Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Scarlett Empress

The final star in this month's Summer Under the Stars is Marlene Dietrich, and prime time has one of her most visually impressive films: The Scarlett Empress, at 8:00 PM.

Dietrich plays the Empress, who is specifically Catherine II of Russia, commonly called Catherine the Great. Catherine was actually born Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, a principality in what is now eastern Germany. When she was a teenager, she was married off to her second cousin, Paul (aka Pavel), who was the Grand Duke of Russia, a position equivalent to the Crown Prince in other monarchies. (Paul is played by Sam Jaffe.) Paul continued as Grand Duke and Sophia took to making herself liked among the Russian people, learning the language and converting to Orthodox Christianity. Thankfully for her, she had a good 15 years before her mother-in-law, Empress Elizaveta, died. It turned out she needed those 15 years to become palatable to the Russian people, or more importantly, the Russian nobility. Pavel, it turned out, was spectacularly unfit to be Russian Emperor. He was erratic and preferred to play with his toy soldiers more than dealing with real matters of war, and having him in command would have been a disaster. So the nobility more or less convinced Catherine to take over in a coup, although they probably thought with a woman on the throne, they'd be the real power behind the throne. Catherine was, one would assume, happy with this, as she quickly found she didn't care much for Paul and would rather have lover after lover after lover, much like Elizabeth I of England (who was in love with far more than Essex).

I wouldn't say that history is portrayed in The Scarlet Empress with notable accuracy, although it doesn't have the horrible inaccuracy that many Hollywood has. In fact, the portrayal here is interesting for entirely different reasons. Although the movie was released in 1934, there are a lot of times where it plays out almost as if it had been conceived as a silent. There are a lot of fascinating visuals here, which make the movie look as much like a fantasy as it is a biopic. It's for these visuals, and not so much the acting or dialog that the movie should be watched. Visually, it's gorgeous: from a shot of Dietrich on a swing, to the use of candles, veils, and diffusion, there's always something visually stunning going on.

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