The Scarlet Empress
December 18th, 2021

The Scarlet Empress [1934]


Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s film The Scarlet Empress [1934].


Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 • www.BuffaloLib.org
COVID protocol will be followed.


TrailerSynopsisActor BioDirector BioLinks

Josef von Sternberg’s stylized look at Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich). Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe, C. Aubrey Smith, John Lodge, Olive Tell, Ruthelma Stevens.

Tidbits:

  • National Board of Review – 1934 – Top Foreign Films
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“I had no desire to be an film actress, to always play somebody else, to be always beautiful with somebody constantly straightening out your every eyelash. It was always a big bother to me.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Arguably one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, actress Marlene Dietrich utilized her cat-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and halo of blonde curls to capture the imagination of fans both male and female. At once alluring and sexy, Dietrich projected a curious androgyny by casting off societal mores and sometimes dressing as man, wearing trousers, vests and ties. She received her start in her native Germany working as a chorus girl and later performer in silent films, where she caught the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who became both mentor and lover. It was von Sternberg who introduced Dietrich to America in “Morocco” (1930), a bold and rather scandalous debut that featured the actress dressed in a man’s tuxedo and kissing another woman. She went on to star in a number of hit movies with von Sternberg, including “Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), before the two broke off their professional and personal relationship. Though one of the highest paid actresses of her day, Dietrich nonetheless made a series of flops like “Angel” (1937) and “Knight Without Armor” (1937) that tagged her as box office poison. Meanwhile, she became actively involved in selling war bonds and performing for the troops during World War II. Dietrich’s film career wound down in the 1950s following noted performances in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). During this time, she found second life as a stage performer who sold-out houses the world over. But a series of injuries suffered in the mid-1970s forced her retirement while raising charges that she was battling alcoholism. Though she remained in seclusion for the rest of her days, Dietrich left behind a legacy as an alluring screen goddess whose sensual, yet mysterious persona embodied the true definition of movie star.

Born on Dec. 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, Germany, Dietrich was raised with her sister, Elizabeth, in Berlin and Dressau by her father, Louis, a policeman, and her mother, Wilhelmina, a jeweler’s daughter. After her father’s death in 1907, her mother remarried his best friend, Edouard von Losch, who later died on the battlefield in World War I. As a child, Dietrich showed promise as a violinist, attending the Hochschule fur Musik following her attendance in all-girls schools for her primary education. But her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short after she suffered a wrist injury. Luckily she was also interested in theater and dance, which led to auditioning for famed stage impresario Max Reinhardt’s school in Berlin, though she failed to earn a place on her first try. Eventually, Dietrich was accepted, but in the meantime she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in 1921. The following year, she made her first film, “So Sind die Manner” (“The Little Napoleon”) and landed her first lead, opposite William Dieterle in his directorial debut, “Der Mensche am Wege” (“Man by the Roadside”) (1923). It was while working on “Tragödie der Liebe” (“Love Tragedy”) (1923) that Dietrich met actor Rudolf Sieberwhich, whom she married later that year. The two had their only child, Maria Sieberwhich – who later changed her name to Maria Riva – in 1924.

Dietrich continued to appear in German films, including the Alexander Korda-directed “Eine DuBarry von Heute” (“A Modern Dubarry”) (1926) and “Madame Wunscht keine Kinder” (“Madame Wants No Children”) (1926). But despite being married, Dietrich engaged in a seemingly endless string of affairs with both men and women throughout her life. One of the earliest and most beneficial was with Austrian filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg, who had established himself in Hollywood and returned to Germany at the suggestion of actor Emil Jannings to make the country’s first sound feature, “Der Blaue Engel” (“The Blue Angel”) (1929). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich, which von Sternberg recognized immediately and prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and led Paramount Pictures to offer Dietrich a contract in the hopes the actress would be their answer to MGM’s great import, Greta Garbo. By the spring of 1930, she arrived in Hollywood.

The first U.S. film between Dietrich and von Sternberg was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured the actress as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue while firmly establishing Dietrich as an overnight star. The role also earned the actress her only Academy Award nomination of her career. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once alluring and scathing. Whether it was playing a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), Dietrich projected an ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. Cultivating a dual appeal, her sultry come-hither eyes basked in heavy makeup and shadow drew in the men, while her penchant for wearing more masculine clothes, including slacks, blazers and ties, made her a hit with women itching for liberation of that kind.

With “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together for the last time. Meanwhile, the delightful Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic comedy “Desire” (1936) proved a hit and solidified her status as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before fellow Paramount contract player Carole Lombard usurped her a year later. Dietrich made a smooth segue into her first Technicolor movie, “The Garden of Allah” (1937), a romantic melodrama starring Charles Boyer and produced by David O. Selznick. But her next couple of films, “Angel” (1937) and the notoriously expensive flop “Knight without Armor” (1937), earned the tag of box office poison and led Paramount to buy out the remainder of her contract. Defying the pundits, Dietrich roared back with one of her best performances as the saloon entertainer Frenchy who winkingly crowed “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” in the James Stewart Western, “Destry Rides Again” (1939). But it would be Dietrich’s last brush with her former glamorous glory, which waned in the years prior to World War II despite the actress continuing to make movies. By this time, Dietrich was prolifically engaged in many affairs with famous men and women. Among the many conquests she indulged in over the years were the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, German cabaret singer Margo Lion, George Bernard Shaw, female speedboat racer Marion Carstairs, Yul Brynner, Cuban writer Mercedes de Acosta and President John F. Kennedy. While some affairs lasted decades, others were perfunctory. But almost all were committed while she remained married to Sieberwhich, though the two were long separated by the time of his death in 1976.

Though on top once again, Dietrich – who was put under contract by Universal – made a number of lackluster films, including “Seven Sinners” (1940) and “Pittsburgh” (1942) opposite John Wayne, “Manpower” (1941) with Edward G. Robinson, and “The Lady is Willing” (1942), screwball comedy starring Fred MacMurray. But while her career was flagging, Dietrich was actively involved on the home front with the war effort. A virulent anti-Nazi – reportedly she was disgusted to learn that Adolf Hitler considered her his favorite actress – Dietrich went above and beyond the call of duty, becoming one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds – she went on to sell more than any other star – while going on extended USO tours in 1944-45. Meanwhile, she participated in a series of propaganda broadcasts for the radio that were meant to demoralize enemy troops. When all was done and told, few could point to another celebrity outside of Bob Hope who did more for the boys at war. In 1947, Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts, which she considered to be her proudest moment. Following the war, she co-starred opposite Jean Gabin in the unspectacular French crime film “Martin Roumagnac” (1946) before turning in an amusing turn as a gypsy in “Golden Earrings” (1946).

Dietrich went on to deliver an underappreciated performance as a wisecracking and cynical ex-Nazi chanteuse in the Billy Wilder-directed comedy “A Foreign Affair” (1948), one of the director’s more forgotten films. Although she was still a star, Dietrich had become known as “the world’s most glamorous grandmother” after her daughter Maria Riva gave birth. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with actresses of a certain age, particularly those whose careers were based on their looks. Unlike her former rival Garbo, who retired in 1941, Dietrich continued to work despite her reputation as difficult. Still commanding hefty paychecks, she appeared in a variety of projects, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) and Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” (1952). But when Tinseltown failed to provide consistent work, Dietrich turned to the concert stage, spending four years in the mid-‘50s on tour in venues as diverse as Las Vegas hotels and London nightclubs. In fact, her primary source of income came from a long string of stage performances that she continued well into the 1970s, with every increasingly limited onscreen appearances. Her act – which was honed with composer Burt Bacharach – consisted of some of her popular songs, which were sung while wearing elegant gowns, while for the second half of her performance, she would wear a top hat and tails, and sing songs often associated with men.

Despite being a stage sensation, Dietrich appeared sporadically on screen, becoming one of the many performers who made cameo appearances in the Oscar-winning Best Picture “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). But her film work was questionable at best, as demonstrated with the rather unimpressive Italian comedy-drama, “The Monte Carlo Story” (1957). Dietrich did offer a nice turn as the stylish title character in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), a courtroom drama directed by Billy Wilder that was widely considered one of his best films. She was also terrific in a small role as the fortune-telling brothel madam who advises corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) that his future was all used up in the director’s film noir classic “Touch of Evil” (1958). Meanwhile, director Stanley Kramer tapped her to portray the widow of a German officer in another superb courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), which marked the end of a mini-resurgence that offered audiences a last glimpse of the actress in top form. Aside from a cameo appearance as herself in the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy, “Paris When It Sizzles” (1964), Dietrich failed to grace the screen again until her final appearances in the German-made romance “Just a Gigolo” (1978).

For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Dietrich headlined concert performances around the world, playing everywhere from Moscow to Jerusalem, where she broke the social taboo of singing songs in German while in Israel. In 1960, her tour of Germany met with some derision from her former countrymen who felt that Dietrich had betrayed them during the war. Later in the decade, she enjoyed a spectacular run on Broadway in 1967 and even earned a Special Tony Award for her performance the following year. The show was later recreated for the television special “Marlene Dietrich: I Wish You Love” (CBS, 1973). It was during this time that her health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by increased use of alcohol and painkillers to ease the pain caused by injury. In 1973, Dietrich required skin grafts after falling off the stage in Washington, D.C., while the following year she fractured her leg. During a performance in Australia in 1975, Dietrich fell off the stage and broke her leg, forcing her to retire. Meanwhile, in 1984, Maximilian Schell – who starred with Dietrich in “Judgment at Nuremberg” – made the fascinating documentary “Marlene,” in which the actress refused to be photographed, though she consented to recorded interviews. By this time, she was living in virtual seclusion in the Paris apartment where she died on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90.

Filmography:

  • Entertaining the Troops (1989)
  • Going Hollywood: The War Years (1988)
  • Marlene (1984)
  • Just a Gigolo (1978)
  • Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
  • Black Fox (1962)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • The Monte Carlo Story (1957)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • No Highway in the Sky (1951)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • Jigsaw (1949)
  • A Foreign Affair (1948)
  • Golden Earrings (1947)
  • Martin Roumagnac (1946)
  • Kismet (1944)
  • Follow the Boys (1944)
  • The Lady Is Willing (1942)
  • Pittsburgh (1942)
  • The Spoilers (1942)
  • Manpower (1941)
  • The Flame of New Orleans (1941)
  • Seven Sinners (1940)
  • Destry Rides Again (1939)
  • Knight Without Armor (1937)
  • Angel (1937)
  • Desire (1936)
  • The Garden of Allah (1936)
  • I Loved a Soldier (1936)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • The Song of Songs (1933)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Das Schiff der Verlorenen Menschen (1929)
  • Die Frau Nach der Man Sich Sehnt (1929)
  • Prinzessin Olala (1928)
  • Ich kusse ihre Hand, Madame (1928)
  • Cafe Electric (1927)
  • Manon Lescaut (1926)
  • Madame Wunscht keine Kinder (1926)
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • Der Mensch Am Wege (1923)
  • Tragodie der Liebe (1923)

“I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Once considered one of Hollywood’s premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light and dark created stunning visuals onscreen that took on a life of their own. He made his mark as a director during the silent era with “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928). Following the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929), von Sternberg went back to Germany and cast the then-unknown Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” (1930), which he shot concurrently in English and in his native tongue. The film turned Dietrich into an international star, and with the exotic actress as his muse, rejuvenated his Hollywood career. Von Sternberg directed Dietrich in six more films, most notably “Morocco” (1930), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934). But once “The Devil is a Woman” (1935) failed at the box office, von Sternberg’s collaboration with Dietrich was over. While he directed a few more films like “Crime and Punishment” (1935) and “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), von Sternberg’s career diminished. Despite the rather quiet end to his days as a director, von Sternberg’s influence and reputation as the ultimate Svengali remained consequential for generations of filmmakers.

Born on May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria, von Sternberg was raised by his father, Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army who made his way to America was his son was three, and his mother, Serafin. In 1901, his father sent for the family after obtaining work and von Sternberg lived for a time in New York, before going back to Vienna. In 1908, he returned to the States, this time for good, and grew up on Long Island, where he worked as an apprentice at his aunt’s millinery store and as a stock clerk for a lace store. After dropping out of Jamaica High School, von Sternberg found work cleaning and repairing movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his first credit as an assistant director on “The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon” (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on “By Divine Right” (1923), before marking his debut as a director on “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), a successful picture widely considered to be America’s first true independent film.

After joining Paramount Pictures as an assistant director, von Sternberg returned to directing his own films, making pictures like “Exquisite Sinner” (1926), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928), which starred the great German actor Emil Jannings. It was Jannings who recommended that von Sternberg return to Europe to direct the film version of Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel” (1930). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Marlene Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich – particularly when she sang “Falling in Love Again” to a smitten Jannings – which von Sternberg recognized immediately and which prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Though some would claim he would later exert too much of a Svengali-like influence over both her film roles and her personal life. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and helped rejuvenate von Sternberg’s Hollywood career, which faltered after the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929).

The first U.S. film between von Sternberg and Dietrich was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured her as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once beautiful and scathing. Whether casting his actress as a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), von Sternberg shaped Dietrich’s ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. But with “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together for the last time.

During his post-Dietrich era, von Sternberg directed a handful of projects before his career went into permanent decline. He directed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (1935) before launching an attempt to helm “I, Claudius” in 1937, which remained unfinished due to problems with financial backers. After “Sergeant Madden” (1939), starring Wallace Beery, he directed “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), a delightfully dark film noir of suspense and exoticism in which Gene Tierney, Ona Munson, and Victor Mature together assume the Dietrich persona in this exploration of the denizens of a lurid Shanghai gambling house. It would be another 11 years before he directed his next film, “Macao” (1952), a financial disaster that turned out to be the last he made for Hollywood. He went on to help the Japanese-made war film, “The Saga of Anatahan” (1952), a poetic study of Japanese soldiers isolated on an island at the end of WWII, which the director later cited as his favorite work. Meanwhile, he was one of several directors to work on Howard Hughes’ “Jet Pilot” (1957), which starred John Wayne and took four painful years to make. In 1959, von Sternberg began teaching film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, where two of his students turned out to be Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Manzarek later cited von Sternberg as the greatest influence on the band and their music. He left his post at UCLA in 1963 and died six years later on Dec. 22, 1969 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Filmography:

  • The Epic That Never Was (I, Claudius) (1965)
  • Jet Pilot (1957)
  • Macao (1952)
  • Anatahan (1952)
  • The Shanghai Gesture (1942)
  • I Take This Woman (1940)
  • Sergeant Madden (1939)
  • I, Claudius (1937)
  • The King Steps Out (1936)
  • Crime and Punishment (1935)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • An American Tragedy (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Thunderbolt (1929)
  • The Case of Lena Smith (1929)
  • The Dragnet (1928)
  • The Docks of New York (1928)
  • The Last Command (1928)
  • Underworld (1927)
  • A Woman of the Sea (1926)
  • The Exquisite Sinner (1926)
  • The Masked Bride (1925)
  • Salvation Hunters (1925)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • Cultivate Cinema Circle info-sheet – link
  • “Cossacks gallop furiously through this picture and Miss Marlene Dietrich is photographed in as many ways and from almost as many angles as a Warner Brothers chorus ensemble. Not much story and less history.” – Ann Ross, Maclean’s [1934]
  • The Scarlet Empress had been unavailable for years…Ostensibly it is about the marriage of the young and innocent Sophia Frederica to the mad Grand Duke Peter of Russia, and the insurrection which resulted in her becoming the new Empress Catherine. Looking at it today, one is continually puzzled (and delighted) by Sternberg’s ambivalent attitudes towards the material. Surely nobody could have doubted that he was sending it up (‘those ideas are old-fashioned—this is the eighteenth century’ proclaims the ardent, black-wigged Count Alexei to the pouting young Catherine). Yet Sternberg’s insolent wit was the last thing commented on at the time. Strange, too, how these comic anachronisms are made to alternate with set-pieces played solely for their dramatic or exotic appeal; all dialogue ceases and Sternberg constructs a sequence ‘painted with light’ which fully confirms his reputation as one of cinema’s great visual stylists.” – John Gillett, Sight & Sound [1965]
  • “‘It is a relentless excursion into style,’ Josef von Sternberg said of his The Scarlet Empress. That’s putting it mildly. Here is a film so crammed with style, so surrounded by it and weighted down with it, that the actors peer out from the display like children in a toy store. The film tells the story of Catherine the Great as a bizarre visual extravaganza, combining twisted sexuality and bold bawdy humor as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade…As drama, The Scarlet Empress makes no sense, nor does it attempt to. This is not a resource for history class. Its primary subject is von Sternberg’s erotic obsession with Dietrich, whom he objectified in a series of movies that made her face one of the immortal icons of the cinema. Whether she could act was beside the point for him; it would have been a distraction.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times [2006] – link

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