A criminal known as Thunderbolt is imprisoned and facing execution. Into the next cell is placed Bob Moran, an innocent man who has been framed and who is in love with Thunderbolt's girl. ... See full summary »
Young Princess Sophia of Germany is taken to Russia to marry the half-wit Grand Duke Peter, son of the Empress. The domineering Empress hopes to improve the royal blood line. Sophia doesn't like her husband, but she likes Russia, and is very fond of Russian soldiers. She dutifully produces a son -- of questionable fatherhood, but no one seems to mind that. After the old empress dies, Sophia engineers a coup d'etat with the aid of the military, does away with Peter, and becomes Catherine the Great.Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This biopic about the rise of the German Princess Sofia to Empress Catherine of Russia, from naive and deferential innocent to rapacious predator, is accurate only in the broadest outlines. Even the opening credits indicate a loose approach to fact: "Based on a diary of Catherine," "arranged by Manuel Komroff."
In the first half Marlene Dietrich in the title role overplays breathless awe so emphatically that one can only wonder if she was strictly directed to do so; after her sexual awakening after months of resisting the stirring of her passions by a rakish courtier (John Lodge) and crazed with frustration by her unconsummated marriage to the repellent Tsar-to-be Peter (Sam Jaffe), she melts into the arms of a palace guard during a sudden moonlit encounter.
It's hard to believe this film passed the 1934 censors, given its open suggestions of out-of-wedlock sex (and subsequent pregnancy); Dietrich's posturings call to mind pre-Code Mae West (who was a friendly acquaintance of Dietrich's on the Paramount lot where they were working at the same time). Perhaps the keepers of the Code were too distracted by the shimmering vision of the blonde icon as lit by Josef von Sternberg. And make no mistake about it, this movie is a paean to Dietrich as a work of art. The "Catherine the Great" plot, scenic design and supporting players are the scaffolding and trappings supporting and surrounding the living goddess.
These trappings are highly stylized and elaborate as, for example, the Lubitsch-like ritual of Princess Sophia (the future Empress Catherine) kissing the hands of all adults present whenever she enters or exits a room; when she isn't engaged in strictly supervised activities she is kept locked in her bedroom several flights above the main floor of her house; her mother is such a disciplinarian that she scolds the child even when the child obeys. Empress Elizabeth of Russia (Louise Dresser) is introduced on a grand throne in forbidding surroundings decorated with huge grimacing gargoyles festooned with dripping candles and attended by over-dressed lackeys, only to open her mouth and jabber like a bilious small-minded housewife. And the future Tsar Peter whom Sophia is sent to Russia to marry is an imbecile and described as such repeatedly in intertitles in case we miss the point.
In fact the flow of exaggerations and extremes is more or less constant so that the viewer is alternately hypnotized and amused. If Dietrich is not your cup of tea, the movie will repel you, because it's all about her.
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