Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Scarlet Empress (1934)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions
The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

In Josef von Sternberg's startling, dark, daring, visually opulent, hauntingly expressionistic, and mostly fictional, unorthodox biopic of Prussian-born Princess Sophia Frederica - a semi-erotic tale of 18th century Russia; it marked the sixth (of seven) film collaborations between Sternberg and Dietrich:

  • in the opening montage, young Sophia Frederica (Maria Sieber/Riva, Marlene Dietrich's own daughter) was told a bedtime story about the sado-masochistic, depraved tortures and brutalities in Tsarist Russia, including views of a woman strapped to a revolving wheel, multiple axe-executions and beheadings, a group of bound topless women burned at the stake, and an upside-down male torture victim used as a giant bell-clapper
  • the young, naive, tremulous bride-to-be Princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) was brought on a seven-week journey to Russia for an arranged marriage to Grand Duke Peter III (Sam Jaffe in his film debut), nephew of the unpleasant, domineering Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser); the Empress hoped to improve the royal blood line by having Frederica marry her no-good nephew ("...pushed like a brood mare into the preparations for her marriage to a royal half-wit")
  • during the journey at a roadside waystation where they planned to spend the night, the handsome lead Russian emissary from Moscow, Count Alexei (John Lodge) complimented Sophia's beauty ("Your hand is beautiful, isn't it?") and he affectionately and boldly stole a kiss from her, and explained himself: "Because I've fallen in love with you"
The Count's Flirtations with Count Alexei at Waystation
  • once the Princess arrived in Moscow, Russia, the awed, wide-mouthed 15 year old Sophia looked in shock-amazement at everything: the gothic imagery of giant, ghoulish gargoyle-like statues each holding a candle, various religious icons, and the 20-foot-high, oversized carved wooden doors (requiring many women to open); she formally met the Empress, who immediately pronounced a new name for Sophia: "Sophia Frederica. Hardly a name for a future Empress....You will be called Catherine Alexina, a good Russian name"
  • in particular, she was revulsed by her first meeting with the Grand Duke Peter - a bumbling, idiotic, grinning, and childlike husband-to-be in an arranged marriage, who blurted out: "I want to play with my toys!"
  • during her bravura marriage ceremony sequence, the veil-covered, stone-faced Catherine looked trapped and overwhelmed amidst bearded Orthodox priests with crucifixes and waving incense - everyone holding candles, including Sophia with one flickering close to her face
The Bravura Marriage Ceremony Between Grand Duke Peter III (Sam Jaffe) and Princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich)
  • the character of Russia's new queen changed as she became involved in many romantic flirtations with men in her entourage, mostly with Russian emissary Count Alexei, an opportunistic womanizer, and Captain Orloff (Gavin Gordon)
  • Catherine met clandestinely with Count Alexei in the stable barn for her first amorous encounter, where she seductively kept replacing a piece of straw between her lips and warned: "If you come closer, I'll scream"; he removed every strand and then coyly answered: "It is easier for you to scream without a straw in your mouth," before kissing her; she was startled by the whinnying of a horse mid-kiss and ran off
  • she was shocked watching a giant drill bit penetrating and emerging from the eye of a mural wall painting - Peter had drilled a hole in the wall to spy on his Aunt's bedroom
  • in the film's most startling moment, Catherine learned the identity of the male who had been regularly bedding down the Empress; she caught a brief glimpse of a robed and hatted figure who climbed the stairs behind her and entered the Empress' bedroom - to her shock, it was the uniformed military figure of Count Alexei; insanely jealous and angered over Count Alexei's love of the old Empress Elizabeth, Catherine stomped on Count Alexei's portrait-locket and then threw it out of the window. It fell almost endlessly to the ground in stages, as it slowly descended and was momentarily caught by various tree branches, until it dropped into a snowdrift
Catherine's Shocking Discovery That Count Alexei was the Empress' Lover
  • having second thoughts, she decided to retrieve the locket-portrait and went outside her quarters; in a further scene of adulterous seduction, she was caught and detained by an anonymous palace guard, Lt. Dmitri (Gerald Fielding) on his first night of duty, who was astonished to learn who she was: ("If you are the Grand Duchess, then I am the Grand Duke...On a night like this, anything might happen - if I'm fortunate"). She mentioned that he was "fortunate, very fortunate" and clasped her hands behind him (with extended fingers) as she embraced and surrendered to him - before a fade to black
Catherine's Seduction of a Palace Guard: Lieutenant Dmitri
  • after the birth of a child (of questionable fatherhood), Catherine heard rumors that the Grand Duke had plans to remove her from power and execute her once the Empress passed away; he was also hinting that he would marry his black-haired, feral-looking mistress Countess Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Varonsoff (Ruthelma Stevens); soon after in 1762, the Empress died; Catherine realized the gravity of the new political situation once Peter assumed power and gloated over the open coffin of the Empress
  • fur-hatted Catherine had other plans ("Catherine coolly added the army to her list of conquests"); she was slowly transformed into a sexually-depraved dominatrix ruler with a whip; she appraised her troops, including swaggering, flirtatious assertions to Captain Orloff; she also singled out Lieutenant Dmitri - one of her attractive, virile soldiers: "Now there's another good-looking soldier....And your duties, Dmitri?...It must be cold at night, sometimes?...Anyway, I'm certain you're very efficient, Lieutenant"; she presented him with a medal and pinned it on his chest: "For bravery in action. See that you do justice to it in future emergencies" - he was most likely the one who had borne her a child!
  • she also appeared that evening in the Empress' old bedroom, with a gauzy veil over herself before allowing the desperate Count Alexei to vow his love for her: ("Catherine, I love you, worship you"); when he leaned down to kiss her behind the veil, she gripped the veil with her fist and drew it aside to reveal their affectionate kiss, and then asked for a favor from the scorned Count - to open her secret door to allow entrance for a more-preferred military figure - Captain Orloff
  • as predicted, after the death of the Empress, Peter put Catherine under house arrest: ("My wife is not to leave the palace. She's under arrest until further orders. Am I the Emperor of Russia, or am I not?"); to consolidate his power, Peter planned to eliminate her
  • in the bell-ringing conclusion, Catherine (in the white uniform of a male Cossack) had engineered a coup d'etat with the military and Orloff, to coordinate the downfall and assassination of Peter III; Catherine escaped through her bedroom's secret passageway with the aid of Captain Orloff and other soldiers; they mounted horses in a cavalry batallion led by Count Alexei; with the support of the military behind her, Count Alexei proudly and succinctly affirmed the transfer of power: "Exit Peter III. Enter Catherine II"; they proceeded to a military encampment to prepare for the toppling of Russian Emperor Peter III in the palace
  • the cavalry soldiers (with Catherine in the lead) noisily rode their horses back to the palace; they galloped up the grand staircase into the interior of the palace, and assembled in the throne room where she was crowned as Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia
  • the film's last lines were delivered by Count Orloff to Emperor Peter who had been dethroned: "There is no emperor. There is only an empress"; she victoriously ascended the throne with her white stallion horse to take her rightful place before her royal forces after her seizure of power

Naked Women Burned at the Stake

A Human Bell Clapper

In Moscow, The Princess Was Greeted by the Empress (Louise Dresser)

The Princess's First Meeting with the Imbecilic Grand Duke Peter

15 Year Old Sophia Overwhelmed and Surrounded by Giant Gargoyle Statues

With Womanizing Count Alexei in the Stable Barn

Peter's Spying on the Empress' Bedroom Through a Mural Painting

Count Alexei's Portrait-Locket Before It Was Stomped On by a Jealous Catherine

The Portrait-Locket Thrown Out the Window and Descending Down Tree Branches

Catherine's Swaggering Flirtations with Her Troops

Veiled Catherine Taunting Count Alexei With Her Love

The Toppling of Emperor Peter, and the Crowning of Catherine as Tsarina of Russia


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