Wednesday, September 14, 2016


In Russia in 1745, Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is sulking at the royal hunting lodge because despite being heir to the throne—currently held by his aunt, the Empress Elisabeth (Flora Robson)—he feels mostly like he is "heir to a baby’s rattle and a box of toys" and does not want the arranged marriage he is being forced into with a German princess named Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner). She meets cute with Peter, not knowing who he is, and slowly he warms up to her, but they wind up playing cat and mouse games with each other, especially after Peter's valet Lecocq plants doubts in Peter's mind about Catherine's fidelity. She pretends to have many lovers (seventeen, she says, which the Empress overhears as "seventy") whereas Peter actually does take a mistress. Soon, with Peter treating Catherine shabbily and showing signs of madness, Catherine asks for a divorce, at which point Peter suddenly becomes interested in her again and they reconcile for a time. But even the Empress comes to see that Peter is not the person to rule Russia—on her deathbed, she confides to Catherine that she should have him killed and give the title to Catherine. And that's pretty much where the court intrigues lead—to Peter's downfall and Catherine's rise to the throne.

This same story was told by Josef von Sternberg in THE SCARLET EMPRESS—both versions are highly fictionalized but SCARLET has the advantage of Marlene Dietrich in the title role, and Sternberg's spectacular visual style. The sets and costumes in this film, directed by Paul Czinner, are lovely, but the leading lady, Elisabeth Bergner, is nowhere near Dietrich in terms of talent or charisma. She's OK but she can't really carry the movie. Luckily, her co-star, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., can carry what she can't. He plays Peter as a crafty, somewhat childish playboy, and makes his scenes come to life. (In SCARLET, Sam Jaffe played him as mentally damaged, which is apparently closer to the truth.) Flora Robson is also quite good as the Empress, and Gerald du Maurier, father of author Daphne, has a small role as Lecocq. He gets one of the better lines: when Peter asks if he's ever been married, Lecocq replies, "Not officially, but I've dabbled in it." Not a classic but worth a classic film fan's time. [DVD]

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