The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934)





Director:     .

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), Dorothy Hale (Countess Olga), Diana Napier (Countess Vorontzova), Griffith Jones (Grigory Orlov), Gibb McLaughlin (Bestujhev), Clifford Heatherley (Ogarev), Laurence Hanray (Goudovitch), Allan Jeayes (Col. Karnilov).

troubled marriage of Catherine II (played by German actress Elisabeth Bergner) to Peter III (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and her subsequent ascension to the throne as Empress of Russia




Spoiler Warning:

Russia 1745. The hunting lodge of Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne.

There is a lot of singing at the lodge. A woman and a man arrive at the lodge. Peter asks whatís the woman doing here? She says sheís just saying goodbye. So Peter says goodbye. The woman adds: "And to wish you a very happy marriage." Peter replies: "Iím not getting married." The woman says: "Iím afraid you are. The lady has already arrived." Now Peter gets very angry and chases everyone out of the main room. Only Grigory Orlov remains behind. Peter asks Orlov didnít he hear him? Orlov says: "You need one friend."

Peter apologizes to Orlov, saying that itís that the women around him are driving him mad. He says he loathes the very idea of marriage. Orlov thinks he has to marry sometime, so why not just get it over. He also warns Peter that he must learn to control himself.

Peter is most contemptuous of Empress Elisabeth, the Empress of All the Russias.

The Empress balls out Vestusha (?) for interfering in her plans for the marriage of Peter. The girl is coming all the way from Germany. The man protests, but Elisabeth tells him to shut-up because he has no business thinking that she is wrong.

The man leaves the room with a black eye, but Elisabeth calls him back. He tells her he wants to resign from her service, but she just says: "Fiddlesticks." The Empress says she will rename the German girl Alexandra. The man says thatís too grand of a name for a slip of a girl. He wants to name her Catherine. The Empress sits on the fellowís lap and kisses him. She agrees on the name of Catherine.

The slip of a girl now arrives to see Elisabeth. She is very nervous about meeting her and says that Russia is so big and huge that it unnerves her a bit.

Peter tells the Empress that he will not marry, but she insists that he must marry. He walks out of the throne room, while the Empress shouts at him to stay. Elisabeth gets so upset that she faints and is rushed out of the room.

The bride-to-be bows all the way down to the floor, but soon realizes that the room is basically empty except for a few servants running around. Orlov inquires as to whatís going on and then tells the young girl that the Empress has fainted and the Grand Duke has retired.

Catherine runs away. She runs into the Grand Duke but she does not know it. Catherine asks him why does the Grand Duke refuse to marry her? Peter says perhaps he fancies some other German princesses. She asks which ones? Peter names some, but she rejects them as suitable candidates because she is prettier than all of them. Then Peter suggests that perhaps Catherine is too ambitious to rule Russia. Catherine says she doesnít care about ruling Russia. She cares about the Grand Duke.

But why does Catherine care about the Grand Duke when she doesnít even know him? She answers that ever since she was ten years old, she has been told that she will be his wife. She has dreamed about him so many times.

Peter says he knows the Grand Duke. In fact, heís the worst enemy of the Grand Duke for the man is a bad friend, a dangerous enemy, cruel, suspicious, disloyal, vain, mistrusts everyone, including himself. Now the Princess scolds the man for saying such things about the Grand Duke. She asks that the man show her the way out.

Peter takes Catherine back to see the Empress. He asks her what was the date she fixed for their wedding? The now happy Empress throws her arms around Peter.

August 1745. St. Petersburg. The marriage takes place. The man helping the Grand Duke to dress, Lecocq, observes that perhaps Catherine did know that he was the Grand Duke for women have a certain instinct for these things. This idea really upsets Peter and he is sure now that she trapped him. He says heís going to teach her a lesson.

Peter sees one of his girl friends at the wedding and makes a date to see her at midnight at the hunting lodge.

The wedding takes place. After the wedding. Peter tells Lecocq that heís going to the hunting lodge tonight and wonít be back until tomorrow. Lecocq is a bit shocked by this.

The Empress gets herself a new favorite man. A servant informs her that Catherine is crying all alone in her room. The Empress is shocked that Peter would leave her alone like this. Elisabeth rises up and calls Peter a swine. She rushes to console Catherine.

The Empress tells her daughter-in-law in the first five minutes of the marriage a woman must dominate the man. Catherine says she doesnít want to dominate the man for she loves Peter. Oh, says the Empress. Then thatís a different matter. So Catherine will have to rely on herself to woo Peter.

Winter passes into spring. Catherine inspects her regiment and is happy with it. She invites some of the men to have a toast with her to the regiment. Peter watches her and comments that she is inspecting her lovers, not her regiment. He says heíll put a stop to that little mountebank.

Peter goes down and grabs Catherine away from the little celebration with the regiment. He tells her she should be ashamed of her behavior. She says she doesnít know what heís talking about. He replies that he is talking about her lovers. Catherine says she has 17 lovers.

Peter takes Catherine to Elisabeth to complain about her 17 lovers. Catherine says she doesnít understand what the fuss is all about because she has done what Peter wants. She has stayed separated from him for two years now.

Elisabeth speaks to Catherine in private. She quizzes Catherine on her lovers and their names. She soon discovers that Catherine has not had any lovers. Now the Empress advises Catherine to forget about the 17 fictional lovers and get one real lover.

Mother now speaks to the couple together. Does son want a divorce? Yes. Does Catherine want a divorce? Yes. So now Peter will marry one of the other German princesses? Yes. And Catherine will go back to her home? Yes. So the matter is settled.

The couple leave together. They talk and Peter says he can like her when he isnít required to like her. She says he can be very charming. When they reach their bedrooms, Catherine tells him to have a good time. She asks who is he going with and he tells her.  He asks her who sheís going out with and she gives him a name. They say goodbye, but then Peter asks her why doesnít Catherine dine with him?  She agrees.

At dinner Peter asks about the men Catherine has been with. She plays it up to make Peter jealous, but she goes a little too far and ends up getting slapped across the face by Peter. She calls Peter an idiot and says none of what she said is true. So why did he slap her? Peter says because heís an idiot.

The Empress is ill, but she wonít lay down. When the men at court hear about the Empressís bad heart, they start hanging around Peter a lot. The Empress sees this and wants to knock down Peter a peg or two, so she makes an appearance at the dance and suddenly all the men around Peter melt away headed for the Empress.

The solitary Peter now gets mad at the Empress and says the lady won't leave until sheís 100 years old. The Empress starts dancing, but she starts faltering trying to do the right steps. Then she faints. The news cheers Peter up. He has a guard open the window so that death can find its way in and to the Empress.

The Empress asks Catherine where is Peter? Catherine says he just left, but the Empress doesnít believe that white lie. She tells Catherine that she is dying and Peter will be glad of it. Elisabeth refers to Peter as a mad man, and suggests that itís Catherine who should be the Empress and rule Russia. She goes on to say that her nephew Peter will ruin Russia and she should have had him killed to prevent this. The Empress suggests that Catherine might end up having to kill Peter in a kill or be killed scenario.

The Empress dies. Orlov comes to Catherine to tell her that Peter is going to send entirely innocent people to Siberia simply because the late Empress liked them. So Catherine agrees to go see Peter to try and change his mind. But when Peter sees her he tells her to get out of here, because they donít want any more women meddling into politics. Heís also going to pass an edict that there can be no female succession to the throne ever again. Peterís tone upsets Catherine, but she manages to say that the Empress is dead. Peter jumps up and down, heís so happy. She then walks up to Peter, kisses him and then whispers in his ear, long live the Emperor.

And now Peter changes his whole mood and he starts showing Catherine what heís doing politically. With a little bit of trickery and reverse psychology, she gets her husband to tear up the list of names of people to be sent to Siberia.

Peter is listening to battle plans when he suddenly asks the question, but what would Ivan Ivanovic have to say about the plans? A man asks who is this man? Peter doesnít say. He only says that since they donít know what Ivan Ivanovic thinks, then he shall have to find the man and talk to him. Peter leaves the room and leaves the military men wondering about this unknown person.

Catherine comes into the room and she can tell that something has happened. She encourages someone to say what happened and so the man who asked the question of who was Ivan Ivonovic tells Catherine about this Ivan fellow. Catherine thinks for awhile and then says that Ivan represents the common Russian soldier. The men tell Catherine that she should be the ruler of Russian and not her husband. They say that she knows Russia and Russia know her, and all of Russia loves her. Peter comes back and catches a little bit of the conversation. He tells Catherine to go to the kitchen or the nursery, but go she must.

Then Peter suddenly says let her stay. He puts her in his seat and says for the men to tell him once Catherine has decided on what to do. He leaves the room. Orlov now tells Catherine that she should be the Empress of Russia. She thinks about it. but says she still loves her husband and does not want to replace him.

His Majesty orders that Catherine be moved out of the palace. Catherine canít believe it. She canít even take any of her belongings with her.

Later a servant is sent to bring Catherine to the dinner. Catherine says she wonít go because she will not be humiliated any more. The servant says if he canít bring Catherine to the dinner, the Emperor will send him to Siberia. So Catherine decides to come in order to save the servant from Siberia.

Catherine comes, but she doesnít like seeing another woman sitting on the left side of the Emperor. So she sits down at the farthest seat from the Emperor, which is a long distance indeed. Orlov warns her that one of the men in his circle has been arrested, and it could be arrests for all the circle soon.

Peter says that he wants his girl friend to wear the medal of the Order of St. Catherine . He tells the servant to get Catherine to give up the medal, so he can put it on his girl friend. The servant goes over to Catherine and she gives up her medal. The servant gives the medal to Peter and he puts it on his girl.

The British ambassador now stands up to say that he doesnít feel well, and he would like to retire. Then a Russian man stands up and asks permission to retire. Permission granted, but now Peter goes a little crazy and tells everybody to get out. Everybody except Catherine quickly leaves the table.

Peter goes down to sit in the chair next to her. He says that she should be put in a nunnery for the rest of her life. Peter now leaves.

Orlov tells Catherine that she must give the okay command for the men to proceed. Catherine thinks about it. She looks at herself in a mirror and asks Orlov if a man can love a woman like her. Orlov says the first minute he saw her, he loved her. She says thank you, Orlov. And now she will give the go-ahead. He asks about the plans. She says they should arrest Peter and put him in a safe place where he can be watched. Then later they can send him to Sweden or wherever he wants to be exiled to.

Peter says he wants to kill Catherine. He gives a message to one of his men saying that Catherine is to be arrested. The messenger delivers the order, but the messenger is immediately arrested. The palace guard is reinforced by other units.

Catherine comes to speak to the people in the palace. She receives a very warm reception. Catherine says she speaks to them as the Mother of Russia.

Peter comes to see Catherine, but canít find her. Soldiers come to Peter saying that they have come to arrest him. They put Peter into a carriage under guard to take him far away.

The people had heard a rumor that Catherine was killed. So Catherine makes an appearance before the thousands of people gathered by the palace. They cheer and cheer for her when they see her in the flesh.

Someone is said to have killed Peter, and the men ask Orlov to tell the Empress.

Catharine comes back inside and says that this is the happiest day of her life, and to think she used to think that nobody cared for her.

In private, Orlov puts on a very sad face and Catharine asks him what happened? He tells her that the Tsar has been killed. She asks who killed Peter? Orlov swears that he knew nothing about this.

Catherine goes back to ask the men who was it that killed the Tsar? "Who spoiled my victory?" Nobody will say.

Catharine sits in her chair and says: "He always called me ĎLittle Catherineí."


This take on the Catherine-Peter relationship has its sweet moments, but according to Wikipedia the relationship could hardly be called sweet.  The film starts out being sweet and it's a charming story, and Catherine is made sweet and fair all through the movie, but it ignores just how serious the situation was for Catherine.  You can't be sweet and carry out a coup that overthrows the Tsar.  I liked the movie, nevertheless, because it is at first a sweet story, but I prefer that an historical film be a little more realistic.  Elisabeth Bergner (as Catherine) and Flora Robson (as Empress Elisabeth) were both very good.  Fairbanks was also good. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.




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