I found “The Scarlet Empress,” the lavish 1934 Paramount Pictures production directed by Josef Von Sternberg, to be thoroughly satisfying and intriguing as a historical portrait of the enigmatic Catherine the Great of Russia. After visiting Catherine’s palace outside of St. Petersburg, Russia, a couple of years ago, I saw how clearly she differentiated herself from the shadow of the other great Russian ruler, Peter the Great. Walking around the grand ballroom of the palace, I wondered about her unique personality, her illicit reputation and her powerful influence.
Von Sternberg found a riveting actress in Marlene Dietrich to play Catherine, who subtly turns from a wide-eyed and innocent German princess named Sophia Frederica to a Czarina capable of getting the Russian army to pull off a coup d’état. The film begins in Prussia when Sophia’s family learns that Sophia has been chosen to marry the Russian czar in waiting, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). The Russian empress, Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser), sends handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge) to take her to St. Petersburg for the wedding. Count Alexei becomes immediately smitten by the lovely Sophia but she wants only to know everything about Peter, imagining him to be sweet, intelligent and wonderful.
During the trip to Russia, however, Count Alexei becomes even more attracted to Princess Sophia, and even tells her he loves her, setting up a bit of future romantic intrigue in St. Petersburg. However, the film soon provides the real situation when Empress Elizabeth confronts Grand Duke Peter and orders him to marry. He not only refuses but continues to run around with one of the Russian court princesses (Ruthelma Stevens). Eventually, Peter and Sophia (now Catherine) marry but Peter continues to show little interest in her. Grand Duke Peter acts like a half-wit, playing with toy soldiers while suspecting everyone in the palace of plotting against him.
The wishes of Empress Elizabeth for an heir come true when Catherine gives birth to a boy, but Peter suspects the baby is not his. Elizabeth dies and Peter ascends to the throne, giving Peter the opportunity to take revenge. By then, however, Catherine’s popularity among the Russian army protects her and leads her to the throne. What happened is a matter of historical record, but Von Sternberg does an outstanding job directing with style and understanding the luminous presence of Marlene Dietrich. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of her, and she truly seems royal by the end of the film.
I found the performance of Sam Jaffe as Peter to be over the top, and almost frightening. His slight grip on reality appears a bit dangerous for the potential ruler of a powerful nation, especially since Louise Dresser’s Empress Elizabeth’s understanding of realpolitik would tend to eliminate him as a candidate to become czar. John Lodge, as Count Alexei, provides the strong masculine counterpart to both the powerful Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great.