Sunday, July 12, 2015

Film Review: The Scarlet Empress

"The Scarlet Empress"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Director Josef von Sternberg and screen siren Marlene Dietrich explore the beginnings of Catherine the Great's reign as Empress of Russia in "The Scarlet Empress" (1934).

"The Scarlet Empress" was the sixth of seven collaborations between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Those efforts have included "The Blue Angel" (1930), "Morocco" (1930), "Shanghai Express" (1932), "Blonde Venus" (1932) and "The Devil Is A Woman" (1935). I have enjoyed each of those movies to various degrees. My favorites among them are "The Blue Angel" and "Morocco" but "The Scarlet Empress" left me with a mixed reaction. It is the least satisfactory to me of their work together.

Von Sternberg and Dietrich excelled at movies which showcased Dietrich as a destroyer of men. She would use her feminine wiles and deceive men of money and power. Men of respectability would beg at her feet for a brief moment in private with her.

The majority of their work together is what we now refer to as "pre-code", movies made before the production code, also known as the Hays Code, went into effect. It was enforced from 1934 until 1968. These movies are often more direct in their depiction of loose sexual morals.

When movie critics (sheep) and/or cinephiles discuss "The Scarlet Empress" much attention is paid to the visual look of the movie, with Russian palaces with gargoyles, and the "graphic" depiction of the Empress' sexual hunger. But, little to no attention is paid to the movie's narrative. Which is what I find lacking.

Watching "The Scarlet Empress" puts me in an odd position. On the one hand I do appreciate the craft which went into making this movie. Von Sternberg was a great filmmaker. Dietrich is an icon. The cinematography is impressive. Yet, I feel von Sternberg and Dietrich have collaborated on better films together. The movie fails when compared to those movies.

Dietrich stars as Princess Sophia Frederica, daughter of Christian August - Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst (C. Aubrey Smith) and Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp (Olive Tell). They receive word Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) has chosen Sophia to be the bride of her nephew, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), whom for some reason is presented as a half-wit. In the name of historical accuracy I have not found evidence which supports this. However it doesn't matter as this is a movie.

Young Sophia does not know what the Grand Duke looks like but hopes he is a tall, strong, handsome man whom she will fall madly in love with and at the request of Empress Elizabeth, have a son, who will be heir to the throne after her death.

Sent by the palace to pick-up Sophia and her mother is Count Alexei Razumovsky (John Davis Lodge) who finds Sophia attractive and she him. But, being the yound, innocent girl she is, Sophia will keep herself pure for her husband, whom she still has the romantic notion will be handsome.

Sophia quickly learns what the Grand Duke looks like and is terrorized at his sight. He has a constant grin on his face and likes to play with toy soldiers. Sophia could never learn to love a man like him and at that moment decides she will only be a wife to the Grand Duke in name only.

As in other von Sternberg / Dietrich collaborations the Dietrich character soon becomes aware of the effect her beauty has on men and how she can best use her beauty and men's insatiable lust for her to her advantage and their downfall.

The movie though isn't as forthcoming as I would have liked it to be and there isn't as much scheming as in the pair's other feature-films. Yes, there was a production code which was being more strictly enforced at this time, but, the movie still gets away with plenty, just not enough to really make this a gripping tale.

The movie even ends before Sophia becomes empress! The movie, in inter-titles, goes on and on about what kind of great ruler she was. How she was one of the most famous and important women of all-time and nothing is shown of her reign. Speaking of which, nothing is shown of Peter III's short reign as emperor except a montage of "proclamations" issued by him, which never have a description, and the image of people being tortured.

Anyone watching "The Scarlet Empress" looking for historical accuracy will be greatly disappointed. There is so much the movie leaves out, never addresses and changes about history for the sake of the movie. That is perfectly fine with him but others may be bothered by it especially history buffs. Of course if you feel so strongly about it, you probably shouldn't watch movies in the first people. Individuals in our society should not turn to movies, a form of entertainment, to learn about history. Movies are storytelling and will, when the occasion demands it, create fiction for the sake of what is best in the cinematic interest of their story.

Many filmbuffs include this movie as a great achievement in the cannon of films von Sternberg and Dietrich worked on together. Others will champion the production design and cinematography. I do as well. But, in the end it all style over substance. You could have told this story without it being about Catherine the Great. Von Sternberg has in his other movies. There is not enough scheming, not enough sex, not enough plot, not enough interest.

I'm often accused by my critics of being "too easy" on classic Hollywood movies and honoring tradition too much. Here is one example where I prove my critics wrong.