After Morocco the pair made “Dishonoured” (good time girl turns secret agent) “Shanghai Express” (their biggest commercial success – good time girl on a train through China, with the immortal line “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”) and “Blonde Venus” (former good time girl reverts to her bad old ways for the love of her husband and child) This last was a critical flop, despite starring a sexy dance number with Marlene bursting out of a gorilla suit and featuring a young Cary Grant as love interest.
The magic was beginning to tarnish. They had two more pictures to make together under their contract but Sternberg announced he had had enough and was leaving the movie business. (He then went on to make the fairly pedestrian An American Tragedy, as part of his contract)
Paramount gave Dietrich “Song of Songs” directed by “safe pair of hands” Rouben Mamoulian. Although by now she had learned a lot about lighting and how to place herself to best advantage for the camera, she missed her mentor’s magic touch and apparently on the first day of shooting was heard to whisper aloud, “Where are you, Jo?”
They came back together to make two last films.
The Depression years seemed to spawn a vogue for royal themed pictures, with lavish biopics including Garbo as Queen Christina and Katharine Hepburn as Queen Elizabeth 1st (this never got made) As far as Paramount was concerned, The Scarlet Empress was the straw that broke the studio’s back.
Sternberg reverts to his roots as a silent picture director and the tone of the film is very much a throwback to the excesses of Cecil B de Mille and von Stroheim. The captions are pure 1920s epic, and the dialogue is at a minimum, dwarfed by the music, sound effects and extraordinary visuals.
Actually it was a fairly low budget production using smoke, mirrors and papier mache. The crowd scenes were lifted from another Russian themed picture “The Patriot” rather ironically starring The Blue Angel’s Emile Jannings.
Its director, Sternberg’s old frenemy Ernest Lubitsch, was now a production head at Paramount and according to Sternberg, lambasted Sternberg for his extravagance filming all those crowd scenes – not recognising his own movie when he saw it.
Although again the film received very mixed reviews and was generally a box office disaster at the time, many film historians see it as the pair’s finest achievement. Roger Ebert gives it 5 stars. Andrew Sarris says “The Scarlet Empress is Von Sternberg’s most sumptuous exercise in style, a tapestry of tyranny so intricately woven and so luminously lit that audiences and critics of the time were stupefied.”
Sternberg on the film’s negative reception:
“It was…a relentless excursion into style” – “which, taken for granted in any other work of art, is considered to be unpardonable in this medium”
Hollywood has never been especially kind to its mavericks, but it really did not help that Sternberg was so relentlessly self-aggrandising in terms of claiming credit for every aspect of his productions. Although he did cast an unmistakeable auteur’s stamp on every one of his films, film-making is essentially a result of team work and he never properly acknowledged this. He even claims credit for the music in the film:
“Mea culpa – I had not left much for others to do, even being bold enough to conduct the …Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra in playing the background music” and says in his memoirs that some of the music is his own composition.
Sternberg on Dietrich: (his “bird of paradise”)
“I gave her nothing that she did not already have”
“What I did was dramatize her attributes and make them visible for all to see.”
In the film, the court hairdresser transforms the bride to be, cutting her hair and turning her from wide eyed ingenue (if we can believe that) into a Hollywood style vamp – reminiscent of their own actor / director relationship and her transformation…
Possibly Dietrich was at her most beautiful in this film, the camera devouring her.
The close ups of her face reach a point of obsession, verging on abstraction – first during the wedding scenes of her face under the gauze veil and again later when Catherine has given birth. We see her face gradually merging with the criss-cross threads of the bed curtains until all we see is a pixellation, taking the traditional soft focus close-up to a new extreme – it’s really an art house effect, and quite unusual for its time.Sternberg said, “the face itself is an inspiring mask….there are painters who have painted nothing but the human face and…finally reduced it to a simple pattern”
The wedding scene is famous for its extreme close up on her face and the candle guttering with her breathing. The scenario evokes religious paintings of the Madonna and yet alludes to a less saintly kind of ecstasy…
The turnaround from wide-eyed innocent to wild-eyed libertine seems to develop precisely from these abstracted moments, as if we are seeing a psychological shift happen before our eyes.
In a strange piece of casting (as Marlene was by now famous for her devoted but distinctly disfunctional motherhood), the young Catherine was played by a genuine ingénue, her daughter Maria. It doesn’t really show in the film but Maria was reluctant and as plump and uncomfortable on the screen as her mother had once been.
The Art Direction looks much more extravagant than it really was – with gargoyles, skeleton at the wedding feast, lace and candles and OTT décor in every corner of every frame, it’s so excessive, think the nearest we get to these days would be the cinema of Baz Lurhmann. In yet another art / life parallel, it calls to mind the “Potemkin village” – the famous story of elaborate painted facades being put up to disguise the poverty of a village when Catherine the Great toured her territory.
As with “Morocco”, there was a fair amount of innuendo, for instance, of Peter’s mistress, “She’s always picking up the Archduke’s soldiers”
Later on, the final episode with Catherine on a white stallion may allude to the legend of Catherine’s death – while in an act of passion with a horse! (although in real life she passed away peacefully and alone in her bed)
It’s a bizarre hotchpotch of silent epic, romance, farce and sexual innuendo set against a background of grotesque but beautifully lit gothic extravagance. Performances are wildly variable in style and delivery. It is jaw dropping to look at but doesn’t entirely work. Yet, as critic Peter Kemp points out,
“One thing is certain: we’re out of the usual comfort zone established by most big-budget “golden-era” Hollywood studio filmmaking”