For The Scarlet Empress, Sternberg spent approximately twice as much as a standard A production would have cost in 1934, and the result was a box office disaster. The movies were changing. The production code office had been established and it had real power to alter the theme and story line of films. Sternberg’s failure with The Scarlet Empress landed him in political hot water at his studio, Paramount. The director Ernst Lubitsch, never a friend, had been named studio head, and there was only one more film in Sternberg’s Paramount contract. Sternberg’s biographer John Baxter wrote, “A shrewder operator would have proposed a contemporary sex comedy, with gorgeous gowns for Dietrich and luscious photography. . .instead, von Sternberg perversely began work on a final film with the star that was more ambitious, personal, and prodigal than anything he had previously attempted.”
The film was based on a novel by the French writer Pierre Louÿs, though the opera Carmen also seems to be an influence here. The American novelist John Dos Passos gets the writing credit, but Sam Winston, David Hertz and Oran Schee are also noted as writing contributors. Cinematography is by Lucien Ballard, and Sternberg, who finally gave himself credit, after joining the American Society of Cinematographers, and the two of them won an award at the Venice Film Festival for their work. Art direction was by Hans Dreier, sets were by Arthur Camp and A.E. Freudeman. Travis Banton again executed Dietrich’s costumes. Featured actors, along with Dietrich, included Lionel Atwill, Edward Everett Horton, Alison Skipworth and Cesar Romero. Its filming began in October, 1934 and it was released in March, 1935. The film was to have been called Capriccio Espagnol, after the Rimsky-Korsakov symphonic work, whose music is featured, but Lubitsch said audiences wouldn’t understand or be able to pronounce that title. Atwill plays the Sternberg look-alike, and the film features a more overwhelming “streamer-clogged masked ball” than Dishonored had. Baxter says “This, von Sternberg’s most beautiful film, is also the most vicious, an act of revenge on the woman who dominated his life.” Dietrich herself kept a print of the film, which she believed was the one of Sternberg’s that showed her at her best. The Spanish Republican government protested the depiction of their country in the film, threatening a boycott of all Paramount films, and the film was eventually withdrawn from circulation after a print was burned in the presence of the Spanish ambassador in Washington.
Contemporary columnist Robbin Coons wrote, at the time: “The sets of Capriccio Espagnol reveal a scarcity of color that is startling in its effect. . . Predominantly gray are the sets of this feature, with only an occasional splash of color. Von Sternberg . . .believes that the use of much color on sets gives false values which must be modified through lighting. Hence he is trying to achieve more lifelike and artistic effects through the planned use of tones of gray. At balconied windows hung vines von Sternberg had sprayed with a “half-white” (aluminum) paint, but the occasional plant was left in its natural state. . .the effect of this set, with its one-way lighting casting only “natural” shadows, and its predominantly gray tones, relieved sparsely by a bright awning, a flower, or Marlene’s red and blue costume, is most unusual.” Baxter noted “One could debate the artistic value of shooting on monochrome sets, but there was no denying the bonus in publicity. In the corridors of Paramount, nobody was talking about anything else.”
Before the release of this film, Sternberg announced that it would be their last together, saying: “My being with her will not help her or me. If we continue, we would get into a pattern that would be harmful to both of us.” But Dietrich’s contract at Paramount was renewed, while his was not. Later in her life, Marlene Dietrich said, in an interview “I didn’t leave von Sternberg. He left me. That’s very important. He decided not to work with me anymore and I was not very happy about that.” I hope you enjoy watching this last, most visually stunning, movie of Sternberg and Dietrich with me tonight.