The Scarlett Empress’s qualities are overshadowed by flamboyant production design and acting that would make an AmDram society blush.
Coming across like a slapstick farce with ostentatious production design The Scarlet Empress is two years on from Shanghai Express and displays limitless ambition. Supposedly shot in five weeks it combines drama, intrigue and Russian skulduggery. Telling the tale of a dim witted Tsar being manipulated by Dietrich in comedienne mode, this film has persistent tonal imbalance, lashings of overacting and stilted performances throughout. Only Dietrich seems to come out of this unscathed harnessing her star power and presence whilst others flounder.
Despite the lavish sets, period costumes and innovative camera techniques these is no escaping how dated everything seems. Historical dramas which veer between comedic asides and ritualistic floggings, whilst vast swathes of typed exposition stand in for drama make The Scarlet Empress tedious. Elsewhere dim witted mannerisms must go beyond bulging bug eyes and lascivious gurning even in the nineteen thirties if audiences are to invest. Likewise smouldering leading men giving elaborate speeches whilst women swoon becomes murderously mundane.
Due to the wooden acting there is little narrative urgency which leads to an indifference and disinterest. There is no doubt that Marlene Dietrich made an impact on cinema and as a screen presence no one could doubt her talent or versatility, but this film does her no favours. It has little to do with her performance which illustrates a broader range than either Dishonoured or Shanghai Express suggested, but more with the actions of those around her.
There is nothing worse than overacting as a means of overcompensation for other shortcomings. For those guilty of that here it does nothing but spoil the experience for movie audiences as it draws attention to the artifice. There is some classic framing techniques and flashes of directorial genius but these are rare, as they are overshadowed by flamboyant production design and acting that would make an AmDram society blush.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Manuel Komroff, Eleanor McGeary
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith
Released: 1934 / Genre: Historical Drama
Country: USA / IMDB
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The Scarlett Empress is out now as part of the “Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount” Blu-ray collection.