I watched Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress last night, a film of absolutely amazing visuals with a somewhat less than effective story. I kind of knew that going in, though, but I figured the visuals would be enough for me. And they were.
Of the famous collaborations between Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, I still find Morocco and Shanghai Express to be the best by far, and both of those films avoid the chief mistake made by The Scarlet Empress, which is to have Marlene Dietrich playing someone much different from herself. The first half of the film, which has Dietrich in the role of Catherine the Great, has the young future Tsarina just being introduced to her destiny and travelling to Moscow in wide eyed innocence to meet the Grand Duke, whom she is to marry.
Marlene Dietrich can't do wide eyed innocence. She seems like she's pretending the whole time, and the second half of the movie, when she settles into her usual cocksure self, comes very abruptly. One wishes she'd simply played the whole movie in her usual way--there's no reason they couldn't say the young Catherine hadn't simply been an insolent youth. The set design takes enough liberties with history, after all, with its fascinating, grotesque Expressionistic statues all over the place.
The visual nightmare created by these things is almost story enough. But Dietrich, from The Blue Angel all the way to Touch of Evil, is always best when she plays her peculiarly elegant and commanding self. The only time I remember her being believably flustered was in the lesbian kiss scene in Morocco, just after she's kissed the woman. Watching that scene, you realise how absolutely uninterested she is in men. She seems to enjoy the power she can assert over them, but other than an amusing game, you can't see there's much value in romancing the male leads to her.
But once she does get to herself in the second half of The Scarlet Empress, she's a delight to watch. My favourite is a bit where she pushes her handkerchief over the blade of her husband's sword.
And her husband, played by Sam Jaffe, is wonderfully mad.
The movie was made in 1934, coming in just as the Hayes code was coming into effect, but even in a pre-Code film I was amazed at the opening sequence where a naked woman tumbles out of an iron maiden and three topless women are burned at the stake. It's pretty rare even now to see a movie quite that honestly brutal about medieval torture.
Twitter Sonnet #195
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