The Scarlet Empress  

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The Scarlet Empress is a 1934 historical drama film made by Paramount Pictures about the life of Catherine the Great (Catherine II). It was directed and produced by Josef von Sternberg, with Emanuel Cohen as executive producer, from a screenplay by Eleanor McGeary, based on the diary of Catherine II, arranged by Manuel Komroff.

The film stars Marlene Dietrich as Catherine, with John Davis Lodge, Sam Jaffe (in his film debut), C. Aubrey Smith, Louise Dresser and Maria Riva. Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva (later known as Maria Sieber) plays Catherine as a child.


Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich), is the daughter of a minor German prince and an ambitious mother. She is brought to Russia by Count Alexei (John Lodge) to marry the half-wit Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). As if her marriage is not torment enough, she must endure the excesses of her husband's aunt, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). Elizabeth renames her Catherine and awards her the Order of St. Catherine.

Catherine finds solace with Count Alexei, but he begins wooing the much-older Elizabeth. Catherine finds lovers among the Russian army. When the old Empress dies, Catherine ascends to the Russian throne, knowing full well that her addled husband would kill her at the slightest provocation. Soon her power outstrips Peter's, and the opportunistic Alexei now comes back into her life. The finale finds Catherine emerging triumphant over all her enemies and the new Empress is shown astride a horse, to whom she displays far more affection than any of her human compatriots.


The film is notable for its expressionist art design von Sternberg creates for the Russian palace. In film critic Robin Wood's words:

"a hyperrealist 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."[1]

This decor is historically inaccurate, as Grand Duke Peter in fact preferred Neoclassical art and architecture.

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