The Scarlet Empress, the sixth of the collaborations in film of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, was to be the next to last. It was written by Manuel Komroff and Eleanor McGeary, and directed by Sternberg, with cinematography by Bert Glennon. Art direction and set design were again by Hans Dreier, Peter Ballbusch and Richard Kollorsz. Ballbusch was responsible for the gargoyle-like statues that are a feature of the sets. Travis Banton designed the costumes. Dietrich played opposite Sam Jaffe, who portrayed the mentally defective heir to the throne, and John Lodge, a member of the Massachusetts political family who would later serve as a congressman, governor of Connecticut and ambassador to Spain, Argentina and Switzerland. The film finished production in January, 1934. It cost $900,000. It wasn’t released in the United States until September of that year, primarily because Alexander Korda had released his own Catherine the Great, starring another emigre German actress, Elisabeth Bergner, in March, 1934.
Sternberg, in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, wrote about The Scarlet Empress, “the film was, of course, a relentless excursion into style, which, taken for granted in any work of art, is considered to be unpardonable in this medium.” Glib and ironic, this doesn’t really tell the whole story. The critic Robin White explained the box office failure of tonight’s film thus: “the tone of The Scarlet Empress, conjoining ironic tragedy and a kind of macabre farce so closely that they become inseparable, demanded adjustments beyond anything for which audiences (and, for that matter, critics) were prepared. Rooted in both Expressionism and Surrealism, The Scarlet Empress is essentially ‘modernist,’ far removed from even Hollywood’s notions of realism.” White also commented “here, the sense of entrapment that connects most of the director’s personal work reaches its extreme of oppressiveness. . .Von Sternberg’s idiosyncratic and obtrusive use of décor—objects such as candelabra, lace curtains, nets, statuary intervening between actors and camera—. . .is claustrophobic and stifling, the characters trapped, their physical movement severely restricted.” As we have seen before, this film, like the others, is only a frame for Sternberg to place around Dietrich. As Roger Ebert wrote, “When Dietrich is onscreen. . . nothing is too good for her; not only do von Sternberg's lighting and cinematography make her the center and subject of every scene, but he devises extraordinary moments for her, as when, clad in a fur uniform and cape, with an improbable sable military hat, she mounts a horse and leads a cavalry charge up the grand staircase.” I hope you enjoy watching this not quite historical drama with me tonight.