The Scarlet Empress [DVD]. A Paramount Picture; Adolph Zukor presents; based on a diary of Catherine II, arranged by Manuel Komroff; directed by Josef von Sternberg. Criterion collection v109. Originally produced as a motion picture in 1934. Photographed by Bert Glennon; art directors, Hans Drier, Peter Ballbusch, Richard Kollorsz. Performers: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith.
Summary: Catherine, a German princess, is married to the Grand Duke Peter, the heir to the Russian throne. Because of his madness, she was able to seize the throne and become known as Catherine the Great.
Of all the films Marlene Dietrich made with director Josef Von Sternberg – seven in all – it’s The Scarlet Empress that’s most deserving of the epithet cult classic. Over-the-top by the standards of any era, the film was a box office and critical flop, and it’s not difficult to see why, given that audiences in the early Thirties might have expected a romantic historical melodrama along the lines of Queen Christina of a year before . TSE is certainly one of the strangest movies this writer has ever encountered, but on the other hand I suspect subsequent viewings will be rewarded handsomely by way of the film’s detail-rich, über-stylish direction from the auteur’s auteur, Von Sternberg.
Indeed, and no disrespect meant toward La Dietrich – she does look radiantly gorgeous in every scene she’s in – it’s really director Von Sternberg’s show, ably assisted by set designers Hans Drier, Peter Ballbusch, and Richard Kollorsz. The thunderous score comprised mostly of thick swaths of Tchaikovsky intermixed with snippets of Wagner and Mendelssohn is also a plus. Ditto for Travis Banton’s exaggeratedly imperial chic costumes.
Marlene is a wonder but as depicted here the character of Catherine has little to do but look beautiful. The true Dietrich persona doesn’t kick in ‘till about two thirds of the way through the film, especially the final scenes in which she’s befrocked in the martial white-on-white outfit for the final peroration.
But it’s really the supporting cast that walks away with acting honors, especially John Lodge as Count Alexei and Louise Dresser as Empress Elizabeth. Lodge in particular shows great screen presence, and he and Marlene have an edgy, icy chemistry. As for the other noteworthy performance, I was never won over by Sam Jaffe’s Grand Duke Peter, an interpretation which hovers perilously close to high camp buffoonery intermingled with occasional genuine malevolence. Hard to believe the same actor only a few years later essayed the benevolent, visionary, albeit slightly eccentric, High Lama in Lost Horizon.
Part black comedy, part adventure story, and part horror film, but mostly a mind-bending explosion of phantasmagoric images, The Scarlet Empress is indeed sui generis: it’s a work of profound sadness and inhumanity, relentlessly suffocating and hothouse. Historico-claustrophobic noir, if you like.
 Catherine completists are encouraged to seek out the very different in style and tone The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), which stands up pretty well in comparison to TSE. The former is much more a conventional Golden Age courtly melodrama along the lines of Marie Antionette and further benefits from fine performances by Elisabeth Bergner as Catherine and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Peter.