- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

My edition of Maria Riva’s 800-page biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich, published in 1993, lacks a table of contents or index, making it something of an inconvenience to locate specific movie titles. Patience is usually rewarded, however, since Miss Riva’s memory and descriptive powers seem exceptionally vivid and evocative.

She provides a phenomenal front-row seat, even as a girlish eyewitness, to numerous works in progress and legendary personalities. Beginning, of course, with the oversized maternal-stellar personality that dominated her youth and loomed large forever after, prompting the observation, “At age three, I knew quite definitely that I did not have a mother, I belonged to a queen.”

In 1933, when Miss Riva was 9, Marlene Dietrich was preoccupied with playing a notorious monarch, Catherine the Great of Russia, in a fascinating and obsessive historical caricature that is now approaching its 75th anniversary. This film, “The Scarlet Empress,” was the next-to-last in a distinctive cycle of seven collaborations between the German-born actress and director Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese transplant who became a major director at Paramount in the late 1920s.

Performer and director, or newly minted Trilby and Svengali as some observers preferred to regard them, crossed paths fatefully in Berlin about 1930 for a pioneering talkie, “The Blue Angel.” It elevated Miss Dietrich to overnight international stardom while portraying a humorously carnal cabaret singer who proves the ruin of a smitten, virginal, pathetic pedagogue. The initial impression of erotic allure with tawdry show business trappings and potentially devastating consequences was modified and romanticized in a subsequent quartet of vehicles directed by Mr. von Sternberg at Paramount: “Morocco,” “Dishonored,” “Shanghai Express” (the stylistic and sentimental high point) and “Blonde Venus.”

Despite wayward tendencies, the heroines of these films remained romantically susceptible and admirable. “The Scarlet Empress” seemed to take a leap into a portentous and coldhearted void while grooming Miss Dietrich for tyranny. Introduced as the ingenuous Prussian princess, Sophia Frederica, Miss Dietrich remains a decorative hoot as an embodiment of wide-eyed teenage innocence, destined for profound disillusion and ruthless transformation when conveyed to imperial Russia as the bespoken bride of the Grand Duke Peter.

During the journey — we’re informed that her new protectors won’t spare the horses while hastening eastward — Sophia gets a crush on her escort, John Lodge as Count Alexei. Upon arrival she must reconcile herself to systematic bullying from the resident empress, forcefully impersonated by Louise Dresser, and prolonged revulsion at the sight of her betrothed, a leering and hostile imbecile in the person of Sam Jaffe, who suggests Harpo Marx doing an impression of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera.

Sophia’s apprenticeship as a royal consort justifies a cynical outlook to affairs of state and affairs of the heart. As Andrew Sarris phrased it in a monograph for the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, “In the Sternbergian State the bedroom and throne room are one and the same.”

The movie’s blend of political cynicism with opulent and nightmarish pictorial grandeur did not find favor with the public or press in 1934. In his autobiography, “Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” Mr. von Sternberg fondly recalled the film as “a relentless excursion into style” and maintained that it “deserved to be successful by any standard then existing or now prevalent” while admitting that the contemporary verdict was “thumbs down.”

“The Scarlet Empress” was competing in an almost mocking fashion with two productions that beat it to the box office and commanded more esteem: a British “Catherine the Great” with the prestigious Viennese theatrical star Elizabeth Bergner and MGM’s “Queen Christina” with Greta Garbo.

The astringency and extravagance of “The Scarlet Empress” make “Catherine the Great” look stuffy and sappy in retrospect, but the elegiac romanticism of “Queen Christina” may always place “Empress” at a disadvantage. One movie obviously has heartfelt appeal. The other seems to congratulate itself for rejecting that appeal.

Nevertheless, DVD latecomers might be receptive to the sardonic outlook on despotic destiny espoused by Mr. von Sternberg and Miss Dietrich. All the recent dramatizations of the Tudor monarchy tend to reinforce certain affinities between Elizabeth I and Catherine II — as princesses in peril and then monarchs surrounded by intrigue and hardened by experience.

TITLE: “The Scarlet Empress”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1934, decades before the advent of the film rating system; occasional violence and intimations of sexual amorality)

CREDITS: Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Screenplay by Mr. von Sternberg and Manuel Komroff, suggested by diaries attributed to Catherine the Great. Cinematography by Bert Glennon. Special effects by Gordon Jennings. Art direction by Hans Dreier, Peter Ballbusch and Richard Kollorsz. Costume design by Travis Banton. Classical music selections from Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn arranged by W. Frank Harling and John Liepold and conducted by Mr. von Sternberg.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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