THE SCARLET EMPRESS ,the sixth of seven classic collaborations between Marlene Dietrich and mentor-lover Josef von Sternberg, came in a disappointing 58th for the years moneymakers in 1934, painful after the then-lofty $900,000 lavished on its production. If ticket crowds were not forthcoming, one sure draw was the aghast ire of the Catholic Legion of Decency (ignore those whispering altar boys while you’re at it) as being “morally objectionable” for its pointedly unsubtle suggestions of sexual licentiousness and occasional outright depictions of depravity.*
There’s a Czarload of sin and madness on display, including topless maidens being burned at the stake (bring the kids!) as the story of Russia’s libertine Queen Catherine the Great spins a 104-minute kaleidoscope of bizarre images and freaky behavior. Catherine, lording the mysterious Slavic Goliath for 34 years (dying at 67 in 1796), apart from being the ultimate survivor, and a palace power-player nonpareil, was also unrivaled as a lusty collector of boy-toys (cue Dietrich, maid to order). The words ‘Kremlin’ and ‘good time’ usually don’t connect, but Catherine had at least 22 lovers, most of whom she handsomely rewarded with estates and serfs (‘here, have 10,000 people on me’). The plot wraps around her warped introduction to the ruling pinnacle, her forced marriage to the grinning imbecile Peter III and eventual triumphant ascension as Empress.
Focusing on the weirdness of the court and its denizens, the movie leaves Catherine’s amazingly busy later life and career for investigation via books (tackle Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman”).
An imperious edict from director Sternberg (Svengali to the Dietrich mystique and one of her many conquests): “Shadow is mystery and light is clarity. Shadow conceals–light reveals. To know what to reveal and what to conceal and in what degrees to do this is all there is to art.”
To whit, plunge into, to quote critic Robin Wood, “a hyper-realist atmosphere of nightmare with its gargoyles, its grotesque figures twisted into agonized contortions, its enormous doors that require a half-dozen women to close or open, its dark spaces and ominous shadows created by the flickerings of innumerable candles, its skeleton presiding over the royal wedding banquet table”. He left out the crazy gallop up the palace staircase of a troop of cavalry. Sam Jaffe is unnerving as the ‘ick-don’t-touch-him’ Emperor and Dietrich, 33, reigns supreme as Catherine: hard to think of another actress of the day who could have pulled it off with such a mix of haughty elan, veiled suffering and wary intelligence.
Part tragedy, part design dazzler, part farce: an autocratic director celebrating autocrats abandonment of restraint, doing so with a freedom they denied others, its sensory overload of exceptional excess makes for camp delirium. With John Davis Lodge, Louise Dresser, C.Aubrey Smith, Gavin Gordon and a white stallion.
*Rolls in the hay landed on the pitchfork of the aptly titled Hays Code. Enacted in 1930, but ineffectually enforced until movies like this and the same years Tarzan And His Mate, with that vamp Jane’s revealing bush attire (‘we choose the words, you decide how to read them’), the 36-point code could be wagged off as “a Jewish owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America” (not sure, but I think A.O. Scott said that) were it not for the censorship stranglehold it placed on Hollywood for a couple decades. That noose led not just to acres of cop-out climaxes (finales, if you’re bashful) and hunky-dory falsehoods about everyday Mickey & Judy USA, but ironically to ever-cleverer subversion’s from the artists committed to untying its straitjacket. Shiver at the rebuke of Father Daniel A. Lord : “Silent smut had been bad. Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance!” Attaboy, your grace, keep those film fiends at bay: one thing we don’t want the flock to get a sniff of is truth.