though, in their combination of photography, lights and editing, are three moments whose emotional impact comes from the filming and not the writing. As a child Catherine [played by Dietrich's own daughter, Maria Sieber] is told of the powers and horrors of ruling, and she envisions an incredible montage of torture scenes, climaxing with the unforgettable shot of a man being used as a clapper inside a giant bell. (The dissolve which links this scene to the next is unforgettable.) The finale, meanwhile, done largely without dialogue to the strains of 'The Ride of the Valkyrees,' builds great momentum as Catherine rides her horse up the palace steps to declare her ultimate triumph. But the scene of scenes is Catherine's wedding to Peter. A frame jammed with crosses; powerful cuts between the pleased queen, the helpless emissary, the eccentric Peter and the desperate Catherine; the lingering, increasingly tight closeups of Dietrich behind yet another veil --- what can one say? See this film on a large screen and in 35 mm if at all possible. The film does justice to the visual possibilities of cinema as few others have done, so do justice to the film when watching it."