Saturday, March 2, 2013

Film - The Scarlet Empress (1934)


Having just read Robert Massie's vivid biography Catherine the Great, we got Josef von Sternberg's very loose film adaptation of her diaries - The Scarlet Empress - an absurd, expressionist, Hollywood-ized concoction starring Marlena Dietrich as the sex-starved naif turned dominatrix- Empress.  In an interview done in the 1960s, Sternberg who was born in Vienna without the 'von,' emigrated to New York at the age of two, and dropped out of a Queens high school, described himself as 'having no influences' and doing everything himself - design, cinematography, etc.... This film reeks of such arrogance.  He clearly allowed no one to interfere with his vision and it's too bad.  He could have benefited from hearing the word 'no.'  The film has that sort of amateurish hysteria marked by someone who thinks that all he has to do to make a great film is control every lighting angle and the texture of every closeup, but he simply has no idea what to do with the human beings cluttering up the set and he is clueless about casting.  Louise Dresser plays the Empress Elizaveta (daughter of Peter the Great) looking like one of those classic 1930s Hollywood middle-aged matrons and sounding like Lucille Ball playing a slattern.  The man cast as the head of the Russian orthodox church read his lines like John Wayne.

1 comment:

C.B. James said...

I admit I've not seen this one. I have, however, seen enough of Von Sternberg's work to know that you are largely right about him. He really could become self-indulgent and really could have benefitted from having someone tell him no.

That said, I do love a wildly over-the-top Hollywoodized movie.