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The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Passed | | Drama, History, Romance | 7 September 1934 (USA)
A German noblewoman enters into a loveless marriage with the dim-witted, unstable heir to the Russian throne, then plots to oust him from power.


Catherine II (based on the diary of), Manuel Komroff (diary arranged by)
1 win. See more awards »


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Complete credited cast:
Marlene Dietrich ... Princess Sophia Frederica / Catherine II
John Lodge ... Count Alexei
Sam Jaffe ... Grand Duke Peter
Louise Dresser ... Empress Elizabeth Petrovna
C. Aubrey Smith ... Prince August
Gavin Gordon ... Capt. Gregori Orloff
Olive Tell ... Princess Johanna Elizabeth
Ruthelma Stevens ... Countess Elizabeth 'Lizzie'
Davison Clark Davison Clark ... Archimandrite Simeon Todorsky / Arch-Episcope
Erville Alderson ... Chancelor Alexei Bestuchef
Philip Sleeman Philip Sleeman ... Count Lestoq (as Phillip Sleeman)
Marie Wells ... Marie Tshoglokof
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski ... Ivan Shuvolov (as Hans von Twardowski)
Gerald Fielding Gerald Fielding ... Lt. Dmitri
Maria Riva ... Sophia as a Child (as Maria)


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 <jao@jao.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


The Reigning Beauty of the Screen!


Drama | History | Romance


Passed | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

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Release Date:

7 September 1934 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Catherine the Great See more »


Box Office


$900,000 (estimated)

Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

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Company Credits

Production Co:

Paramount Pictures See more »
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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Film production was reportedly held up for several weeks over Marlene Dietrich's desire to wear a large, fur hat. Costume designer Travis Banton initially refused to relent to Dietrich's demands, because he felt that such a hat was worn by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) and he did not want to copy the design. Dietrich argued that audiences would not remember what Garbo wore; Banton ultimately relented and Dietrich got her hat. See more »


After Catherine stamps with her foot on the gold locket containing the portrait of Count Alexei, smashing it, she then flings it out of the window. The camera follows it as it falls slowly, glistening in the moonlight, through the branches of the tree outside her window, but it is completely undamaged. See more »


Prince August: You're going on a far journey, Sophia, and I may never see you again. And I want you to remember what I've taught you. Always to be honest and truthful, to be a faithful wife, and a loyal subject of your new country. Be kind to those who are in your service, and obedient to your husband and your superiors, and strive at all times to be worthy of your glorious destiny.
See more »


Version of Young Catherine (1991) See more »


Marche Slave
Written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Excerpts incorporated into the score often, but predominately when Catherine
is about to capture the throne at the end
See more »

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User Reviews

While cold and emotionally distant, it still is an amazing film due to its artistic vision
15 January 2007 | by MartinHaferSee all my reviews

This is an absolutely amazing film to watch. I have seen several other collaborations between director Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and I think this is the best--mostly due to it being like a giant painting or tapestry that was almost mesmerizing. The film is a rather odd look at a brief period of the life of Catherine the Great of Russia. It follows her from her betrothal (when she is a Germanic princess) to her ultimately killing her husband and assuming the throne--the space of just a few years).

During the entire picture, what stood out were the amazing sets. The film begins with some very graphic torture chamber scenes that are definitely "Pre-Code" in that they are so frightening and because of the copious amounts of gratuitous female nudity. While this never could have been allowed once the stronger Production Code was implemented around 1935, it is a captivating and bizarre introduction to the movie and it certainly got your attention!! Then, throughout the film, the sets were magnificent and very twisted--almost like they had been inspired by a combination of LSD, Jean Cocteau's version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch! Twisted and grotesque anthropomorphic statues, banisters, candelabras, chairs, etc. grace practically every scene inside the palace--making it look like a combination of Hell and whimsy!! You really just have to see it all to believe it. What was also amazing was how Paramount was able to construct all this without the production bankrupting the company!!! While the dialog and acting is fine, they take a definite backseat to the sets. It's very obvious that Von Sternberg really wasn't trying to humanize the characters or shed too much light on the life of Catherine--it was really more of a work of performance art. And if you accept it as this and NOT an absolutely true recounting of the life of Catherine, then you will be in for a treat.

As for the historical side of the film, there has long been some disagreement about the coup and subsequent execution of Catherine's husband. While it is almost undoubtedly true she orchestrated it (after all, they made her their leader after Peter's death), what isn't so certain is the character of Peter. Some accounts have described him as half-witted or insane (exactly how he's shown in the film) but others doubt if this was exactly the case--it could have just been propaganda used by Catherine to justify her actions. Plus, when Peter died, some apparently reported this was of natural causes and not murder! Considering everything, though, the film had to portray Peter III some way and the evil half-wit was an enjoyable choice--as Sam Jaffe looked so crazed and made the part come alive with his insane-looking eyes and wonderful delivery! Dietrich herself was also very good (perhaps due to her not being so "artificial-looking" like she was in some of her other films due to excessive makeup), but her performance was definitely overshadowed by the sets and Jaffe

By the way, I originally gave this film a very respectable score of 8. However, after seeing "The Rise of Catherine the Great" (which was made the exact same year and covered the exact same material), I saw that this Dietrich film was a lot better by comparison. I especially think that Dietrich and Jaffe were a much better Peter and Catherine than Elisabeth Bergner and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the other film.

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