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The Rise of Catherine the Great
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Index 13 reviews in total 

18 out of 21 people found the following review useful:

Excellent Historical Drama Of Old Russia

10/10
Author: Ron Oliver (revilorest@juno.com) from Forest Ranch, CA
14 June 2000

This is the story of CATHERINE THE GREAT, Czarina of All The Russias. Summoned by a fierce, dying Empress to marry the Russian heir, young princess Catherine soon learns that her bridegroom is both unfaithful & insane. After the death of the old Empress, Catherine's danger increases and she must learn to be very cunning in order to save herself from her unpredictable royal husband...

Vienna-born Elisabeth Bergner, in her first English-language film, is radiant as the obscure German princess who would become the most powerful woman in Russian history. Hers is an excellent performance in a difficult role, where it would have been easy to be upstaged by the other, flashier, characters. As Grand Duke Peter - later Czar Peter III - Douglas Fairbanks Jr. behaves like a homicidal Hamlet, all moodiness & flares of deadly temper. He makes an interesting effort to create a charmer out of a pathetic man who was obviously a maniac.

(Actual history relates that Catherine & Peter were married 17 years and had 3 children before Peter's ascension to the throne - a time period necessary for Catherine to build her strength, but which the movie makers ignore.)

Miss Bergner & Mr. Fairbanks are given an excellent supporting cast. Dame Flora Robson is wonderful as the Empress Elizabeth. Suspicious, domineering & rather wanton, Dame Flora makes the viewer want to know the story of this noteworthy monarch, overshadowed in history by her colorful successor. Celebrated stage actress Dame Irene Vanbrugh makes a rare screen appearance as Catherine's mother.

The small role of Peter's French valet is performed by Sir Gerald du Maurier, one of the great English actor-managers of the early days of the century. In this, his penultimate role & a few months from his death, Sir Gerald had become largely forgotten by his once enormous public. He gives his few lines great dignity. In his autobiography, Fairbanks relates that upon arriving at the studio prior to filming and before the other cast members, he discovered that he had been assigned a large dressing room, whilst Sir Gerald had been given a tiny one. Deciding this was not a proper way to treat the legendary actor, Fairbanks switched names on the doors. Sir Gerald soon arrived, sweeping majestically into the larger room, as if this was only natural...

It is fascinating to compare this very fine historical drama with Marlene Dietrich's SCARLET EMPRESS, also produced in 1934.

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9 out of 10 people found the following review useful:

Good Drama & Atmosphere

Author: Snow Leopard from Ohio
8 July 2005

The drama and characters in this movie about "Catherine the Great" are generally pretty good, although often non-historical, and the atmosphere is often quite good. The settings and many of the details were crafted with care, and apparently with ample resources available.

Elisabeth Bergner often gives distinctive, sometimes unusual portrayals of her characters, and this is no exception. Yet Catherine was such a complex figure that it's almost a moot point as to how accurate Bergner's portrayal may be, especially since the story here is mostly concerned about her younger days, before she became Empress. Bergner definitely makes Catherine interesting and worth caring about.

The story itself is interesting, and though it should not be viewed as accurate history, as a movie it works well enough, and sometimes it works quite well. As Peter, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gives his character a nature that is probably quite different from the historical Peter, but in itself it is a believable and effective portrayal.

The story of the ongoing intrigues involving Peter, Catherine, Elizabeth (a well-cast Flora Robson), and others, has some good moments. The historical situation was complicated, and it lends itself easily to a movie adaptation. The settings work well in conveying both the historical period and also the atmosphere of plots and counter-plots. The movie as a whole was overshadowed, even in its own time, by other features on the same subject, but it is still a good effort that is worth watching.

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9 out of 11 people found the following review useful:

Awesome movie...any questions?

10/10
Author: Adina Ophira Zidon (astrologist@earthlink.net) from Massachusetts
14 August 1999

While most people are more familiar with the Marlene Dietrich version of this movie, released the same year as The Scarlet Empress, those interested in romance will prefer this one because it shows a Czar Peter III exactly the opposite of the one that really lived. Douglas portrays someone tall, thin, intelligent, and unethically gorgeous. The other cast members seem more experienced than him, however, at the sort of historical drama roles this film called for. But one also must remember that the British cinema was still developing at this time. The early 30's were the years in which it began to become as great as American cinema (the same goes for films from countries other than England). So, give this film a chance. I personally found it fantastic. It's a bit rare, but worth every second of searching. And as a Korda classic, well, I'll leave the rest up to you. It's not historically accurate , but it's almost like another story in itself. The main flaw is the print is a bit dark. But overlook this and you have one of the greatest films of all time.

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5 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

The career of Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst

8/10
Author: theowinthrop from United States
2 July 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The dynasties of Europe are usually recalled only when they rule major nations for a long time: Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, Hanovarians, Windsors in England; Valois and Bourbon in French; Hapsburg of Austria; Hohenzollern of Prussia and Germany; and Romanov of Russia. The smaller dynasties pop up if they last long enough too: Saxe - Coburg in Belgium (and Bulgaria), Wittelsbach in Bavaria, Holsteins and Bernadottes in Sweden. Occasionally transplanted dynasties are recalled: Hapsburg and Bourbon in Spain.

Less recalled is if the spouse of a royal heir was from a really obscure family. But in the long run the need for new "blood" to continue a dynasty would lead to minor nobility producing wives or husbands for the major dynasties. It was rare for any of the these minor figures to become well known. But Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst did just that. In fact she was to become a great figure in her own time and in modern history. For Sophie became the Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia.

Two films that came out in 1934 dealt with Catherine's rise to power. One was THE SCARLET EMPRESS by Joseph Von Sternberg (starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, and Sam Jaffe) and the other was THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT. As pointed out in another review, the two movies each have aspects of the story missed by the other.

Elizabeth Bergner manages to show more of the naiveté of the young Princess brought to Russia to marry the Grand Duke Pyotr (who became Peter III). Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) was the sole male descendant of the Romanovs (except for a cousin who had been dethroned in 1741 by the reigning Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) and was held in a prison*). Tsarina Elizabeth was determined to have Peter marry and have an heir. She chose Sophie because of dynastic claims to Swedish and Baltic territories of the Romanov Family dealing with their Holstein blood connections - connections that Anhalt-Zerbst shared.

Both movies show how Elizabeth and Catherine (her name was changed to Catherine when she married Peter, as her Lutheran religion was changed to Greek Orthodoxy) treat each other with wariness, but gradually get to see each other as an ally. This is particularly true because Peter was mentally ill. However, while this is shown in THE SCARLET EMPRESS, it is not true about THE RISE. Fairbanks is shown to be mentally ill, but a type of affection rises between him and Catherine every now and then - which is dashed by his paranoia and suspicions.

The performance of Bergner is quite charming (as normal) in this film, and one gets a feeling of sadness that is not historically accurate. Here as history marches on, Catherine regretfully joins in the overthrow of her husband, and watches helplessly while he is taken away to his doom. The actual situation in the overthrow of Peter was closer to the cynical contempt shown by Marlene Dietrich towards her mad husband.

Flora Robson portrays Tsarina Elizabeth as a tired, dying woman, desperate to try to save the dynasty and her nation but aware of the rotten material she has to work with. It's as good a performance as the two leads.

I might add that you should note two brief supporting performances for a historical reason. Gerald Du Maurier (Daphne's father) was a leading stage star in England from the 1900s to 1930s. Irene Vanbrugh was a female star of the 1890s - 1920s (she was in the original THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST). Both play roles in this version - Irene Vanbrugh as Bergner's mother. It is very rare to see either of them on film.

*The cousin, Ivan VI, was imprisoned for life - and gradually lost his reason. The guards were told to kill him if there was ever an attempt to rescue the Tsar. When Peter III was overthrown, an adventurer attempted to rescue Ivan and restore him to his throne. Ivan was slain by his guards before the adventurer could reach him.

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2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

Good, but I prefer "The Scarlet Empress".

7/10
Author: planktonrules from Bradenton, Florida
1 September 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

1934 was a strange year. While there have been relatively few films about Catherine the Great of Russia, apparently 1934 was an exception. Not only were there two big-budget films about her, but both covered the exact same period of her life--when she first comes to Russia to marry and ending when she assumes control of the nation. Of the two, my personal favorite was "The Scarlet Empress" with Marlene Dietrich. But, "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is still a pretty good film.

Now I must stop for a minute to talk about the shortcomings of BOTH films. History, they say, is made by the winners and historians at the time seemed to spin Catherine's usurping the throne and the 'accidental death' of her husband as necessary because he was evil and insane. However, this is not the view of everyone--and many historians are just as convinced that she was a conniver and the only reason she was backed in her coup was that her husband was a reformer--and it was simply a case of the nobles wanting to keep their power. Whichever the case (and perhaps neither is correct), both films clearly portray Catherine in almost saint-like terms and a woman forced to take this action--which, by the way, would NOT fit her character later in her reign. In other words, she was one tough lady and probably not the little wall-flower you see in these films. After all, she went on to become one of the most powerful and feared of Russia's leaders.

I think my biggest problem with this film, despite the nice direction by Alexander Korda, is that the script doesn't seem to know what sort of film it is. In the first half, it's a love story about Peter and his new bride, Catherine. Both care for each other but Peter later comes to believe that he was manipulated into the marriage and pulls away from his wife. Later, through clever manipulation, she wins his hearts. It's clearly a love story....period. Yet, oddly, as soon as the Empress is ready to die, the elderly lady (Flora Robson) tells everyone that Peter (her nephew) is crazy and dangerous. In light of everything we've already seen, there was no indication of this at all---none. And suddenly, Peter (Douglas Fairbanks) starts behaving crazy and very, very cruel and vindictive. As a result of many threats against his loving wife, Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner) is forced to fight fire with fire and she takes the throne. So what did the two halves of the film have to do with each other--just about nothing other than the names of the characters! While both halves were good, they just didn't fit together well. Additionally, I felt the weak point acting-wise was Bergner--whose interpretation of Catherine was way too weak and sentimental.

My feeling is that this is a watchable film even if its accuracy is in question. But, how many want to watch two films on the exact subject? If you don't, then I suggest the Dietrich version instead--it's made better and the acting is better.

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2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

Sumptuous Korda production

6/10
Author: blanche-2 from United States
14 August 2009

Alexander Korda produced this lavish film, "The Rise of Catherine the Great," starring Elizabeth Bergner, Flora Robson, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It's the story, not wholly accurate but still interesting, of, as the title suggests, Catherine the Great's (Bergner)ascension to the throne as it was wrested from her crazy husband Peter (Fairbanks). Though in the film this all seems to happen somewhat quickly, Catherine and Peter were married for 17 years and had children before the Empress Elizabeth dies and Peter becomes tsar.

In the film, Peter cheats on Catherine on their wedding night, and she pretends to take many lovers. This makes him jealous, and the two reconcile. However, after the Empress Elizabeth dies, the decisions that he makes as tsar on behalf of Mother Russia are outrageous, and Catherine is encouraged to go along with a coup.

Wide-eyed, girlish Bergner is Catherine. Bergner was a noted stage actress in Europe who unfortunately never caught on in Hollywood; nevertheless, she worked in Europe until she was 87 years old. Supposedly an incident in her life was the inspiration for "All About Eve." Tiny, she nevertheless had authority as an actress, with line readings that were at times reminiscent of Garbo. She is a good Catherine. The showier roles were those of the Empress Elizabeth and Grand Duke Peter. Flora Robson is a wonderful Empress Elizabeth, and Fairbanks, always an underrated actor, is brilliant as the volatile, mad Duke.

Worth seeing for the performances.

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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:

Decent Historical Yarn

6/10
Author: James Hitchcock from Tunbridge Wells, England
24 January 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Like "Rembrandt" which I recently reviewed on this board "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is an ostensibly British historical film from the thirties which might also be regarded as a multi-national co-production. It was based on the play by two Hungarian writers (Lajos Bíró and Melchior Lengyel) about a German-born Russian Empress. It had two co-producers, one Hungarian (Alexander Korda) and one Italian (Ludovico Toeplitz), an Austrian director (Paul Czinner) and an American-born leading man (Douglas Fairbanks junior). Its leading lady, Elisabeth Bergner, is difficult to categorise in terms of ethnicity. She was born to a German-speaking Jewish family in what was at the time of her birth part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the time this film was made part of Poland and today is part of the Ukraine. Rather than determine whether she should be described as German, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish or Ukrainian, her Wikipedia entry evades the issue by calling her a "European actress".

In 1745 Princess Sophie Auguste Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived in Russia to marry the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Although Peter had a Russian mother, he too was from a German princely house, that of Holstein-Gottorp, and could speak little Russian. (By rights the name of Russia's ruling dynasty should, from 1762 onwards, have been the House of Holstein-Gottorp, but for reasons of both nationalism and continuity Peter's descendants continued to use the more authentically Russian surname Romanov). Upon arrival Sophie's name was arbitrarily changed to Yekaterina, generally rendered in English as Catherine, even though "Sofiya" would have been a perfectly acceptable Russification of her German name. Her marriage to the mentally unstable Peter was not a happy one, but they remained together until after he had ascended the throne in 1762. (Divorce would presumably have been unthinkable). As Tsar Peter proved a disaster, and within a few months he was removed from power by a military coup, dying in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, following which the coup plotters invited Catherine to become Empress in her own right.

As its title suggests, the film only deals with Catherine's rise to power and not with her subsequent reign. One or two details have been changed for dramatic purposes; in reality Catherine and Peter's marriage lasted for seventeen years, but in the film this period is greatly telescoped and no mention is made of their children. (Their son Paul eventually became Tsar after Catherine's death, even though he was nearly as mad as his father). No mention is also made of the historical Catherine's notorious sexual promiscuity, but in 1934 movie heroines were required to be impeccably virtuous, and Catherine is very much the heroine here.

Bergner is not very good in the leading role, partly because she did not speak English very well but mainly because she is insufficiently imperious and commanding to make us think that this is a woman capable of not only ruling a mighty empire in her own right but also ruling it so well as to acquire the title "The Great". One cannot envisage Bergman's "Little Catherine" ever amounting to more than, at most, a puppet in the hands of the aristocrats and military officers who carried out the coup d'état.

Fairbanks, however, is good as Peter, a difficult role to play because in this production Peter, although suffering from mental illness, is not altogether unsympathetic. At times he is capable of showing love towards Catherine, who for a time returns his love until he begins an affair with another woman. When he dies in the coup his wife is devastated, which is probably more than one could say for the real Catherine. Flora Robson is also good as Empress Elizabeth, Peter's aunt and Catherine's autocratic if capable predecessor.

The mid-eighteenth century was a period when clothes and furnishings favoured by the wealthy classes of Europe were particularly fanciful and elaborate, and this is reflected in the lavish sets and costumes on view here. (By this period the Russian nobility had largely adopted Western fashions; had the story been set a hundred years earlier the clothes of the Boyars and their wives would have been very different to those worn by their English or French counterparts). It is therefore a pity that the film was made in black-and-white, but in 1934 colour film was an expensive luxury, rarely used in Britain. "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is a fairly decent historical yarn, but I felt it could have been better with another actress in the leading role. 6/10

A goof. The film begins and ends with a rousing rendition of the Russian Imperial Anthem, "Tsarya, Bozhe, Khrani", but this hymn was not written until 1833, long after the date when the film is set.

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2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:

the other Scarlet Empress movie of 1934

7/10
Author: Michael Neumann from United States
9 November 2010

Yet more intrigue from the court of imperial Russia, which (at least according to movie history) must have functioned entirely on plots, counter-plots, rumors, gossip and scandal. Produced in England by the celebrated Alexander Korda, this handsome spectacle stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (less dynamic but a better actor than his father) as the petulant heir to the royal throne who marries the petite German princess Catherine more or less against his will. Favored by the Queen Mother and beloved by her subjects, the sensible and modest Catherine has only one flaw in her character: an unquenchable love for her power-mad, playboy husband. Their bittersweet love/hate rivalry must have seemed quite sophisticated to a 1934 audience, and seen today the film still possesses a freshness rarely seen in early sound productions, thanks in large part to a quality script and some lively, natural performances.

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3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

CATHERINE THE GREAT (Paul Czinner, 1934) ***

7/10
Author: MARIO GAUCI (marrod@melita.com) from Naxxar, Malta
2 June 2011

This is the first of 6 films I intend to watch about the famous Russian sovereign (albeit of German origins) as part of the Josef von Sternberg retrospective, whose masterpiece THE SCARLET EMPRESS – from the same year – also deals with her. It was obviously intended as the British response (through renowned producer Alexander Korda) of the afore-mentioned Paramount release; ironically, the latter had been made – as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich – in the wake of the classic Greta Garbo title QUEEN Christina (1933)!

Even so, the result here is quite a good film taken on its own merits – though lacking the ornate visual sense and other idiosyncrasies that Sternberg deployed in his version (and which made it so fascinating to watch in the first place). In any case, this has all the virtues and faults of a typical Korda effort: low-key approach undermined by stiff production and buoyed by reliable casting. The latter sees Elizabeth Bergner – the director is her husband – in the title role (though she does well by the character on a human plane, there is little to suggest her 'great' qualities as monarch!), top-billed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (an ambivalent characterization as he goes all-too-swiftly from being submissive to his Empress aunt through a pre-arranged marriage to tyranny: his is a valiant try, but the star's dashing looks makes this incongruity that more conspicuous!) and Flora Robson (as the ailing Empress who conspires with Catherine to depose her own unstable nephew: the distinguished actress would virtually make a career out of playing monarchs!).

Plot-wise, court intrigue (easily the more interesting aspect to the narrative) is too often swamped by romantic complications and that worst trapping of costumers i.e. archaic dancing…but, having grown up watching the Korda films on Italian TV (even if not among its very best examples, this one is solid enough), I kind of have a soft spot for them and, in fact, over the years I managed to collect virtually all of the more notable titles in that popular cycle (including the same year's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN which, coincidentally, starred Fairbanks pere!). By the way, while this one was originally released in the U.S. as THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT, it was recently issued on R1 DVD through Criterion's sister label Eclipse as part of a Korda Box Set (along with DON JUAN itself and two superb Charles Laughton vehicles – namely the Oscar-winning THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII {1933} and, arguably his masterpiece, REMBRANDT {1936}).

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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

That Catherine Was Great and Popular

8/10
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
2 July 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Although Marlene Dietrich was a far more glamorous Catherine the Great, closer to the real one was definitely Elizabeth Bergner in this British production from Alexander Korda.

The former Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, one of many small pieces of turf in Germany before that country became a country instead of a geographical expression, pulled off something unique in history. She came as a promised bride to the tsarevitch who in this case was Peter, nephew of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Through her own will and genius for intrigue, this Queen Consort, without a drop of royal blood of Russia in her, got to rule Russia and well for over 30 years after deposing her husband. Woman must have done something right.

The film here like the one in Hollywood ends with the deposition and death of the Czar and Catherine taking over. We don't see the regal, confident, and promiscuous empress Catherine was to become. We see her as a shy and overwhelmed German Princess who grows in her role as her husband won't in his. Catherine grows in her character as Elizabeth Bergner does in this part.

Sam Jaffe as Peter is far closer to the mark of the real character of that unfortunate soul than Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is in this film. Yet Fairbanks gives an extraordinary performance, far from the swashbuckling parts that his father patented on the silent screen. In fact both the Fairbanks were in the UK at the same time. Fairbanks senior gave his farewell screen performance in the Private Life of Don Juan and his son did about seven films for four years of which this is probably his best effort.

The pleasure loving Empress Elizabeth as done by Flora Robson is light years different from Queen Elizabeth in Fire Over England and The Sea Hawk that Robson did later, but still very nicely done.

Alexander Korda perfectly captured the mood and feel of old Romanov Russia as taken over by a usurper, a popular one, but still a usurper.

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