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The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress(1934)

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teaser The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The collaboration of actress Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg had been a successful one, beginning with The Blue Angel (1930) in Germany, which led to the duo being brought to the United States by Paramount Pictures and Dietrich becoming a star. No one stays on top forever, however, and Dietrich and von Sternberg learned this the hard way with The Scarlet Empress (1934).

A highly fictionalized biopic of the German-born Russian empress Catherine the Great, the film's screenplay by Manuel Komroff was supposedly based on Catherine's diary. The original title was Her Regiment of Lovers to capitalize on both Catherine's reputation and Dietrich's image as one of Hollywood's sexiest stars. That title was changed after complaints from the Hays Office (the official motion picture censorship board). Sternberg wanted to make a film that was "a relentless excursion in style" and he achieved that with sumptuous sets by an uncredited Hans Dreier and costumes by an equally uncredited Travis Banton. Banton, at that time Paramount's top designer, had argued with Dietrich over her desire for a large fur hat, similar to the one that Garbo had worn that year in Queen Christina (1933). Banton did not want to copy the design, but Dietrich argued that no one would remember what Garbo wore. The argument held up production, which began near Thanksgiving, 1933 (and lasted until January 26, 1934) with Dietrich's own daughter, Maria Sieber, playing Catherine as a young girl. Using the name Maria Riva, she would later have a successful career of her own, acting in films and television, as well as writing an acclaimed book about her mother.

Disagreements over costumes weren't the only problems encountered during the making of The Scarlet Empress. An English film The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Elisabeth Bergner had bombed at the box office. Another problem was von Sternberg himself. Malene Sheppard Skaerved wrote, "The film failed spectacularly. In 1934, audiences were not looking for imperial Russian excesses. The Great Depression at its height, F.D. Roosevelt been elected to change the country's fortunes and cinema audiences cried out for homely escapism; Paramount had misfired. In years to come, the extravagance and sweep of the film would be admired and treasured. At the time that did not help Dietrich and von Sternberg. Paramount Pictures deflected most of the criticism that the film received and directed it at von Sternberg, insisting that Dietrich merely acted as she was told. Von Sternberg was an easy figure to hate, as he was self-consciously convinced of his own brilliance, arrogant, and prone to self-pity. People regularly walked off his sets and despised his self-proclaimed genius and perfectionism; although the results were often brilliant, his means of achieving them crossed the boundaries of abuse of his crew and cast."

Dietrich was not spared von Sternberg's abusive behavior. According to Diana McLellan, von Sternberg and Dietrich had violent arguments that lasted for days, with the two only speaking to each other on the set, and then strictly when necessary. "So after three days of the silent treatment, she and Mercedes [de Acosta, author and Dietrich's reported lover] hatched a plot. Marlene would fall off her horse on the set and pretend to be badly injured. Mercedes' doctor would be persuaded to take part. The 'accident' would stir up Jo[sef von Sternberg]'s more agreeable sentiments.

It worked. The empress of all the Russia sat haughtily upon her horse, then quietly tumbled to the ground. The cameras stopped. The crew rushed to her side. Jo, beside himself, ran to his fallen star, who looked dead. He screamed for a doctor who appeared with amazing speed and kissed Marlene's hands as he begged her forgiveness.

Mercedes' doctor darkly reported that Miss Dietrich had fainted, "probably from undue emotional strain." Jo drove her home, giddy with relief. Marlene sent herself flowers, "from Mercedes." The Scarlet Empress was finished in peace."All the emotional drama was in vain. When the film was released in the United States on September 15, 1934, the reviews were less than stellar. The New York Time reviewer wrote, "Josef von Sternberg has created a bizarre and fantastic historical carnival in The Scarlet Empress [...] By ordinary standards Mr. von Sternberg outrages even the cinema cognoscenti who have continued, in the face of his excesses, to preserve their faith in him as one of Hollywood's most interesting and original directors. A ponderous, strangely beautiful, lengthy and frequently wearying production, his new work is strictly not a dramatic photoplay at all, but a succession of over-elaborated scenes, dramatized emotional moods and gaudily plotted visual excitements. Its players, with the twin exceptions of Sam Jaffe as the crazy Peter and Louise Dresser as the Empress Elizabeth, seem to lose their hold on humanity under Mr. von Sternberg's narcotic influence, and become like people struggling helplessly in a dream. Mr. von Sternberg has even accomplished the improbable feat of smothering the enchanting Marlene Dietrich under his technique, although his fine camera work never does her less than justice. "

Producer: Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Catherine II (diary); Manuel Komroff (diary arranger); Eleanor McGeary (contributor, uncredited)
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art Direction: Hans Dreier (uncredited)
Film Editing: Josef von Sternberg, Sam Winston (both uncredited)
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Princess Sophia Frederica/Catherine II), John Lodge (Count Alexei), Sam Jaffe (Grand Duke Peter), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizabeth Petrovna), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince August), Gavin Gordon (Capt. Gregori Orloff), Olive Tell (Princess Johanna Elizabeth), Ruthelma Stevens (Countess Elizabeth 'Lizzie'), Davison Clark (Archimandrite Simeon Todorsky/Arch-Episcope), Erville Alderson (Chancelor Alexei Bestuchef), Phillip Sleeman (Count Lestoq), Marie Wells (Marie Tshoglokof).
BW-104m. Closed Captioning.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
A.D.S. "Mr. von Sternberg Presents Miss Dietrich and The Scarlet Empress at the Capitol" New York Times 15 Sept. 1934
McLellan, Diana The Girls: Sappho Goes Hollywood
Robinson, HarlowRussians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image
Sheppard Skaerved, Malene Dietrich

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