The Scarlet Empress

29 Mar

The Scarlet Empress—directed by Josef von Sternberg. Biopic. 104 minutes 1934.
The Story: A young German princess hastens to Russia to marry the to-be Tsar and her disappointment is sweetened with many consolations including her extirpation of him.

On screen, Marlene Dietrich has two expressions. The first is long before she commits adultery and the second is just before she commits adultery. In Dietrich films, adultery is always to be committed. As in her real life.

Here, the first expression consists of her opening her mouth in innocent stupefaction at everything and every one. The second expression consists of her closing her mouth. The first accompanies her opening her eyes wide as daisies to project unblinking virginity. The second expression co-ordinates with her lowering her lids to half-mast and ticking off her 10,000 previous sexual triumphs with her smirk. In the first her false eyelashes are smaller than in the second. In the second her lashes are so long she can lash people to death with them.

Think of Marlene Dietrich playing the innocent princess! The imagination is wrestled to earth at the proposition. But that is what she is called on to do by her puppet-master, von Sternberg for most of this film. Yes, she must be a virgin. After all the princess is only 15 and Marlene Dietrich is only 33.

How wonderful is this film! How complete an act of self-indulgence! How consummate a production and a presentation! Everything that can be overdone is overdone and then laughed at right then and there. The royals sit in immense gargoyle chairs and couches, and these gargoyles travel through every scene, nightmares of wood, ogres of plaster, tortures in marble. Through it all Dietrich is impervious to guilt, remorse, and thought.

We follow Dietrich from one costume change through a thousand others and are never bored, never refuse the offering of so much grotesquerie. Master Overdone, von Sternberg her director never asked her to overdo a thing. Au contraire, Dietrich as an actor is scarcely moved and scarcely moves. Her face is a mask of her very own face.

In her films, everyone behaves as though Marlene Dietrich were beautiful, but she is no more beautiful than a robot. She is a contraption of sexual experience. Except who the heck would ever risk their nuts by getting near her. Of course, she had many liaisons, from Jean Gabin to Jimmy Stewart to Yul Brynner. She bestowed herself upon various front line generals in World War II and upon many soldiers too—and good for her! She raised the War morale, and all received benefit by the training.

Here, we can only watch her, without love, without admiration even, but with unanswerable befuddlement, as she mocks the moralities which forgive everything because, in their permanence, they are simply immune to mockery. She herself rises to a higher plain of corruption. From promiscuity she dons snow white military trousers and rides a white stallion up the stairs of The Winter Palace and leaps over the murder of her lunatic husband the Tsar right onto the throne.

What’s so peculiar is that she also loves the handsomest man in all Russia, who pursues her and whom she crushes. The man is played by the lusciously handsome hyper-masculine John Lodge in a valiant wig. A scrumptious male whose like is not seen again until Marlon Brando, the lubricity of this attraction sears through the claptrap of the film’s history and the hysteria of its presentation, as Lodge supplies the only acting reality in the picture. which is to leave out Louise Dresser, wonderful as the Iowa-voiced fishwife Empress Of All The Russias and Sam Jaffe as the idiot dauphin Peter III. Dietrich herself, as she knew, was not an actress. She was a presentation.

And never more so than in this delirious picture, which is beautifully written, splendidly produced and directed, magnificently mounted, shot with genius.

Don’t deprive yourself of such pleasure as seeing a picture which resembles none other—until, of course, we reach the heyday of Maria Montez. Remember:there never was an actress like Maria Montez!

And also remember: there never was a non-actress like Marlene Dietrich.

Comments Off on The Scarlet Empress

Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza



Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Technorati button Reddit button Myspace button Linkedin button Webonews button Delicious button Digg button Flickr button Stumbleupon button Newsvine button