My New Favorite Film (Spoilers!)
I was fortunate enough to see this film on the Silver Screen twice over the course of the last two days. I could hardly sleep after seeing it for the second time last night. Please believe me when I tell you that the film had quite an impact on me.
To tell the truth, I'm setting a lot of this down as much to get it out of my head as much to share it with my fellow Scarlet Empress fans (and Dietrich admirers). I don't think I ever really understood the 19th century phrase, "It excited his brain" until I saw The Scarlet Empress. With that in mind, I hope you will excuse my enthusiasm (if not delirium).
First off: the set design. Yes. My first two thoughts on seeing this film were "Who did the set design?" and "Can they please come and decorate my house? Now?"
There were three scenes that hit me particularly hard in this regard. The first was when we are introduced to the Russian empress and she is seated on this enormous throne that is sculpted in the shape of a two-headed eagle (the state emblem of the Russian Imperial Empire). The throne was so awesome it left me agog: I couldn't believe what I was seeing, it was so bizarre.
The second was the banquet scene. The camera glides slowly over a banquet table filled with the most grotesque serving dishes and decanters I've ever seen (loved that O-shaped wine jug!). Somehow (and don't ask me how) the banquet table reminded me of Hogarth's The Rake's Progress. Not just because of the profusion of food, but the outlandishness of it. This is not a banquet table you would take your mother to (unless, of course, your mother is the Russian Empress).
Finally, there are the chairs of the imperial court. You know the ones I'm talking about: the ones sculpted in the shape of men covering their eyes with their hands. I kept trying to make up to mind if the statues were trying to convey the point of "see no evil," (though admittedly, that one's more commonly associated with monkeys) or that the life of those in the Russian Imperial Court was one filled with cares and sadness. Either way, those chairs were mind-blowing: can I have one, please?
Honorable mention goes to the clocks. First, there's the "peek-a-boo" model, followed by the "morning star," then the one that has a procession of various figures traveling under the clock face. I'm glad I saw this film twice, because the peek-a-boo clock is something that can easily pass for an hallucination (did I see what I think I just saw?) and the clock with the bizarre procession of figures is well worth a second look (especially the figure clutching the hangman's noose). I guess the morning star clock was the Russian Imperial Court's idea of comic relief (or something).
The peek-a-boo clock brings me back to the opening scenes of the film showing torture and general depravity. Yes, those are actual boobies up there on the screen, though we're only given a fleeting glimpse of them and you have to look very closely to see anything (which I most certainly did the second time around). Admittedly, that sort of thing is no big deal in 2010, but I can only imagine how audiences of 1934 might have reacted. I suspect, however, that American audiences of the time, at least, didn't see what I saw in 2010, as the film's September 1934 release date comes after the June 1934 creation of the Production Code Administration. Up until then, Hollywood largely paid only lip service to the purported "need" to have films censored; after July 1 1934, movies had to receive certification by the PCA before they could be released.
Between the boobies and the beheadings, (not actually seen, but strongly implied, certainly) I suspect the Hays Office folks just about had a stroke when they took a look at this film! :)
Marlene Dietrich: I absolutely loved the way she was a wide-eyed ingénue for most of this film. To say she was nothing of the kind in real life by 1934 is, I am sure, an understatement. However, she's so ravishingly beautiful you find yourself wanting to believe that she's just sweet as pie. The print I saw was (fortunately) a very good one, and the two or three close-ups of her face around the time when she tells her mother, "but mother, I don't like to make up my bed!" are, for me, the most arresting few seconds of film footage I've ever seen, they are that perfect.
Josef von Sternberg: von Sternberg did not film Dietrich in this movie: he stalked her. Shanghai Express and The Devil is a Woman are two other Dietrich/von Sternberg collaborations I've seen and liked a great deal, but the camera work in those is nothing like it is in this one. I swear, I almost felt indecent at times, the shots were so intimate (especially the close of of Dietrich at the wedding, with a candle only inches from her face; awe-inspiring).
Gavin Gordon: The last time I saw Gavin Gordon was in a film called American Madness. I know it sounds petty to focus on an actor's eyebrows, of all things, but let me tell you: watch that film, take a quick glance at GG's eyebrows, and then[i] try telling me they aren't weird. If you don't think eyebrows can be scary, sir/ma'am, think again!
Anyway, I mention all this because, if the credits hadn't told me otherwise, I never would have known Gavin Gordon was in this film. The first time around, I [i]thought that he played one of the servants. Specifically, the one that hands the empress her scepter when she confuses it with a drumstick. The same servant is in another shot, when Dietrich tells all the hangers-on outside the Empress' door that the Empress wants to be alone, and the last lackey goes positively swanning away. You know, hand on the hip, the whole nine yards. Anyway, I thought that somewhat effeminate character was Gavin Gordon, not the dead butch Captain Orloff. If I hadn't been told Orloff was being played by GG by the IMDb, I never would have guessed.
Finally, Sam Jaffe. Let's face it: Grand Duke Peter was the role that Sam Jaffe was born to play. I've been a fan of his for quite some time and, indeed, he's in some of my favorite films: The Day the Earth Stood Still,[i] Lost Horizon, and, to a lesser extent, Gunga Din (though, to be honest, I liked GD primarily for Fairbanks the Junior and Cary Grant rather than Sam Jaffe). That said, he's always given the creeps. When he beams benevolently at Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon, there is something distinctly unsettling about that smile, kindly though it's meant to be.
Anyway, he was brilliant as Grand Duke Peter. I noticed during my second viewing that the audience would frequently titter when he appeared onscreen, but honestly, I think this had much less to do with it being funny and a lot more to do with his character being nuts, and the titters being more of a safety-valve reaction than they had to do with merriment, if that makes any sense. For me, Jaffe was just too believeable as a half-wit (and an occasionally vicious one at that) to inspire laughter; those close-ups of his grinning idiot face were positively unnerving.
The Scarlet Empress was featured on a double bill with Kismet (another Dietrich film). I'm sorry to say that Kismet doesn't seem to have gotten very much attention over the years (the board has hardly any traffic). I was, however, relieved to come here and discover so many other fans of The Scarlet Empress: it's a film that will haunt me for a long time (God, I so want to see it again. And again!). It's gratifying to see that it hasn't been forgotten as so many other worthwhile films have. It's also amazing that a film made in 1934 still holds up so well more than three-quarters of a century later.
I've always wondered what it would be like to take opium, 19th Century-style, and then watch a film. The Scarlet Empress, I'm here to tell you, makes the opium entirely unnecessary: it's that mind-bendingly bizarre all on its own.
I was saddened to read on the board for the film that it didn't do all that well either commercially or critically. From what I can gather, this film and its failure, combined with von Sternberg's rather difficult personality, spelled doom for his career.
Be that as it may, I don't think it's a stretch to say that he made films that will be respected and admired forever. I love this quote from him:
"Shadow is mystery and light is clarity. Shadow conceals - light reveals. To know what to reveal and what to conceal and in what degrees to do this is all there is to art.'
If you were to ask me why I'm madly obsessed with old school (pre-1960) films, well, I suppose it's knowing that the directors of the time had that kind of insight into the films they were making that does it (the black and white photography of the era doesn't hurt, either). I know it's unkind of me to say so, but I can't help but feel that most of the directors of 2010 have more in common with technicians than artists.
I'm immensely grateful to David Packard for putting in the time, money, and effort it takes to bring films like The Scarlet Empress to audiences of the 21st Century in the way that they were meant be seen. It's an amazing film, and even if I never see it again, I know that I'm a different and better person because of it.