Scarlett Empress (1934)



Director:  Josef von Sternberg

Starring:  Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe, C. Aubrey Smith, Edward Van Sloan

The story of the rise of Catherine the Great.  


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

There is a little princess in Prussia. She is sick and the doctor tells her that she will have to wear a harness for a year. When she is older, her father receives a letter from Frederick, the King of Prussia, saying that his daughter Sophia Frederica has permission to marry Peter, the Grand Duke of Russia. Count Alexi, the field marshall of the Russian army, comes to take Sophia and her mother to the Kremlin. They leave March 15, 1744.

Stopping at an inn Count Alexi tells her that he has fallen in love with her. She is taken by the field marshall but she is also overwhelmed. At the Kremlin, Peterís mother the Empress Elizabeth tells her that her new name is Catherine Alexia. Catherine finally meets the next emperor of Russia and is shocked to find that he has an ever present-simpleton smile on his face combined with bulging eyes. It turns out that Peter is a half-wit. (And Peter has a lover, Countess Elizabeth Feronsov.)

Count Alexi gives Catherine a portrait of himself to hang around her neck. Peter tells his mother: "I hate my wife. . . I donít want her." She scolds him for his terrible attitude. Catherine learns that her mother has left for Germany without saying good-bye. She asks Elizabeth why she sent her mother back to Prussia and Elizabeth says because she was not a good mother. She failed to teach Catherine to be obedient and a good, loyal wife. Elizabeth decides to keep a constant eye on Catherine to teach her the right way to behave.

Count Alexi tries to pass a note to Catherine in the presence of Elizabeth. Elizabeth grabs the note and has it read out-loud. The note reveals that Alexi was trying to arrange a tryst with Catherine. Elizabeth denounces Alexi as a heart-breaker and warns Catherine to be wary of him.

Catherine notices a drill bit making a hole through the wall of Elizabethís bedroom chamber. Elizabeth notices it also and tells Catherine to go tell Peter to see her. Catherine goes behind the bedroom walls and tells Peter. When Peter visits his mother, she slaps him for trying to spy on her. Then she fires Peterís mistress, telling her to never return to the Kremlin.

Elizabeth then tells Catherine that she obviously is in love with Count Alexi. She adds a warning that Catherine not be her rival. Catherine is afraid of what this might mean. Elizabeth then sends her downstairs by a secret staircase to let in a secret visitor. Catherine does so and realizes that it is Count Alexi that is coming to see the empress. She feels faint at the realization that the count is the empressís lover. Catherine stomps on Alexiís portrait and throws the necklace out the window. She then repents of it and goes downstairs to retrieve it. She finds the portrait but is stopped by the guards. Feeling betrayed by Alexi and knowing that the empress demands that she give Russia a baby boy, she has sex with the lieutenant of the guards.

Nine months later, Catherine delivers a boy. Elizabeth is sick, but she is happy to see her new grandson. Catherine refuses to see Count Alexi. Instead, she turns to the pursuit of power. Catherine is warned that the Grand Duke will get rid of her when he becomes the emperor on the death of his mother. Peter reveals to Catherine that he has brought back his mistress to the Kremlin.

Elizabeth dies. Peter starts having his opponents killed and terrorizes all of Russia as a result. Catherine, however, has gained control of the Russian army. She sees Captain Orlov when she does an inspection of Count Alexiís favorite regiment. She is quite taken with him. Furthermore, she discovers that he is rich too. Catherine has Count Alexi perform the task she once had to perform: she has him let in to her chamber her new lover (Captain Orlov) to be with her.

Peter orders that Catherine be placed under arrest. He adds that soon he will issue a proclamation that the empress will be killed.

Catherine dresses like a soldier and escapes from the Kremlin with the support of her forces. Orlov returns to the Kremlin and kills Peter. With her troops, Catherine returns to the Kremlin as the empress of Russia.


An o.k. movie. It spends too much time presenting the pageantry associated with the emperor and empress of Russia. The whole movie deals just with the rise of Catherine to the position of empress of Russia. The accomplishments of her long reign are not treated at all. The battle between Catherine and her husband Peter is interesting, although we know who will win because we know Catherine became the empress of Russia.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


See Young Catherine (1991) for the Historical Background.


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