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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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...
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.