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review added: 5/3/01



The Scarlet Empress
1934 (2001) - Paramount/Universal (The Criterion Collection)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

The Scarlet Empress Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/B+

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 we?

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 mare.

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 be.

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.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




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