Skip to content

The Mad Movie Challenge ………… The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Madness ….. Mayhem …. and Marlene.

marlene-empress

Time for the monthly mad movie challenge with Kristina over at Speakeasy. She’s assigned me to watch one of the Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg efforts that borders on outright horror prompting one to almost expect Karloff and Rathbone to show up in their Tower of London regalia.

The story presented is a relatively simple one as Marlene plays the young innocent slated to become Catherine II of Russia. It’s the nearly two hour ride in getting there that allows the camera to not only present Dietrich in the most astonishingly beautiful light but also a taste of the Grand Guignol thanks to the outrageous sculptures that populate the backdrop of the Russian court that surround her intended, the grotesque Sam Jaffe. The faces in the sculptures take on a life of their own as tortured souls living under the rule of a mad empire.

Title: SCARLET EMPRESS, THE ¥ Pers: DIETRICH, MARLENE ¥ Year: 1933 ¥ Dir: VON STERNBERG, JOSEF ¥ Ref: SCA021AO ¥ Credit: [ PARAMOUNT / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

Childlike and innocent, Marlene is sent off to marry the intended leader of Russia leaving her home and C. Aubrey Smith behind to journey with the Russian emissary, John Lodge to a far away land of intrigue and excitement. She is quite taken by Lodge and believes Jaffe to be even more attractive and manly than Lodge. Far from it and it’s a cruel joke played on the virgin like Dietrich who has looked so forward to her intended knight.

Crazed Jaffe is not in the least bit interested in his stunning bride other than to spy and play games of beheading toys and what poor souls he may find among the peasants. Not only does Marlene have Jaffe to contend with who she despises and refuses to share a bed with, she has his mother who demands an heir played by Oscar winner Louise Dresser. Marlene is about to learn the hard way of court intrigue when she discovers that handsome and virile Lodge is actually the aging Queen’s lover.

dresser-in-empress

Marlene grows up fast when she turns to a rather lucky soldier on guard duty and gives the kingdom an heir. Overnight she becomes the Dietrich we all know to be firm handed and unforgiving as she takes her pleasures where she pleases and deals out a lovers justice to Lodge.

There is more to come but let’s not dwell on that. Let’s talk about the film in regards to it’s time and it’s look. If ever a big budgeted epic looked to be a silent film with voices as an afterthought, this might be it. One could turn the volume down and still grasp what’s going on. This is in part due to the reading cards that continually show up to help move the plot along and the unveiling of the various locations and years that go by. The music also gives it a rapid paced zaniness at times that lends itself to a silent film.

During the opening scenes of the film one really could expect a bald pated Karloff as Mord the executioner to appear from the Tower of London. I actually had to freeze frame the  vhs tape to make sure I was indeed seeing nudity via topless women in the dungeons where people are suffering at the hands of their torturers. Beheadings, men suspended in a giant bell and women on the rack. It’s quite a startling introduction to the film and the madness that follows for a movie going crowd of the thirties.

jaffe-empress

Jaffe made his film debut here and it’s a role that can quite easily destroy an actor or at least type cast him for the rest of his playing days. He’s creepy, vile and had me believing that’s no actor. That’s just a real live crazy guy fresh out of the loony bin. Jaffe would of course go on to a long career though it wasn’t until the fifties and sixties that saw him regularly on camera. John Lodge as Marlene’s would be lover would actually retire from the screen and move into politics becoming a U.S. Ambassador. That’s a long way from the fetish scene where he kisses our leading lady only to hand her a whip and tells her to flog him for his wickedness. At this point in the plot, Marlene turns away in disgust but one can’t help thinking off screen, the overtly sexual Marlene just might have taken him up on it.

the-scarlet-empress-theredlist

Every time I see Dietrich in one of her early Hollywood films, I am in awe of just how she looks on film. Stunning doesn’t begin to describe just how photographic she is. To see her childish, spoiled princess in the early scenes turn to the camera and pout, “but I don’t like to make my own bed Mother.” even now captures me as I am sure it did every young male sitting in the darkened theaters with their sweethearts in 1934.

scarletempress6

Look fast during the opening scenes and you can spot Edward Van Sloan and future Oscar winner Jane Darwell. The duo are in a scene featuring a young girl portraying the Dietrich character as a child. It’s none other than Maria Riva. Marlene’s real life daughter. Here she is simply billed as Maria above the line ” and a supporting cast of 1000 players.” If you happen across a copy of Maria’s book on her famous Mother, there is quite a lengthy coverage of her time on the set within and working for Sternberg under her Mother’s watchful eye.

Experience this one for yourself. See it for Dietrich, the pre-code scenes, the ghostly sculptures in the background and just how a crazed monarch can look on camera thanks to Jaffe.

jaffe-in-empress

Now it’s time to go see what Kristina has been assigned to watch. This time out she’s riding with the Duke in a film that easily makes my favorite Duke Dozen. It’s the film that prompted my number one son to ask me, “What’s a Bruce Dern” Dad?

Click right here to head over to Kristina’s Speakeasy and let’s find out if she loves this movie nearly as much as I do.

5 Comments »

  1. It’s been a while since I watched this and will have to look again soon, but thought it might appeal to any Marlene fan. So true about her endlessly photogenic face and von Sternberg’s style here is just incredible, Grade A eye candy! To see this on a big screen would be something else. Incidentally I first saw this around the same time as a Julia Ormond in Young Catherine, which had Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, Max. Schell and another looney tunes Peter performance by Reece Dinsdale.

  2. Have you and Kristina kept track of who has liked more of the other’s recommendations in the Mad Movie Challenge? As in (for example), Kristina has liked 87% of your recommendations, while you’ve only liked 65% of hers?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

CINESPIRIA

Shining a light on the deep recesses of film history

cinema cities

a personal odyssey through film

Mark David Welsh

Watching the strangest movies - so you don't have to...

Scenes from the Morgue

The Lost Art of Pulp Ads: Film, Booze, Smokes & More!

Film Speech

All things film and television

Diary of A Movie Maniac

A Personal Journey Through Cinema & Television

portraitsbyjenni

My perspective on life & Classic Movie Recommendations

Statis Pro 1978 Replay

Methodically replaying every game of the 1978 baseball season!

4 Star Films

Looking deeper at the best classic movies

everythingnoir

Movies, Television, Books....Everything Noir

Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

by John Bengtson "the great detective of silent film locations" New York Times

Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Silent-ology

Uncovering the silent era

Canadian Cinephile

"I don’t have a moral plan. I’m a Canadian" - David Cronenberg

Noirish

The annex to John Grant's *A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir*

Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

Sunset Boulevard

Writings of a Cinephile

The Bogie Film Blog

A Film by Film Affair with Humphrey Bogart

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

Vintage Hollywood films and stars

The Film Authority

You're ten seconds from watching an amazing film...

Once upon a screen...

...a classic film and TV blog

shadowsandsatin

. . where the worlds of film noir and pre-code collide . .

hitchcockmaster

Where Suspense Lives!

Tipping My Fedora

Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media

Silver Screenings

an irreverent blog of old movies

monsterminions

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

Comet Over Hollywood

Home for classic movie lovers

filmgeek101

classic movie views for the classic and not-so-classic movie fan

Riding the High Country

Reviews and ramblings

CINESPIRIA

Shining a light on the deep recesses of film history

cinema cities

a personal odyssey through film

Mark David Welsh

Watching the strangest movies - so you don't have to...

Scenes from the Morgue

The Lost Art of Pulp Ads: Film, Booze, Smokes & More!

Film Speech

All things film and television

Diary of A Movie Maniac

A Personal Journey Through Cinema & Television

portraitsbyjenni

My perspective on life & Classic Movie Recommendations

Statis Pro 1978 Replay

Methodically replaying every game of the 1978 baseball season!

4 Star Films

Looking deeper at the best classic movies

everythingnoir

Movies, Television, Books....Everything Noir

Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

by John Bengtson "the great detective of silent film locations" New York Times

Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Silent-ology

Uncovering the silent era

Canadian Cinephile

"I don’t have a moral plan. I’m a Canadian" - David Cronenberg

Noirish

The annex to John Grant's *A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir*

Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

Sunset Boulevard

Writings of a Cinephile

The Bogie Film Blog

A Film by Film Affair with Humphrey Bogart

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

Vintage Hollywood films and stars

The Film Authority

You're ten seconds from watching an amazing film...

Once upon a screen...

...a classic film and TV blog

shadowsandsatin

. . where the worlds of film noir and pre-code collide . .

hitchcockmaster

Where Suspense Lives!

Tipping My Fedora

Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media

Silver Screenings

an irreverent blog of old movies

monsterminions

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

Comet Over Hollywood

Home for classic movie lovers

filmgeek101

classic movie views for the classic and not-so-classic movie fan

Riding the High Country

Reviews and ramblings

%d bloggers like this: