Scarlet Empress [1934]

The radiant Princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) gets taken to Russia, renamed Catherine, and married off to the Grand Duke Peter. Peter is "a royal half-wit" with all the physical (and intellectual) appeal of a halibut. Luckily, even before the wedding Sophia-Catherine-Marlene has already fallen in lust with the handsome, womanizing emissary Count Alexei, the first of many uniformed conquests. Melodrama doesn't come any more melo than this, and Dietrich doesn't really do much, except swivel those enormous searchlight eyes from one man to another, but this is one of her sexiest and most memorable roles. It culminates with her escaping from the Palace--and stealing the throne of Russia from the halibut (who by now is Peter III)--all dressed in Cossack uniform. The Empress, Peter's aunt, is played--somehow appropriately--with the accent and social grace of a New Jersey chambermaid. Great music, great lighting, and great camera work, all directed with an odd mixture of campy humor and glaring bombast by Josef von Sternberg. Scarlet Empress has (to quote the titles) "a supporting cast of 1,000 players"; at least 950 of them look exactly like Rasputin. They don't make movies like this anymore; what a pity. --Richard Farr

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