When it came out in 1934, everyone knew that The Scarlet Empress was a reference to a scarlet woman, a sexual libertine. Doubly so once they learned that it was a biopic about Catherine the Great, the Russian royal who notoriously died while making love to a horse, or so the story went.
Things are slightly more fragrant than that in this sixth collaboration between director Joseph von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, one of the first films made after Hollywood put into effect its infamous morality code, for fear of having one imposed on it by the government.
Even so, right there, right after the information that this film has indeed been made in accordance with that code, there are at least three, maybe more, shots of naked women in an early montage sequence in which the young Prussian Sophia (Dietrich) is being told of the bad, bad ways of the Russians by her doting father, a minor noble (C Aubrey Smith) keen to use his daughter to tie his family closer to royalty through marriage.
In these scenes set in Prussia, Dietrich is way too worldly to be playing the ingenue teenager but she does her best and in any case they don’t take up too much screen time. Soon, after news of Sophia’s beauty has spread, the action has switched to Moscow, where Sophia has been whisked off to be the bride of the future Emperor. Sophia is forced to grow up fast and Dietrich comes into her own.
There are speedbumps. Sophia had been told that her future husband was comely beyond compare and wise and benevolent to boot. In fact Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) turns out to be a hopeless grinning ninny. Having been renamed Catherine by the current Empress, her future husband’s mother, she finds herself being “pushed like a brood mare into the preparations for her marriage to a royal half-wit,” as an intertitle describes. She’s gained a title but lost everything else, including even her name.
As in many of these Dietrich/Von Sternberg collaborations, the central heroine finds herself in a fix with only one weapon at her disposal – her body – and so she uses it. First by providing her husband with a male heir – as the mother of the future Tsar she now has a power base – and then by taking as many lovers as she can, starting, it’s suggested, with the dashing Count Alexei (John Lodge), the emissary who first brought her to court.
Suggestion is all in The Scarlet Empress. There are no sexual scenes as such, just some come-hither gesturing as the increasingly confident Catherine lines up another of her lusty male guard for extra-curricular activity. You could watch the film and barely realise that this is in fact the story of the queen who notoriously had them all.
Von Sternberg shoots it almost like one of those madly grand silent movies from not many years before. There are more intertitle cards than you might expect, blocking out plot developments, and the emphasis on spectacle is absolute. This is film-making as the highest expression of the art of the production designer and director of photography – it is gorgeously, sumptuously, ridiculously well appointed and looks at every instant entirely fabulous. Von Sternberg, at the top of his powers, even throws in little nods to Eisenstein, in montage crowd scenes, and Dreyer, when he wants to suggest that his little tyrant on the rise is actually a Joan of Arc figure being martyred on the altar of Russian dynasticism.
So meticulous was the obsessive Von Sternberg on this film that he and Dietrich fell out over it. He wore her out. However, when she saw the results, she came around, and they made another film the following year, The Devil Is a Woman.
As said, Dietrich doesn’t suit the early ingenue scenes but she grows into the role once Sophia has become Catherine and the sexual wiles have been discovered and deployed. As the initial object of her affection, John Lodge is a dashing Count Alexei, a man who may well have lost his heart to Catherine, or perhaps he is just intriguing. Louise Dresser blows hot and cold as the old Empress but is superb when being imperious, haughty or horrible, which she is much of the time. And this is the first role for Sam Jaffe (not to be confused with a producer of the same name), a Harpo Marx-like figure gambolling around the court like a blond chimp.
Maybe it’s the dead hand of the production code but there is something missing in the middle section of this film. While it is set up and pays off brilliantly, there is no real knot for Catherine to unpick in the middle, no problem for her character to solve, no drama. The end, when it comes, seems to arrive unannounced.
It all looks so good you might not notice.
The Scarlet Empress, as part of the Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood box set – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022