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The Scarlet Empress (1934)

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)


Airs Fri. Nov. 16, 10:00 AM on TCM

1 win. See more awards »


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Straightforward biography of the Russian empress, up to her assumption of the throne.

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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 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>

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Drama | History | Romance


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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)
See more on IMDbPro »

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
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Did You Know?


The studio considered alternate titles for this film, include: "Her Regiment of Lovers," "Catherine II," and "Catherine the Great." 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 »


Archimandrite Simeon Todorsky: [collecting money for the poor] Your Imperial Majesty, something for the poor?
Grand Duke Peter: [slaps him]
Archimandrite Simeon Todorsky: That was for me. Now what have you got for the poor?
Grand Duke Peter: There are no poor in Russia! Get out!
See more »


Version of Young Catherine (1991) See more »


Die Walküre (The Valkyries)
Written by Richard Wagner
Excerpts incorporated into the score often
See more »

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User Reviews

"The sport of tyrants"
15 March 2010 | by Steffi_PSee all my reviews

The best directors are adaptable, able to turn their talents to the needs of story and stars. On the other hand, a stylistic individualist such as Joseph "von" Sternberg may be excellent at what they do, but completely inflexible and as such their work tends to be uneven. However, although Sternberg was unable to bend his style to suit the material, there is always the chance that sooner or later the material would come along to suit his style. Enter The Scarlet Empress.

It may be based on a true story, but The Scarlet Empress makes only fleeting contact with reality. It is a macabre, nightmarish fairytale imagining of history. As such Sternberg can go all out with his bizarre stylisation and disregard for convention. All those things which made a mess of his other pictures – the odd angles, the distracting foreground clutter, the hammy acting – they all fit in here. Sternberg was never one to elucidate plot or draw out emotional depth, and The Scarlet Empress is the one picture where he doesn't really need to.

In this light, we can actually take time to appreciate the excesses of Sternberg's technique. The early scenes in Germany are comparatively light and airy. When Count Alexei arrives he introduces a swathe of blackness. From this point on Sternberg literally darkens the picture, not just from scene to scene but from moment to moment, for example when Alexei's cloak envelops Marlene as he kisses her. The Russian palace is a surreal creation, more like a bejewelled cave than a building. We can see the fine craftsmanship of Hans Dreier, but he was doubtless directed fairly thoroughly by Sternberg himself. It's shot and lit in such a way that it appears to have no limits, its edges lost in shadow. And as for Sternberg's close-ups! They are strange, wonderful, glittering portraits, worthy of the painted icons that are such a part of Russian culture. The only pity is that Sternberg treats his cast as merely part of the mechanical process. To him, a good actor like Sam Jaffe is simply there to be a grotesque, little different to the stone ones adorning every set.

The exception is Marlene. Ms Dietrich shimmers under Sternberg's lens. Not only does she stand out more here than any other picture, like a shimmering jewel amid the shadows, this also happens to be her very finest performance. When we first meet her, she is a world away from her familiar screen persona, playing the teenage Catherine as timid, naïve and frail. As the plot progresses she transforms into the smart and confident seductress, and finally emerges as the charismatic empress-in-waiting, and this at last is the Marlene we all know. Her development, though radical, is absolutely believable, and throughout her acting is utterly flawless.

And then, there is the music. The Scarlet Empress is an almost constantly musical picture, with much of the action wordlessly choreographed to a pounding background score. It is a truly symphonic work, what Michael Powell referred to as a "composed film". And it is reminiscent of Russian music purely in its tone – it has that same cruel, stark quality of Mussorgsky and Prokofiev; music from a culture who get a lot of ice and not much daylight. And yet the composer whose work is most prominently used in The Scarlet Empress is Tchaikovsky, by and large a confectioner of nice but plain melodic pieces. His music fits though, especially the Slavic March, and in any case Tchaikovsky has a lot in common with Sternberg – pretty but lacking in depth. And Tchaikovsky still had his masterpieces.

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