The Rise of Catherine The Great (Catherine The Great) (1934)

PAUL CZINNER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5, 1934Story and Dialogue by , , , Scenarist , based on the play The Czarina by Lajos Biro, Melchior Lengyel.  Cinematography by Produced by , Music by Production Design by , Costume Design by Film Editing by .  

Flora Robson and Elisabeth Bergner in The Rise of Catherine the Great

The same year that Josef von Sternberg filmed The Scarlet Empress with Marlene Dietrich, Alexander Korda produced this sumptuous film on the Russian empress with the now-forgotten Elisabeth Bergner.  In this version, the Grand Duke Peter is not presented as a miscreant as he is in von Sternberg’s film, here he’s played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr as an irresistible lover who captures young Catherine’s heart until, following their marriage, she realizes he’s a foppish brat. Supported by the Empress (Flora Robson) who, again in an opposite tone to the other movie, loves Catherine and regrets that she must tie her to her worthless son, Catherine then finds herself alone when her mother-in-law dies and Peter tries to exile her from court thanks to her rising popularity. Helpless to defend herself against the man she loves, Catherine eventually gets it together and her concern for Russia, which conveniently combines with her own increasing ambition, leads her to raise an army and become a powerful leader with whom the history books will never cease to be fascinated.  Korda’s eye for a gorgeous period piece never failed him, this one goes steps beyond his highly successful, Oscar winning production of The Private Life of Henry VIII by providing no end of eye-popping sets that you never tire of watching the actors travel through, dressed as they are in a series of increasingly beautiful costumes. The problem is that his leading lady is always outshone by her co-stars, first by Robson who gives such wonderful energy to her few moments as the Empress, then by Fairbanks, who is stylish and funny at his most roguish, highly watchable at his most villainous. Bergner has none of Dietrich’s charisma in front of a camera and spends the majority of the film looking like she doesn’t believe her own motivations for a second; waiting for Catherine to stop being pushed around by a guy we are never convinced that she’s all that intimated by is a remarkably frustrating experience, it’s probably the only movie about Catherine the Great in which one wishes the whole thing was about Peter.

 

 

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