The Scarlet Empress (1934)
Madness ….. Mayhem …. and Marlene.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.