Tuesday, February 16, 2010


The Film: The Scarlet Empress (109)
The Director: Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Blonde Venus)

What Is It: The type of period piece you just don't see anymore. Huge, I mean enormous, set pieces, gauzy lady bits, historical revisionism ... and on and on. This is a true period piece in the vein of Cleopatra.

A Lil' Bit Of History: Josef von Sternberg was a king in the days of black and white, a master of opulence that managed to blend history with Hollywood. Wildly in love with his muse, Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg made six films with her, each time capitalizing on the idea of a woman using her sexual wiles and intelligence to gain power. Though their collaboration, The Blue Angel was what shot her in to stardom, this film is oft times considered an overlooked classic.

The Expectation: As I've mentioned many, many times before, these old 1930s flicks have a tendency to zonk me in to comatose states. I very much believed that this film, the story of Catherine II's (Marlene Dietrich) scandalous rise to Russian royalty, would a be a blowdart to the neck.

The Experience: The Criterion Conquistador and I sat down to watch this, my trepidations firmly in tact, and I ended up skipping a free show to finish it out. One big gulp of Russian royalty and I was hooked.

1. It's been a while.

I watched this movie maybe three weeks ago and I've been sitting on my thoughts on the film for just as long. Not for any good reason either, I just haven't been able to muster the time or energy to write a cohesive sounding piece on it. Thus, I'm sort of wading through the grey parts of my brain right now to try and remember exactly what I was thinking when I watched the film, and let me tell you, it's a kind of a stretch.

2. Marlene Dietrich lives up to her "star."

At the beginning of this film both Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich perform an impressive task: creating the illusion that a massive star like Dietrich is a brainless, big-eyed child. This is performed by cutting nearly all of Dietrich's lines, but her wide-eyed expression and childlike clothes make her look like a stupid doll, exactly what the film needs - a doddling child that the audience, and the royalty of Russia think they can play like a fool. As the film unfurls though, Catherine II becomes a force to be reckoned with, and her youthful naivete is a stark contrast. Ms. Dietrich, I owe your corpse an apology, you are quite an actress.

3. A fast-talking bit of period piece.

You'd expect this film to be chock full of antiquated language and drawn out boring conversations, but this is a clearly a child of the 1930s. Each and every character feels as if it was raised on the streets of Brooklyn, never having stepped in to the highest classes of Russia. You'd think it'd be jarring and awkward, but no, the speedy chatter of the characters helps to play in to the strategies and games playing out on screen. If the dialogue was slow and ponderous than the film would be equally ponderous. Luckily, it's neither.

4. Wow, the Hays Code missed out on this one.

This film snuck right past the censors. Perhaps it's the historical context or the fact that Dietrich and Sternberg were murdering the box office at the time, but this film breaks rule after rule after rule with seemingly no consequence. Not only is there nudity (though it may be of the nipple-less variety), it's torturous nudity. There's a strong focus on sexuality in the film (late night trysts, overtly sexual conversations, etc.) and no one seemed to give a shit. When Catherine II and Count Alexi (John Lodge) are tumbling about in the hay, hands fast and loose, the definition of "lover" quickly coming to the fore, you have to know, somebody in the Hays Code production office was getting a brown envelope full of money.

5. Full of great character actors.

Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), Count Alexei (John Lodge), Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) - each of these impressive actors is given a juicy role to chew in to and all do so with aplomb. Sam Jaffe, you shouldn't be allowed schools. John Lodge, I imagine you were quite the lady killer in your time. Louise Dresser, you define the term "nag."


Criterion Counsel: I was so excited about the Jacque Tati films, and after thirty minutes of near silent, surreal slapstick, I'm a bit skeptical. We're thirty minutes in and I don't see completion rearing its head any time soon.

No comments: