A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress
Princess Sophia Frederica/Catherine II: Marlene Dietrich
Count Alexei: John Lodge
Grand Duke Peter: Sam Jaffe
Empress Elizabeth Petrovna: Louise Dresser
Prince August: C. Aubrey Smith
Capt. Grigori Orloff: Gavin Gordon
Sophia as a Child: Maria Riva

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Manuel Komroff, Eleanor McGeary
Based on a diary of Catherine II of Russia
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art direction: Hans Dreier
Film editing: Josef von Sternberg, Sam Winston
Music: W. Franke Harling, John Leipold

The Scarlet Empress may be the silliest movie ever made, and never sillier than when Marlene Dietrich, her hair done up all in curls, pretends to be innocent and naive by opening her eyes wide beneath her penciled-in eyebrows. Now mind you, I have nothing against silliness; some of of my favorite movies are silly, like Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938), which may be the silliest great movie ever made. (Or the greatest silly movie, depending on which way you come at it.) So I love The Scarlet Empress, for all its outrageous camping-up of 18th-century Russia with cartoon icons and ubiquitous gargoyles -- the greatest of which is Sam Jaffe's grinning idiot of a grand duke. But we all know that Catherine II didn't earn the sobriquet "Great" just by sleeping with her soldiers (and perhaps some of the horses we see clattering up the palace staircases in the movie). So you really have to suspend a lot of disbelief and accept Josef von Sternberg's film for what it is: an outrageous parody of the historical epic, the sort of thing that people were expected to take seriously when, for example, Norma Shearer played Marie Antoinette for W.S. Van Dyke four years later. If The Scarlet Empress was a box office failure at the time it was because audiences weren't keyed in to the joke. Now we are, so we can revel in Hans Dreier's febrile vision of a Russian palace and the music arrangers' delirious pastiche of Tchaikovsky mingled with Mendelssohn and laced with a bit of Wagner's Valkyries (for when those horses are galloping through the halls). 

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