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.