Catherine the Great (1934)




Director:     Paul Czinner.

Starring:     Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Grand Duke Peter),  Elisabeth Bergner (Catherine),  Flora Robson (Empress Elisabeth),  Gerald Du Maurier (Lecocq),  Irene Vanbrugh (Princess Anhalt-Zerbst), Joan Gardner (Katushienka).

Country:  British.

Story of Catherine the Great and her near ruinous failure of a marriage with a man who became Peter III of Russia.


Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.


Russia 1745.  The Hunting Lodge of Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne.  Music is playing and people are inside the lodge.  One of his many lovers come to say goodbye to him for he is getting married.  But Peter maintains that he is not getting married.  He gets angry and tells everyone to get out.  He adds that the order includes his friend Orlov.  Orlov tells him that someday he is going to have to marry, so why doesn't he just face it and get it over?  Peter says that he doesn't even like the idea of marriage.  In marriage, he says, one is spied on and watched.  On the other hand, his aunt Empress Elizabeth is pushing him to marry.  He makes a toast:  "To Empress Elizabeth, the most shameless wreck who ever ruled all the Russias."

Elizabeth yells at Betvjov.  He doesn't think Peter should marry the woman that is to be his wife.  She screams:  "I'm not wrong about this marriage."  Everyone standing outside the room can hear what's going on.  Betvjov leaves the room, but Elizabeth calls him back.  As he turns around, everyone can see he has a black eye.  Inside the room Elizabeth tells him that the bride will have to change her religion and her name.  Betvjov says he likes the name Catherine for this "slip of a girl".  Elizabeth kisses Betvjov. 

Elizabeth talks with Peter.  She tells him that he must have an heir.  Peter refers to her many lovers and then says:  "I'm off."  He leaves and Elizabeth faints. 

Princess Anhalt-Zerbst is brought in to see Elizabeth.  She is very worried about making a good impression.  She asks how she should act in certain situations.  The princess practices her deep curtsy, but her concerns are overwhelmed by staff people running through the big room.  Olof goes to find out what's going on.  The companion of the princess says that it's obvious that the Grand Duke does not want her.  The princess says that they can't force the Grand Duke to marry her. 

As Peter is walking out of the palace, so is the princess.  She tells the stranger that the Grand Duke insulted her.  The man refuses to see her.  Peter says that maybe he prefers another princess.  This makes the princess very angry and she starts bitterly criticizing the various available princesses.  Peter asks the princess about her possibly wanting to become the empress, but the princess says she doesn't care about becoming the empress of Russia.  She tells Peter that she was first told of the Grand Duke Peter when she was ten years old.  She was told all about him.  Peter tells her that maybe she made a "lucky escape" from the Grand Duke.  He knows the man and he's very mistrustful of people and very vain.  The princess gets disgusted and wants the stranger to show her the way out.  She follows behind Peter.  He does not show her the way out.  Instead, he takes her to see his aunt Elizabeth.  Peter presents the princess to the empress.  Elizabeth is shocked but she is also very happy.  In fact, she later refers to this day as the happiest day of her life. 

Elizabeth gets ready for the wedding.  She is not happy with the one gown out of her 5,000 gowns for the wedding ceremony.  She yells at Betvjov, then tells him to go to the church and wait for her.  After he leaves, she says in disgust:  "Insupportable!"  She adds that she should send the man to Siberia.  Elizabeth starts flirting with another man. 

Peter starts to have second thoughts about marrying.  He wonders if his the whole of his first meeting with Catherine was staged.  He is indeed a distrusting man.  He says to himself:  "I'll teach her to trap me!"  The Grand Duke sees his lover Willett and asks her when can he see her alone?  She doesn't think he would be so scandalous, but Peter tells her to be at the hunting lodge at midnight. 

Peter attends the wedding and says "I do."  Later he tells one of his staff to have the sleigh ready for him before midnight.  This scandalous decision causes a lot of stir among the staff.  One of the women on Catherine's staff goes to speak with Elizabeth.  She tell the Empress that Catherine is crying her eyes out all alone.  And it hurts her to listen to this.  Elizabeth marches down to see Catherine.  When Elizabeth learns Peter went out, she says disgusted:  "That swine!"  She also says:  "How dare he do this to me?"  She goes on to say that she will have him dragged back to the palace.  Catherine says no to this idea.  She says that she and Peter could live together as friends.  Asking her more questions, Elizabeth realizes she is very attached to Peter.  She comments: "Ah, you love him!"  Catherine says yes, she does.  Elizabeth says in that case, Catherine will have to help herself. 

Around two years later.  Catherine inspects the officers, in full dress, of her regiment.  She talks with the Colonel and tells him that he fought at Poltava and was the first man through the Swedish lines.  Peter sees her with the regiment and comments that he is going to put a stop to this.  The officers are absolutely charmed byh Catherine.   Peter rushes in and drags her away from the regiment.  Catherine tells him:  "You are hurting me!"  Peter asks her how many lovers has she had?  Catherine says 17 lovers.  Peter gasps:  "Seventeen lovers in two years?"

He goes to see his aunt and tells her to send Catherine back to from whence she came.  Peter complains that Catherine has had 17 lovers.  Elizabeth takes Catherine into a separate room and starts grilling her on the 17 lovers.  She soon realizes what's going on.  The lady is lying.  Elizabeth starts laughing and tells Catherine:  "You haven't had one lover yet, Miss Catherine."  Elizabeth then says that Catherine went to far with that figure of 17 lovers.  It's much too high.  She should have said she has one lover.  Catherine objects that at least she got her husband jealous.  Elizabeth emphasizes:  "You need one real lover, not 17 imaginary lovers." 

Now Elizabeth talks to both spouses together.  She says they are both saying they want to divorce.  So she will find Peter another woman to marry.  In the meantime, however, "No scandals."

Now that he is about to lose Catherine, Peter is nicer to her.  When they say good night, Catherine tells Peter to have fun (with his mistresses).  This shocks Peter a bit.  He suggests that they have dinner together this night and Catherine agrees.  The French head of staff for Peter tells the cooks what kind of dinner he wants for the Grand Duke. 

At dinner Peter asks Catherine who was her first lover.  She says a name and then names a second man who she had an affair with in Moscow.  Catherine starts to go on and on, but Peter slaps her and shouts:  "You dare to tell me that?!"  He turns his back to her and walks over closer to a wall.  She gets up out of her seat and says to him:  "You idiot!  It's not true."  As this goes on, the Frenchman turns down the bed to get it ready for romance.  Catherine asks Peter why did he leave her that first night?  Peter responds:  "Because I was an idiot." 

Catherine goes to see Elizabeth.  She scolds Elizabeth for working herself so hard.  Elizabeth experiences pain in her chest and she grabs one side of her chest.  After a short while, Elizabeth asks Catherine to read from the report to her.  Catherine reads that in Kiev the peasants are in revolt.  And the military commander is asking for more troops.  Elizabeth asks Catherine if she should send the troops.  Catherine says no, because force cannot solve the problems created by famine.  She urges the empress to bring in very needed food supplies to the people of Kiev.  Elizabeth is extremely happy with her answer.  Indeed, so much so, that she decides to go to the ball rather than continue working.  And she wants Catherine to do the rest of her work for her, while Elizabeth is at the ball. 

At the ball, Peter is making plans for Elizabeth's funeral.  Elizabeth comes to the ball.  She is told that she really must giver her heart a rest, but she ignores that advise.  Elizabeth approaches Peter and the men around him.  All the men now rush away from Peter to Elizabeth.  Obviously, Peter doesn't like this.  After a while, Elizabeth asks Chamalov to dance the minuet with her.  Peter says:  "She's laughing at me!  She came here to make me look ridiculous!"

Elizabeth suddenly collapses while on the dance floor.  Peter acts very strangely opening a window and asking death to come into the house to take Elizabeth.  Elizabeth tells Catherine that she is dying and she wants to leave her to take care of that madman Peter.  It is Catherine who should rule Russia, she says.  But, ah, Catherine still loves Peter.  So she tells Catherine that she must fight or she will be killed. 

Peter tells one of his staff that he wants him to get him a man much blow average intelligence. He wants the man to be the Chancellor of the Empire. 

Peter talks to Baranzov, the man he is considering to be the Chancellor.  He speaks about what he wants in his new government, but Baranzov mentions that Her Majesty may recover.  Peter says:  "She'll die!"  He wants new coins with his face on them and wants to get rid of the old coins with Elizabeth's face on them.  He also intends to bring back from Siberia all the people she sent there, to be replaced by all the people that Elizabeth liked. 

Elizabeth dies.  Someone tells Catherine that she must go see the Emperor.  Catherine says yes because Peter is certain to shock public opinion if left to do anything he wants to do.  She is told about his wanting to send innocent people to Siberia just because of their close relationships with Empress Elizabeth.  Catherine goes to see Peter.

Peter is telling his male staff that they have had quite enough of women around them.  He even wants women banned from any succession to the throne.   When Peter sees Catherine he tells her to leave.  Catherine just says:  "I came to tell you that the Empress is dead."  Peter is ecstatic with glee.  Catherine goes over to kiss Peter and says:  "Long live the Emperor!"  This cheers Peter up and he wants to show her what he is doing.  Meanwhile, she keeps working on Peter on key issues and gets him to tear up the order to send the innocents to Siberia. 

Peter talks of war with his staff.  He talks about the Austrians.  Then he says which general he wants to pin down the main Prussian force.  Another general will head for Berlin.  Peter stops and asks:  "But what will Ivan Ivanovich say?"  His staff wonders who is this Ivan Ivanovich?  Peter says he will have to find this man. 

When Peter leaves, Catherine comes in and asks what's wrong?  She can tell something wrong has happened.  She asks again and finally is told that Peter is looking for a man called Ivan Ivanovich and the Emperor himself doesn't even know where the man is.  Catherine says that Ivan Ivanovich is a reference to the common solider and the Russian peasant.

Peter asks a guard if he is Ivan Ivanovich?  The guard keeps telling him that he is not Ivan Ivanovich.

Peter's staff tells Catherine that it is she who Russia loves, not Peter.  Everybody thinks she can effectively run Russia.  Peter comes in and hears some of the conversation.  He then goes crazy.  He thinks that Catherine is trying to push him out.  He finally decides to leave and tells Captain Olov to carry on with the Council and let him know what Catherine has decided.  As he leaves, he kisses a woman in the hallway. 

Olov says that the Council wants to make her Empress of Russia.  Catherine says no because she loves the Emperor.  She returns to her quarters, but is told by Grodovich that the Emperor has moved her room to the French apartment in the right wing of the palace.  Catherine is a bit stunned by the news.

A fancy dinner is being given by the Emperor.  He, seated next to his mistress, tells a staff member that he wants Catherine to come to the dinner.  The Emperor says that if Grodovich doesn't get Catherine to come back with him to the dinner, he will give a "different" assignment.  Grodovich comes to Catherine and tells her what her husband wants.  Catherine says:  "I'm not going to be humiliated."  Grodovich tells her that if she doesn't come to dinner, he will be sent to Siberia.  Catherine has to give in.  She says:  "I'm coming."

Catherine sits at the end of the table far away from the Emperor and says something insulting about his mistress.  Peter tells Grodovich to go get for the mistress the medal of the Order of St. Catherine.  Grodovich explains that the medal is meant only for members of the Royal family.  Peter looks at the necklace around Catherine's neck.  He tells Grodovich to go get the medal off Catherine's neck.  This is the last thing he wants to do to Catherine, but Peter warns his staff member that he is waiting. 

Olov speaks with Catherine again, saying that something must be done about Peter.  He says:  "We have to fight or die."  Catherine's thoughts are elsewhere and she wonders out loud:  Can a man love a woman like me more than temporarily?  Olov tells her that he loves her and, in fact, he loved her from the first time he saw her.  This really cheers up Catherine.  She begins to assist in a planning of a coup d'etat.  Olov says they will arrest the Tsar at dawn.  Catherine is worried what will happen to Peter.  Olov says he must be rendered harmless.  They will put him away for awhile.

Meanwhile, Peter is considering killing Catherine.  He issues an order that Catherine is to be arrested at dawn. 

The soldiers cheer for Catherine.  She refers to them as "my children". 

Peter shouts out for Catherine.  But the military comes instead and the man in charge tells Peter:  "You are my prisoner, sir."  Catherine will be referred to as Catherine II, Empress of Russia.  Peter's mistress asks Peter what will become of her?  Peter says death must be something like this. 

Catherine is called the Empress of all the Russias in front of a massive crowd.  Peter gets into the carriage that will drive him away from the palace.  He hears the shouts of "Catherine!" from the crowd.  Apparently a rumor has been going around that Catherine has been killed.  To end this silly talk, Catherine goes outside on a second floor patio to show herself to her people.  Peter says:  "Well done, Little Catherine."  He gets into the coach. 

A little later words comes the news that someone has killed Peter.  And they want Olov to tell the Empress.  The Empress comes in saying:  "This is the happiest day of my life!"  She says she needs a rest.  Olov follows her into her room and by his expression Catherine can tell that something has happened to Peter.  Olov tells her.  She denies the reality that Peter has been killed.  But then she wants to know who did it.  Olov will not tell her.  Catherine goes to her staff and asks them:  "Who poisoned my victory?  Who has made me a murderer?"  She threatens them that if they don't tell her, they will all be punished.  No one says anything.

Catherine remembers Peter and says:  "He always called me Little Catherine." 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.





Historical Background:


See Young Catherine (1991).



Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)