Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 5/3/01
1934 (2001) -
Paramount/Universal (The Criterion Collection)
review by Todd Doogan of
The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
Specs and Features
104 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered
(layer switch 1:08:35, in chapter 12), Amaray keep case packaging,
The World of Josef von Sternberg
(BBC documentary), production stills and lobby cards, film-themed
menu screens, scenes access (19 chapters), languages: English (DD
mono), subtitles: English
First thing's first.
In order to fully appreciate The Scarlet
Empress, I think you need to forget all of those
historians who go out of their way to teach us that Catherine the
Great didn't die trapped under her favorite stallion while getting
down and dirty. Of course, we know this to be a horrible and
slanderous untruth today, but with all of the horse references and
lingering horse shots in this film, the irony gets wasted - as does
the campy humor. So, just for today, while enjoying von Sternberg's
masterstroke, let's pretend Catherine was into severe kink, shall
On to the review then...
Legendary filmmaker Josef von Sternberg has been called many
things, both during his life and after. Genius, artist and tyrant
are all words that have been bandied around. But the one thing he
will always be remembered for is his working collaboration with
Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich. The
Scarlet Empress was one of their last projects together,
and today it's considered to be one of their greatest achievements.
Dietrich plays Catherine the Great, czarina of Russia. We follow her
from her youth (as a girl named Sophie living in Germany), on
through her teen years (as she groomed for a life as the wife and
provider of a monarch) and into her life as a master seductress (who
ruled the world from her bed). It's all here and, given that this
film packs a huge life into 104 minutes, it does pretty well.
Marlene is beautiful and perfect in her role. Sam Jaffe (as her
crazed husband Grand Duke Peter) is also wonderful, with that
Gwynplaine smile etched on his face through the whole thing - he's
eerily enjoyable. Although meant to be a serious look at a great
woman, today the film is considered campiest of the camp and has
joined Mommy Dearest as a
must-view at many gay film festivals. And there is a certain Rocky
Horror Picture Show thing going on, especially if you go
out of your way to note the horse references. It isn't hard. Brood
Criterion has done the best it could with a problem film. Legendary
for his painterly use of light, shadow and detail, von Sternberg's
films are notoriously difficult to transfer for DVD.
The Scarlet Empress maybe even
more so. So right up front, I have to say that I am less than
pleased with the transfer on this DVD... although I in no way hold
Criterion responsible. And neither should anyone else. First off,
the film is Grainy with a capital G. This is due to several things.
First, it's an old film. Second, the original negative has been lost
to the ravages of time, so this is a transfer from a second
generation print. It's a sad but true fact of life these days, that
many older films will never look as good as they once did. Third,
Universal gave Criterion the transfer and that was that. As a
licensee, they simply had to hope it was good. And, all things
considered, it was. But there was no "restoration"
(digital or otherwise) done to this film. So what we have here is
The Scarlet Empress looking as
good as we're ever going to get it in our homes... and that's that.
It's definitely watchable, so fear not on that front. But it isn't
as luminous as one would hope. This is a film that, if DVD
technology had been around in the 1930s (just imagine), would have
looked glorious. The sound track is also problematic - it's scratchy
and hollow in its Dolby Digital mono. But all of the same notes
apply here. We have a great classic film on DVD and we should just
be happy with that. Is it perfect? It's as perfect as it's going to
The extras are light, but extraordinary. There's a gallery of
stills and lobby cards, which are nice but not groundbreaking. But
the real shiny light of greatness comes in the form of a 20-minute
documentary about von Sternberg. It includes an interview with
legendary film historian Kevin Brownlow, as well as
behind-the-scenes footage of von Sternberg himself, lighting a shot
with a group of future filmmakers. To have such things captured on
film is rare indeed. And if you love film, seeing this stuff will
drop your mouth open. It's all a Godsend to have on DVD. And that's
pretty much it, extras-wise. But it's enough.
Seeing The Scarlet Empress on
DVD is great. I would have liked it to look better. But then I would
have liked to have seen London After
Midnight too, and that's not going to happen any time
soon. For what it is, this is a nice DVD and I'm glad to have it.
Check it out, but do keep an open mind. 'Cause when the Grand Duke's
away... the horse will play.