Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Scarlet Empress

Outside, it is as hot as.... well, outside is the desert in August, so you can guess how hot it is. When it's this kind of infernal, one of my favorite ways to imagine myself cool is watching black-and-white movies set in places with abundant snow. Among these are Alexander Nevsky and The Thing, but best of all is The Scarlet Empress. Josef Von Sternberg made seven films with Marlene Dietrich, their pairing was one of the finest examples of folie a deux in the history of film and The Scarlet Empress is Dietrich's iconicism and Von Sternberg's stylization, both cranked up to 11.
The story of Catherine the Great has been told over and over again in film, played by everyone from Jeanne Moreau to Julia Ormond to Jayne Meadows to Bette Davis to Catherine Zeta-Jones to Tallulah Bankhead and even my old boss Viveca Lindfors. Actually in 1934, the year of The Scarlet Empress, The Rise of Catherine the Great also came out, starring Elisabeth Bergner -- ironically, Dietrich had been minor supporting actress to Bergner's leading lady in a production of The Taming of the Shrew back when they were both young actresses in Berlin. But the Von Sternberg/Dietrich version is the one everyone remembers.

We begin with the young German Princess Sophia Frederica, briefly played by Dietrich's cranky-puss daughter, Maria. We then are reminded via intertitle of the barbarism of Russia. This offers an opportunity for Von Sternberg to indulge in some kinky torture scenes, then cutting directly to Shirley Temple -- excuse me, Marlene Dietrich, swinging in a flower-filled garden, a la Fragonard. Dietrich's performance is best described as smirk-inducing. Seeing the world-weary, cosmopolitan, bisexual, chic Marlene Dietrich playing wide-eyed, curly-topped innocent is, well, as ridiculous as it sounds.

The emissary of barbaric Russia arrives in the person of Alexei, Fabio-like hunk John Lodge. Lodge's acting career was very brief -- he only made a few films (and actually turned down a role in Mae West's She Done Him Wrong). He went on to become a congressman and governor of Connecticut, as well as ambassador to Spain. He has been sent to bring the young princess to Russia to marry the Grand Duke. There is much riding through great drifts of snow in piles of fur. Lodge leers at Dietrich, Dietrich continues to maintain the affect of someone with mild brain damage. More snow, more horses, more extras, more furs, more leering, more faux-naif Marlene, more snow, more furs, more horses, more snow. Brrrrrrr!

The set design of The Scarlet Empress is legendary, setting some kind of benchmark for the bizarre and it's when we hit Russia that it goes full-on bonkers. Doors 15 feet high and eight feet across that require a bevy of hoopskirted extras to open and close. Gargoyles looming over the tops of chairs, life-size skeletons serving as candelabrum: This is gothic home decor at it finest!
Princess Dietrich is presented to the Czarina, played by Louise Dresser as an overbearing Midwestern harpy. While taking in the bones of the damned end table and the magazine rack of the black soul, she gets an on-the-spot hymen check (Fun Fact: The bewigged queen crawling up under Dietrich's panniers is Hans von Twardoski, an old friend of hers from Berlin.), her name is changed to Catherine and she's introduced to her new husband -- a simpering, sadistic half-wit. Good times! We then get to the spectacular wedding sequence. Nearly wordless, it is sustained by Dietrich's beauty and Von Sternberg's visual skill. The many non-dialogue sequences and use of multiple and verbose title cards makes one thing Von Sternberg would have preferred The Scarlet Empress to be a silent film.
This motif continues with the post-wedding banquet scene. Surrounded by servants, statues, skeletons, violinists  and multiple forms of roast beast, we see the contrast between the elegant Grand Duchess Catherine and the pig's head-chomping lesser nobles, the contrast between the bug-eyed, drooling Grand Duke and the suave, sexy Alexei. We will be reminded of this over and over.
Dietrich is still keeping up her ditzy sophmore act at 33:26, but at least her costumes begin to improve and are a little less "the village idiot dressed in a bassinet," as her daughter Maria described it -- the black velvet riding habit with metallic trim and white ostrich plumed-tricorn hat is fabulous. Maria wrote a semi-vicious biography of her mother, but even when exposed on the page, Marlene reaches from the grave to still awe and enchant both reader and author. Thus the Mommie Dearest segments don't stick as much as the stories of film shoots, which largely hinged on costume selections. Dietrich worked closely with Travis Banton on the designs.
But, even in a pair of diamond-buckled mules that would make Christian Louboutin weep, Dietrich is still simpering and lisping and playing the fool. "A luvah? [blink blink, purse lips, blink] Why, what may that beeeee? [blink, blink, toss curls] How schocking!" This is possibly the most sophisticated woman who ever lived carrying on like this for forty-five minutes!
Finally, mercifully, after some rolling in the hay (Interrupted by a horse -- ha ha! Don't tell me Von Sternberg didn't intend that.) and some note-passing with Alexei (Love, love, love the fur-trimmed ballgown.), she finally hooks up with a passing guardsman and, lo! an heir to the throne is born. Just in time, since the Czarina of Cleveland is getting old -- "Empress, bah! I haven't the power to iron out a single wrinkle!" -- and infirm. Well, that's what you get from a life of red meat, vodka and screaming at people. (Don't get me wrong: I fully endorse all of those things.)

Dietrich's post-birth scene is another virtuosic Von Sternberg shot, traveling through multiple layers and foci. (Fun Fact: Josef von Sternberg's fondness for shooting through and around veils, lace and gauze migfht be traced back to his youthful day job in a lace store.) And, finally! We have Dietrich. No more curls, no more whispering, no more cluelessness, no more Baby Spice. It's back to the Dietrich voice, the Dietrich wit, the Dietrich appraising gaze. And, oh, what a confection of white plumes and satin she has to do it with. And the wig! She looks like a Macchiavellian survivor version of Marie Antoinette.  (Which, in a way, as another foreign princess sent to rule a hostile new court in late eighteenth-century Europe, Catherine the Great actually kind of was.)

"I have weapons that are far more powerful than any political machine." Spoken with the assurance of a woman who had Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Yul Brynner, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Erich Maria Remarque, Edith Piaf, Alberto Giacometti, Edward Murrow, John Gilbert, Colette, George S. Patton, Jean Gabin, and both Joe and Jack Kennedy!
Dimwit Grand Duke and his Court Tramp (who does rock a great smoky eye, though) threaten Catherine, but she is unimpressed -- actually, she manages to read them both to filth without saying a word and that, children, is why Marlene Dietrich was and is one of the greatest stars of all time.
Dietrich consolidates her power one man at a time. The Scarlet Empress is where that classic "reviewing the troops"  bit that the great Madeline Kahn did so well was born. More outfits! There's a sheer black peignoir trimmed with black and white feathers that would make Dita Von Teese squeal and clap her hands and which Marlene uses to help consolidate her, erm, military support. She gets the church on her side by slinging a few 36-strand pearl bracelets at them "for the poor." And, as you can imagine, everyone is Russia is swayed by her fabulous fucking style.
Finally, with the backing of the army, church, the people, and fashion bloggers everywhere, Catherine takes over Russia. The film closes with another of Von Sternberg's word-free visual mini-symphonies, Marlene in white military uniform leading the troops up the stairs of the Winter Palace...
I couldn't say whether The Scarlet Empress is my favorite Dietrich/Von Sternberg film. (And if Edie Sedgwick was the muse of my teenage years, Marlene Dietrich remains who i want to be when i grow up.) Shanghai Express has existentialist Dietrich in amazing deco fashions, sharing a cabin on the train of doom with her friend, the icily gorgeous and just as cool Anna May Wong. Or the finally-out-on-DVD Dishonored, in which fatalistic spy Dietrich displays a world-weariness and steely resolve that makes Angelina Jolie look like a simpering bint. But, on an August in the desert day, i'll take The Scarlet Empress.

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