Filmsite Movie Review
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

The Revelation of the Grand Duke Peter - His Imperial Highness:

An announcement was made and a large wooden door was thrown open, to introduce "His Imperial Highness, Grand Duke Peter." The scene of the reveal of the Grand Duke's appearance was stunningly presented. A strange procession or entourage emerged from the darkness of a doorway:

  • a young black boy wearing a formal uniform and being pulled by five hunting wolfhounds on leashes
  • another elaborately-costumed, hunchbacked black steward carrying a framed portrait
  • a uniformed guard
  • the Grand Duke's black-haired, feral-looking mistress, later identified as Countess Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Varonsoff (Ruthelma Stevens)
  • the Grand Duke himself (who resembled silent comedian Harpo Marx) wearing a large sable fur coat

In her first meeting with Grand Duke Peter, Sophia was stunned and revulsed by his odd and tardy appearance. Her idiotic, foolishly-grinning and childlike husband-to-be with a blonde wig and bulging eyes - Grand Duke Peter III (43 year-old Sam Jaffe in his film debut, although he was portraying the 16 year-old Peter), nephew of the Empress, stared at her, as he was reprimanded by his Aunt: "That's a fine way to receive your bride! I suppose you had more important things to do. I told you to be on time. Now, go on, kiss each other." In shock, she accepted a kiss on the cheek. The Empress then reiterated her intentions that the arranged marriage would produce a male heir (since the Grand Duke was presumably impotent or would produce a half-witted child):

Now, remember, Catherine, the first child must be a boy. That's why we had you brought here. To provide Russia with an heir to the throne. A fine, bouncing, healthy heir. You understand me, Catherine?

Catherine was ceremoniously led into another adjoining room, parading through a 20-foot-high, oversized carved, rough-hewn wooden door (requiring many individuals to open). The chamber was lined with emaciated gargoyle figures each holding a long-stemmed lit candle. Catherine was introduced by Count Alexei to her numerous ladies-in-waiting:

These are your ladies-in-waiting. They represent illustrious houses of our most important domains. Step forward, Natacha. She is the daughter of Prince Dolgoruki. Natacha, come here. This is your mistress of the wardrobe. She has charge of the beds and of the laces.

They were interrupted by Grand Duke Peter and his small entourage, who insisted on showing Catherine his "new invention" (a uniformed wooden toy soldier attached to the center of a circular, horizontal spinning platform) - his main past-time was playing with toy soldiers. He placed the toy gadget next to Catherine (who was shocked by the juvenile display), and then rushed off to witness a barbaric execution ("I'm in a hurry. I must witness an execution"). Afterwards, Count Alexei dismissed the ladies-in-waiting, who all had to push on the giant wooden door in order to exit. Count Alexei took a moment to apologize to Catherine for building up her expectations about her new husband, when he recalled deceiving her by telling her ("He's the handsomest man in the Russian court..."):

Perhaps I shouldn't have lied to you. Forgive me, won't you?

His dark shadow covered her as he leaned down and was about to give her another kiss. Peter's mistress (or concubine) abruptly entered the room, to retrieve his toy soldier music-box that he had left behind: "His Imperial Highness sent me for his soldiers. I hope I haven't disturbed you." Count Alexei identified her as Countess Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Varonsoff, using code words to imply that she was known to be promiscuous: "She's always picking up the Grand Duke's soldiers, which I'm beginning to suspect he leaves intentionally."

The Marriage Ceremony:

With all her ideas of romance outraged, Sophia Frederica was thrust into the Russian cauldron, her name altered, her religion changed, and pushed like a brood mare into the preparations for her marriage to a royal half-wit.

Wearing a fur coat, Sophia/Catherine was prepped for the marriage ceremony by a foppish hairdresser or beautician (Leo White) who curled her hair. The fussy Empress asked:

Empress: How's she going to wear the headdress? Where is the headdress?...We must make you very beautiful, Catherine, very, very beautiful so that my nephew will fall in love with you. I expect you two to behave like love birds so that Russia will have an heir to the throne. And remember, Catherine, I want a boy, not a girl. Nothing less than a boy will do. We don't want any more women on the throne.
Catherine's Mother: But Your Imperial Majesty, what would we have done if you had been born a boy?
Empress: I would have had much less trouble in Russia if I'd been born a man instead of woman. We women are too much creatures of the heart, aren't we, Catherine?
Catherine: (dutifully) Yes, your Majesty.

With all of Russia's bells pealing, the marriage took place in the old Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, the central seat of the then so powerful Eastern Church.

In a bravura Eastern Russian Orthodox marriage ceremony sequence, the veil-covered, stone-faced, and over-awed Catherine was led into the ornate church next to her bridegroom. She looked entrapped and overwhelmed by the chamber filled with flags, hanging tapestries, priests, and candles. She was amidst bearded, uniformed Orthodox priests, some of whom held crucifixes or waved incense - as everyone held long candles, including Catherine with one flickering tremulously close to her face as she breathed.

During communion, she refused three offers of wine from a goblet, although the grinning Peter took sips, but she did accept a piece of bread placed under her veil. Handsome Count Alexei and Catherine exchanged meaningful and heartfelt glances with each other (often in extreme closeup) through most of the marital ceremony. Rings were exchanged and their clasped hands were symbolically tied together.

And thus Catherine took the first innocent step to become Russia's most powerful and most sinister Empress, while the machine of the marriage went on.

One of the Orthodox priests intoned a ritualistic prayer, while they were gathered around to bless their marital bed:

Grant them of the fruit of their bodies fair children, concord of soul and body. Exalt them like the cedars of Lebanon. Like a luxuriant vine, give them seed in number like full ears of grain that they may abound in every work that is good and acceptable unto Thee; and let them behold their children's children like a newly planted olive orchard, round about their table that obtaining favor in Thy sight, they may shine like the stars of heaven. Blessed be this bed.

The Royal Wedding Banquet:

The camera (in an overhead tracking shot forward and then backward) panned over a gigantic, sumptuous banquet table, decorated and lined on all sides with gaudy, leering, oversized, suffering gargoyle stone-sculptured statues shaped into chairs. Other decorations included:

  • a bony skeleton leaning over a frothing goblet to drink from it
  • a gargoyle candelabra
  • a plump kneeling, nude female figurine grasping a bunch of grapes to her breasts and thighs
  • a half-roasted deer with fruit stuck onto its antlers

The length of the table was covered with a variety of foods in serving plates and goblets, including roasted meats. The Empress sat at one end, as the couple sat along another side (but not side by side) while Catherine was serenaded by violins. At the other end of the table, Count Alexei was stabbing a hunk of meat. He proposed a toast to the new Grand Duchess Catherine:

Your Imperial Majesty, before the bridal pair retire, I wish to propose a toast to Her Imperial Highness, the grand duchess Catherine. May our new bride from far away be forever happy and learn to know the love we have in our Russian hearts for her and the hope this vast, imperishable empire has for an heir to the throne.

After the toast, the slightly tipsy Empress smashed her glass (as did others), removed her string necklace of pearls and placed it around Catherine's neck ("You have made me very happy today, Catherine, and I hope you will continue to make me happy"). Catherine kissed her hand in reply. Before retiring for the night, the Empress mistakenly picked up a bone and held it like a scepter as she announced that she was tired. Realizing her mistake, she replaced the bone with her scepter. A procession was led through the heavy wooden door (pushed open by at least a half-dozen women) by the Empress and the Duchess (with her long veiled train). Shortly later, Grand Duke Peter (with his small entourage of servants and dogs) also ascended stairs and entered the large wooden door (covered with icon paintings of haloed religious figures), to approach the new Grand Duchess Catherine in her bedroom. As he walked toward the camera, his silhouetted dark figure turned the frame black.

And throughout the vast night that blanketed Russia arose the hum of its people, praying for an heir to the throne.

Seen from the exterior, the lights in the royal bedroom extinguished.

Catherine's New Life - An Unconsummated Marriage:

With the carefree spirit of youth Catherine now began a joyous existence, unconcerned with the problem of being, next to the Empress, the most important woman in Russia.

Catherine confessed to opportunistic, debonair womanizer Count Alexei that she had refused to consummate her marriage, and then their conversation turned to their own relationship. She was still miffed that he had misled her when describing Peter, her future husband. She claimed to be faithful to Peter, but admitted that as newlyweds, they faced tremendous incompatibilities. When Catherine objected to Count Alexei for pursuing her with suggestive and adulterous behavior, he lectured her on morality: "Those ideas are old-fashioned. This is the 18th century!":

Count Alexei: May I inquire how Her Imperial Highness deigns to feel this morning?
Catherine: Her Highness feels as well as can be expected after her romantic marriage. And how is His Excellency?
Count Alexei: His Excellency is very distressed because you've been avoiding him for an eternity.
Catherine: (sighing) I haven't been avoiding you.
Count Alexei: You have. I've tried again and again to see you alone and you've made it impossible.
Catherine: If you must know, I haven't had enough time to quite recover from the shock of finding my husband a trifle different than you described him.
Count Alexei: I had a duty to my country and a loyalty to my sovereign. Had I described the Grand Duke correctly, you might not have come here.
Catherine: I would have obeyed my mother even if you had told the truth.
Count Alexei: How could I have known of such a degree of filial respect? Anyway, I would have taken no chances, because from the moment I saw you, I wanted you to come to Russia.
Catherine: Please, be careful. My husband will be told.
Count Alexei: Your husband doesn't mean a thing to you.
Catherine: He does. I'll always be faithful to him.
Count Alexei: Don't be absurd. Those ideas are old-fashioned. This is the eighteenth century.
Catherine: But I'm not a Russian. I'm going now.
Count Alexei: (insistent) I told you I wanted to see you alone. I won't wait any longer. I'll be at the stables tomorrow morning when you go for your ride.
Catherine: Maybe I won't care to ride anymore.
Count Alexei: In any event, I'll be there, and you'd better be there too.
Catherine: I will not.

When propositioned (and invited to meet in the stables the next morning), Catherine threatened to report his advances to her mother, with emphasis from her cracked whip: "And furthermore, I'm going to tell my mother all about you." She paused after partially running off, when he presented her with a locket with his picture: "On the reverse side of this miniature is a diamond. Don't lose the diamond." She stuffed it down her bodice.

The Empress' Issues with Her Nephew:

Meanwhile after a week of marriage, the crazed Grand Duke was in the cathedral's burial area next to a sarcophagus, when the Empress questioned him: "What are you doing here sneaking around like a ghost?" He told her that he hated his new wife and didn't want her. With ambitions for him, the Empress encouraged him to be patient:

You'll make a fine Emperor someday, you idiot! You don't even know that you can't force a woman to be sweet to you. She's only a child! Be patient with her. You know our people are waiting for you to raise a family. They don't care whether you like her or not....I picked her for your wife, and your wife she will remain as long as I live. Get that into your skull. You're man enough to manage your own affairs. I don't want to hear any more about it. Do you understand me?

As he kissed the hem of her skirt, she responded by kicking him before hurriedly marching off.

The Revelation of the Count's Amorous Relationship with the Empress:

The following morning, the Empress summoned Count Alexei to the council chambers, to discuss the threat of possible war with Finland. Reportedly, the Empress was in a sour mood ("The last few days she's turned sour, like milk that's been standing too long").

At the same time, Catherine excitedly dressed, with the help of her lady-in-waiting Marie Tshoglokof (Marie Wells), who assumed she was going to see her husband. Her plan was to rendezvous with the Count in the stables. Catherine replied: "I'd forgotten I have a husband. No, I'm not going to see my husband." The lady-in-waiting inquired whether she was going to see her lover instead, and then defined the word. Catherine was shocked to learn the startling revelation that Russian emissary Count Alexei was actually the Empress’ secret lover:

Marie: A lover's a man, not a husband, who loves you with all his heart and whom you love in return.
Catherine: But, Marie, that's wicked. Don't tell me that you have a lover!
Marie: I wish I had. Here, everyone has a lover, everyone but me.
Catherine: Oh, Marie, not everyone. Her Exalted Majesty can't possibly have a lover.
Marie: What about the young man who's always with her Majesty? Why do you suppose she leans on him so heavily? Because she's weak in the knees?
Catherine: Oh, how shocking! If anyone should hear us! Go on, get my dress.
Marie: Your highness won't tell anyone. The empress is an old devil when she's angry.
Catherine: Of course I won't tell anyone, nor do I believe such nonsense. And neither have I a lover. I'm happy because I'm going to see my mother.

Catherine's Angry Confrontation with the Empress for Dismissing Her Mother:

Catherine was also surprised to hear that her mother had been swiftly ordered by the Empress to return to Germany the previous night at midnight ("Her Majesty ordered her to return immediately"), without even a goodbye. She rushed to the Council Chambers to demand an answer, but was not allowed entry. She ignored orders and barged into a meeting in progress. She approached the Empress and wanted to know why her mother was ordered away: "Why did you send my mother away? What wrong had she done?...I want to know why you sent my mother away!" The Empress replied with a stunning explanation - she scolded Catherine for not consummating her marriage and providing an heir to the throne:

Well, I'll tell you why. I sent your mother away because she didn't bring you up properly. I was told that you were an obedient, respectful child. Well, YOU'RE NOTHING OF THE SORT! Why do you think I had you brought from Germany? To give you these pearls? (She ripped the pearl necklace from Catherine's neck) Or to make you a Grand Duchess of the Holy Russian Empire? I had you brought here to be an obedient wife and to supply my country with a much-needed heir to the throne.

The imperious Empress compelled Catherine to become her personal servant, with a plan to "educate" her about how to be a proper and obedient "Russian wife" who would have sex with her nephew -- to produce "a much-needed heir to the throne":

Take Her Imperial Highness, the Grand Duchess, and turn her over to my mistress of the robes, with instructions that from this minute on she's to be attached to my personal staff, where I can keep her under my eye, where I can educate her and teach her what it means to be a Russian wife and how to accept the embraces of a husband like a Russian wife!

In the Horse Stables - Catherine's First Amorous Encounter with Count Alexei:

In open rebellion toward the Empress, Catherine retreated to the horse stables to clandestinely meet up with Count Alexei, following his war meeting. When he came up behind her, she hesitated to openly admit that she had come to be with him:

Catherine: I've only a minute. I ran away. I came down to tell you not to wait. I must go now.
Count Alexei: Is that all you came to tell me?
Catherine: What else is there to tell? (She collapsed backwards onto beds of straw in the stable barn)

He reclined next to her, as she seductively and mockingly (five times) kept replacing a piece of straw sideways between her lips to keep him at bay from kissing her. She warned: "If you come closer, I'll scream." He removed another strand and then coyly answered: "It will be easier for you to scream without a straw in your mouth," before kissing her. She was startled by the whinnying of a horse mid-kiss and ran off.

[Note: Director von Sternberg deliberately included this scene with a horse - to reference Catherine's unusual interest in animals and the unfounded, bawdy urban legend-rumor that she died having sex with a horse. Actually, she experienced a lethal stroke while sitting on the commode in the palace at St. Petersburg.]

The Empress' Imperious Manner, and Her Half-Witted Nephew - the Grand Duke:

That evening, the angry Empress ordered Count Alexei to cancel a diplomatic dinner for the French and Austrian ambassadors and their wives, and instead hold a breakfast meeting ("I never did like these diplomatic functions. They lead to nothing"). Instead, she called on various males in her entourage (Boris, Alexander, Michael, and Paul (Hal Boyer)) to sit at the table to keep her company ("Don't any of you think I'm going to eat with a lot of dried-up mummies every night"). Count Alexei joined the company as a roasted pig and wine were served to the guests.

As she was speaking to one of her male guards (and still complaining about not having a male heir), the Empress noticed that Count Alexei was passing a note to Catherine - and she intercepted it. She threatened the Count and also warned that Catherine not become her romantic rival:

Empress: Do you want me to send you into exile? Or shall I tell the Grand Duchess that you're a notorious heartbreaker and have broken every woman's heart in this court, including mine?
Count: You're very flattering, tonight, Imperial Majesty, but the note contains nothing of importance.

The Count was ordered to read the note outloud: ("We are all very much disturbed over your conduct and wish you would change your behavior so that Her Gracious Majesty might forgive you"). The Empress thought he was bluffing, so she also had Catherine read the note. Catherine repeated the same essential words of the note to help provide cover for the Count ("We are all very much upset at, uh, uh - at - and hope you will behave better so that you may be forgiven by the empress").

Not trusting in their versions of the note, she called upon the Chancellor to recite the note - and learned of the Count's growing, devious and clandestine relationship with Catherine: ("You must help me to see you alone again. You are being watched so closely that all my efforts to meet you for a few precious seconds are in vain"). She accused the Count of treachery and unfaithfulness:

So, you're up to your old tricks again! Right under my nose too. Well, forget about her. She's reserved for my nephew and being taught how to earn his love first before wasting her favors on others.

The Empress ordered the Chancellor away: ("Go back to your dinner. It's the first time you've been of use to me in a year"), while Catherine was told to serve the guests bowls of soup to replace the dismissed servants: ("As for you, look after my friends and see that they're fed well. DID YOU HEAR WHAT I SAID?"). She was incensed and told her male guests: "She may be a Grand Duchess to the rest of the world, but in here she's being taught how to be a Russian wife!" During the entire scene, the voyeuristic Peter who was desperate for a glimpse of his wife (with his mistress Countess Elizabeth 'Lizzie' by his side) had operated a giant, extended hand-drill to cut a hole in the adjoining wall and eavesdrop on their conversation.

The Empress' Continuing Efforts to Acquire an Heir and Curtail Catherine's Affection for Her Own Lover, Count Alexei:

In her bedroom, the Empress ordered Catherine, as her personal servant, to remove her boots, and order all her other servants away ("Her Majesty wishes to be alone tonight!"). In the privacy of her bedroom, the Empress complained about her powerlessness over her advancing age:

You wouldn't think that once I had skin like velvet. Empress, bah! I haven't even the power to iron out a single wrinkle.

Catherine was visibly shocked to observe a giant, hand-operated drill bit penetrating and emerging from the eye of a saintly icon in a mural wall painting - Peter was also drilling a hole in the wall to spy (literally through the image's eye) on his Aunt's bedroom, as Catherine spoke to her. The Empress, suspecting it was Peter, asked Catherine to bring him to her at once. Catherine summoned Peter to his Aunt's room, where she rebuked him for spying on his own wife:

What the devil do you mean poking holes in my bedroom?...(The Empress slapped him across the face) Watching your wife won't give you an heir to the throne. The next time I catch you providing my rooms with needless ventilation, I'll have you flogged. I'll catch my death of a draft someday! Now go back to your rooms and wait for your wife. Go on!

She also chided Catherine: "This is all your fault. I had hoped by bringing you to Russia to make a man of that half-wit!" They were briefly interrupted by the intrusion of the Grand Duke's mistress Countess Elizabeth 'Lizzie', who had returned to retrieve one of the Duke's toy soldiers: "I think the Grand Duke dropped one of his soldiers in here." The Empress then warned the mistress to not run around after Peter any longer, and to return to her home ("in the province of Astrakhan, about two weeks' journey from Moscow"):

Empress: How long have you been at this court picking up soldiers?
Countess 'Lizzie': Two years and a half, Your Imperial Majesty....I'm in charge of the entertainment for His Imperial Highness, the Grand Duke....
Empress: I think His Imperial Highness has been entertained long enough. Do you understand me? I don't want to see you around here again. Now get out. (To Catherine) She won't snoop around here anymore. I should have thrown her out before I had you brought here....

The Empress then turned her attention to Catherine's alleged affections for Count Alexei, although Catherine denied any love for him. The Empress reiterated a second time that Catherine shouldn't be a romantic rival for Alexei:

Empress: Haven't you given me trouble enough? Are you going to behave like an obedient wife or must I continue to treat you like a stubborn child?
Catherine: I don't care what you do with me.
Empress: You might change your mind about that. You're in love with His Excellency, Count Alexei, aren't you?
Catherine: No, your Majesty, I'm not. I'm not.
Empress: It's a good thing you're not. I wouldn't advise you to become my rival.

As the Empress retired while her clock chimed and Catherine blew out the room's candles, she told Catherine about a secret passage and stairway that permitted male lovers to secretively enter her bedroom for nocturnal visits: "Behind my mirror, a concealed passage will lead you down a flight of stairs to another door. Behind that door you will find someone waiting to come up. I don't want him to see you, so be careful."

After Catherine descended the stairs and opened the door to locate and learn the identity of the male, she caught a brief glimpse of a robed and hatted figure who climbed the stairs behind her and entered the Empress' bedroom. She ascended the stairs and saw the face of the anonymous, uniformed military figure - and gasped when she realized it was Count Alexei. Catherine would forever remember his duplicity and marginalize him for the remainder of the film.

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