Classic Movie Review: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Title: The Scarlet Empress
Release Date: September 15, 1934
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

This movie is absolutely bonkers.  The movie is a loose adaptation of the life of Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich) from the time she is selected to marry the heir to the Russian throne, the “half-wit” Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), until she she overthrew Peter and assumed the position of Empress.  John Davis Lodge plays Count Alexei, the handsome aristocrat who falls in love with Catherine and begins to disabuse the naive Catherine’s fairy tale beliefs of the Russian court (his name struck me as very familiar, and it’s because he later became Governor of Connecticut and had a turnpike named after him!).

Having Dietrich play a naive young woman is laughable, but not the most absurd thing about this movie.  That would be the ridiculous set design that includes giant, grotesque statuary lurking just about everywhere.  A considerable bit of the film’s budget also went to the fantastic costuming.  And there is a lot of explicit sexuality and violence in a film from 1934, as if they were trying to sneak in as much as they could before the production code went into effect.  The worst crime of all the excess of this film is that it all overshadows its star.  Having seen Dietrich own the screen in The Blue Angel, this feels like a glaring mistake.

There are some people who can enjoy movies that are “so bad they are good.”  I’m not one of them, but regardless, I can’t see this movie belonging on a greatest of all-time list.

Just as an aside, this movie reminded me I had seen a tv movie back when I was in high school called Young Catherine, starring Julia Ormond, that covered many of the same plot points with less cinematic excess.

Rating: **

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