Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress (2001 DVD)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
USA, 1934
In English

Although movie buffs of all persuasions have tended to portray this as a "camp classic" over the years, I can only agree with the first half of that description. Marlene Dietrich, a/k/a the sex symbol who's not very sexy, and John Lodge, sort of a poor man's Clark Gable, are downright ridiculous in their performances as Catherine the Great and one of her many legions of lovers here, and the film as a whole sports some of the worst acting and dialogue you'll ever see outside of an Ashton Kutcher vehicle--not that I've ever seen any of those beyond the TV spots! Control freak Von Sternberg's stupendous images, justly-famous lighting, and gargoyle-filled sets do make this worth taking a look at, but even Sam Jaffe's hysterical turn as royal halfwit Grand Duke Peter and some occasional moments of Buñuelesque humor (a shot of a man being used as a human clapper inside a gigantic bell suddenly dissolving into a scene of the frisky young princess riding on a swing; the take where an imperial doctor loses his wig while performing a just pre-code gynecological exam of the future empress to assess her potential for bringing a male heir to the Russian throne) make it hard to overlook the casting deficiencies. All in all, a rather inept film for the sound era but one that might have deserved the hype as a silent. (http://www.criterion.com/)

"Catherine the Great" and horse put an end to the rumors

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