The Scarlet Empress [Criterion Collection] [DVD] [1934]

Josef von Sternberg's 1934 masterpiece The Scarlet Empress, starring his muse Marlene Dietrich, has been issued on DVD through The Criterion Collection. The film has been transferred digitally, with both the restored images (presented in 1:33:1 full-screen format) and sound registering well, though at times the picture doesn't appear as sharp as one would imagine. The DVD comes with English subtitles, and has its interactive menus set against beautiful images of Dietrich's legendary face. Also included is a stills archive gallery, with over 40 publicity and production photos, as well as images of several original lobby cards from the film's 1934 theatrical release. A 20-minute BBC documentary, The World of Josef von Sternberg, is included, in which the famed director demonstrates his lighting techniques and explains his relationship with his star, all the while letting his harsh and masterful personality shine through. This DVD also boasts a colorful booklet with entertaining and informative essays by historian Robin Wood and filmmaker Jack Smith. More historical information on the star herself would have been appreciated, especially for those unfamiliar with her history with Von Sternberg. Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to have a film such as this available on DVD; though the picture flopped in its initial release, it has gone on to become one of cinema's all-time classics.
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The Scarlet Empress
Of the two 1934 film versions of the life of Russia's Catherine the Great, Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress was the most opulent and exotic. Marlene Dietrich plays the German-born Catherine, who is required to marry Russia's mad Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe, decked out in a Harpo Marx wig). As if her joke of a marriage isn't torment enough, Catherine must endure the excesses of her new mother-in-law, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). Eventually, Catherine finds solace -- and romance -- in the form of Count Alexei (John Lodge). But even this balm is denied her when the ambitious Alexei begins wooing the much-older Elizabeth. When the old Empress dies, Catherine ascends to the Russian throne, knowing full well that her addled husband would kill her at the slightest provocation. Soon her power outstrips Peter's, and the opportunistic Alexei now comes back into her life. The finale finds Catherine emerging triumphant over all her enemies -- and, in the film's least subtle sequence (which is saying a lot!), the new Empress is shown astride a horse, to whom she displays far more affection than any of her human compatriots. The Scarlet Empress has even less to do with accuracy than Paul Czinner's Catherine the Great of the same year, which starred Elizabeth Bergner. Watch for Dietrich's real-life daughter Maria Sieber (aka Maria Riva) as the 7-year-old Catherine in the early scenes. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Cast & Crew

  • Marlene Dietrich
    Marlene Dietrich - Sophia Frederica, later Catherine II of Russia
  • Sam Jaffe
    Sam Jaffe - Grand Duke Peter
  • Louise Dresser
    Louise Dresser - Empress Elizabeth
  • Image coming soon
    Maria Sieber - Sophia as a Child
  • C. Aubrey Smith
    C. Aubrey Smith - Prince August
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