There was an associate professor at UCLA named Bob Epstein who ran wonderful screening classes in the film school. He believed that our 1972 'with it' attitude masked a broad ignorance of the world, and showed us movies like International House to prove that sex and drugs were not inventions of our generation. When Epstein screened The Scarlet Empress, in an original nitrate print from the brand-new UCLA Film Archive, we saw photographic artistry that made modern movies look crude. We also saw an erotic story brimming with tongue-in-cheek wit, that proved that 1934 was an age far racier than Jeanette MacDonald and Shirley Temple movies.
Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) is chosen by Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) and produce an heir to the throne. But Peter is a perverse idiot who plays with toy soldiers, and Frederica, now known as Catherine, is strongly attracted to Count Alexei (John Lodge), Elizabeth's current favorite. Life at court is confusing, what with Elizabeth's tyranny and the mad Peter running around with his courtesan, when he should be in bed with his wife assuring the continuity of the monarchy. But once Catherine learns the ropes, she proves a master at power games both political and sexual.
The Scarlet Empress is a jolt from its very beginning. With all the trappings of a massive, sober epic, its script wastes no time in 'sending up' the historical costume genre. Young Frederica (played by Dietrich's daughter, Maria Sieber) is examined by a doctor, who makes an almost Groucho Marx-like exit, mumbling an expository line like he was told to get it over with and scram. ("Now I'm off to perform another one of my operations.")
No sooner is Frederica pronounced healthy, than an Uncle (Edward Van Sloan, no less) tells her bedtime stories about depraved tortures, which are depicted in a technically advanced page-turning optical montage sequence filled with nude female victims. Such license was rare before the Production Code came in and simply amazing here. When Frederica grows up, Russian beefcake emissary John Lodge shows up to take her to Moscow. His every line is delivered through half-clenched teeth, in a monotone sneer, usually while leering at Dietrich. For her part, she plays the first section of the film in mouth-open awe, astonished by every outrageous event that happens.
We're equally astonished by the vision of Empress Elizabeth's court - these are some of the most original and weird sets ever made for an 'historical' film. Everything is massively oversized, like the doors that require eight women to open. Made of rough hewn wood, the palace is covered with religious icons and cluttered with enormous wooden figures of old men (saints?) who are part of every piece of decor - chairs, staircases, etc. There is hardly a closeup of a character that doesn't share the frame with a giant gnarled hand or twisted wooden face. It's as if the drama were being played out amid a castle crowded with petrified ancestors. Most of the statues hold candles, which in addition to the dozens of other candles in view at any given time, give the whole movie a congested, oppressive quality.
This is Josef von Sternberg at his most baroque and Marlene Dietrich in her most sylized, minimized role. Transformed by Bert Glennon's camera into a vision of desire, Dietrich's face is always framed with glittering jewels, or abstracted by veils or other softening devices. There is one closeup during her wedding to Sam Jaffe that drew applause from us jaded film students ... there's probably no woman in film history who has had so much glamour lavished on her visage.
Leading Sternberg's orchestrated perversity is the raving Peter, played by Jaffe with wild eyes and a skull-like grimace. The sight of him marching real soldiers around the palace as toys, and boring holes in the log walls with a giant drill (an anachronism?) are beyond bizarre. He hisses his lines, and the first inkling of Dietrich's rebellion is her natural willingness to disobey her new Empress and avoid this reptile.
Mae West had her act curbed the same year, but The Scarlet Empress must have come in just under the Production Code wire, for the sheer volume of adulterous seduction is staggering. The dialogue has some real zingers. Empress Catherine catches Peter's concubine running around after him cleaning up the toy soldiers he's left behind, and warns the woman to maker herself scarce: "You've been picking up soldiers around here long enough!" A lady-in-waiting tells Catherine that everyone has a lover, including Elizabeth, and Catherine soon learns that Sex is Power. The scene where it is implied that she's bought the loyalty of the Army with sexual favors is potent stuff. Couple the innuendo with the sensual decor, and this is one of the most delirious films ever made.
Criterion's DVD is handsome, and the viewer will appreciate all of the visual points made above, but it is not a perfect representation of the original film. Touted as being restored, the image is somewhat grainy, and this blunts the impact of the visuals, which had an incredibly rich contrast of textures - wood, fur, iron, flesh. It is unreasonable to expect 1934 prints that were being screened in 1972 to last until 2001, and it is possible that no really original elements have survived at all. Savant has also never seen a video transfer that recreates the original nitrate 'silver screen' look - a shimmery silver, almost bluish look that was a direct result of the the ultra-clear nitrate base and the high silver content in the b&w emulsion. The DVD does look much better than the television transfers Savant's seen, and the sound is easier to understand as well.
Criterion's extras include a BBC docu from 1966 showing Sternberg demonstrating lighting for English film students and being interviewed by Kevin Brownlow. Text essays are offered by classy British critic Robin Wood, and underground film legend Jack Smith. A still and ad art section rounds out the generous package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,