Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Every few years the studio system displays an embarrassing redundancy by giving the public two films on the same subject in the same year. Just this year, for instance, Hollywood gave us two Hercules movies. That might not be the best example, since fiftysomething years ago Hercules movies were practically a dime a dozen, but readers can think of other cases. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp didn't fall in the same calendar year, but they came so close together that I saw a trailer for the latter the night I saw the former -- at the time I thought the trailer gave the feature a tough act to follow, but the first Earp actually set a standard that doomed the second. Eighty years ago we had two Catherine the Great movies, but to be fair this was a transatlantic rather than inter-Hollywood competition. There were Hollywood talent and money in both pictures however. Paramount deemed Catherine a proper subject for the latest collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich. Their picture, The Scarlet Empress, is by far the better known of the Catherine movies. The British contender, sometimes known as The Rise of Catherine the Great, beat the Hollywood film into theaters by several months. Producer Alexander Korda, fresh from the global success of The Private Life of Henry VIII, had the backing of United Artists and the particular patronage of one of UA's founders, Douglas Fairbanks. The old swashbuckler would star for Korda in a career-killing bomb, The Private Life of Don Juan. For Catherine Fairbanks contributed his son, fresh from a stint in the Warner Bros. contingent in the Pre-Code Parade. Junior's Atlantic crossing began a middle period in his movie career. At Warners he'd proven himself a fairly charismatic young actor in a variety of roles, none of which marked him as his father's son. Later, he would become just that in the roles for which he's best remembered, in films like Gunga Din and Sinbad the Sailor. I haven't read Junior's autobiography, so I'm left wondering what sort of anxiety of influence he felt when Hollywood reporters described him and his father as a package deal for Korda. I do know this: his two best-known roles from his middle period are villains -- his Tsar Peter in Catherine and his Rupert of Hentzau in David O. Selznick's Prisoner of Zenda -- and the defining trait of his Peter is his hysterical resentment of a virtual parent.

Fairbanks's performance as Peter III -- from here on I'll stop calling him Junior -- pales for many viewers in comparison with Sam Jaffe's performance of the same role in Scarlet Empress. Jaffe gives a grotesque performance worthy of Sternberg's more expressionistic movie. Paul Czinner's film for Korda has suffered overall in comparison with Sternberg and Dietrich's iconic extravagance, but I rather like the modesty of scale in the Korda Catherine that makes Fairbanks's Peter a more menacing figure. The Tsar-to-be has lived for years under the thumb of his aunt, the Tsarina Elizabeth (Flora Robson), for whom men in general are to be dominated sexually and politically and Peter in particular is to be treated like a child. He angrily resists her attempts to marry him off, but is momentarily smitten by Catherine (Elizabeth Bergner), the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, having caught her unawares and finding her charmingly guileless. Hoping to marry the heir to the throne, she has never seen him and doesn't know him when she meets him by accident. He likes that her behavior isn't conditioned by knowledge of his rank, but before his wedding day is done he starts second-guessing himself and her, jumping to the conclusion that she knew him all along and had tricked him into marrying her. In this comparably subtle way Peter's erratic intellect and paranoia are established while this Peter remains a sort of tragic figure. Who doesn't want to be liked or loved for who rather than what you are, after all? Unfortunately, Peter is such a damaged person, presumably thanks largely to Elizabeth, that who he is makes him a hopeless fit for what he must become. Even as he plans a purge after taking the throne, Peter leaves hints of a more promising sensibility, baffling his generals by asking for an opinion on military strategy of "Ivan Ivanovich," his idea of the average Russian and a man he can never find. His impulse dies as he interviews a literal-minded guard whose only answer to all questions is that his name isn't Ivan Ivanovich. The moment is comic if not tragicomic, depending on how generous you feel toward Peter.

How you feel toward Peter in this picture may depend on how you feel toward its Catherine. Bergner begins the picture as a simpering ninny but is slowly shaped into a future ruler by Elizabeth, who has no confidence in Peter's prospects. The actress never quite matures into the role history and the film demand of her; Bergner lacks Dietrich's iconic authority and the flattering framing a Sternberg could provide. Bergner never fully transforms into the voracious Catherine of legend, and her movie pointedly highlights the princess's first pathetic attempt to play that role. Advised by Elizabeth to make Peter jealous, she adopts a regiment and boasts of having seventeen lovers in the unit, but her count is as much bluster as the military uniform she adopts. In each case she comes across as a child playing an adult game. Her tragedy in this picture is that she really wants to save Peter from his madness as much as she wants to save Russia from his madness. What redeems her in our eyes is her reluctance to destroy Peter, however necessary doing so must be, and how outraged she is when he is inevitably destroyed. Bergner was highly regarded in her time and would come to Hollywood to do Shakespeare soon after this, but she isn't as impressive here as Fairbanks. She lacks his intensity but, to be fair, she isn't playing a madman. But the picture works in its modest way because Fairbanks plays a very human madman, while Peter's relationship with Catherine is emotionally realistic enough to make you wish a better outcome had been possible. Perhaps the best comparison of the two Catherines isn't with the sort of rival pictures I've mentioned, but with the two complementary pictures on similar subjects from 1964: Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. One is indisputably greater than the other, but the lesser film doesn't wither in comparison but shows powerful qualities of its own. Likewise, if you concede the artistic superiority of The Scarlet Empress, that should still leave room to recognize the virtues of its nearly-forgotten double.

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