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The Scarlett Empress Review

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German princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst is renamed by the Empress Elizabeth prior to her marriage to Peter, the imbecilic heir to the throne. However, Catherine wastes no time in taking lovers and planning the coup that will give her supreme power over all the Russias.

★★★★

Despite the existence of three silent features set during the same period, including Rudolph Valentino's The Eagle, and the imminent release of Paul Czinner's Catherine the Great, Josef von Sternberg embarked on this `relentless excursion into style' to demonstrate both his own cinematic mastery and the screen majesty of Marlene Dietrich. Von Sternberg liked to insist that he had created an historical comedy that poked fun at the pomposity of Hollywood period pieces. But while the action was strewn with acerbic asides and sly innuendo (that somehow eluded the gaze of the guardians of the newly invigorated Production Code), this was very much a serious study of both the role of women in a patriarchal society and the politics of sex.

Yet, Dietrich had less to do here than in any of her previous five outings with her eccentric mentor. She looks ravishing, but she was so bound into the décor that little of her personality emerged. Despite the fact that art director Hans Dreier had designed Dmitri Buchowetski's Peter the Great (1922), Von Sternberg dictated the look of the film, personally commissioning Peter Ballbusch to produce the evocative statuery and Richard Kollorsz to paint the icons. He also influenced Travis Banton's costumes, including John Lodge's enormous fur coat and Dietrich's increasingly masculine attire, which reflected her realisation that she would have to suppress her femininity to rule in a manner that her courtiers would respect.  



Von Sternberg's efforts were wholly overlooked by the Academy. But he received a more significant accolade when Sergei Eisenstein emulated his blend of palace, dacha and church for the regal interiors in Ivan the Terrible  (1944).  



 Part of the reason for the film's muted reception was down to Paramount's own indifference. Angered by Von Sternberg's unsanctioned insertion of a crowd sequence from his own 1928 drama, The Patriot, production chief Ernst Lubitsch had taken exception to the picture and, exploiting its poor box-office and the Austrian's growing detachment from his Muse, he encouraged Dietrich to consider collaborating with other directors. Consequently, they only worked together once more, on The Devil Is a Woman.

This is not completey sure if it's a Hollywood satire or a socio-political diatribe but it remains effective, with a very low-key performance from Dietrich