Living a quiet life in the German countryside, a young princess (Marlene Dietrich) becomes betrothed to Peter, Duke and heir apparent to the Russian throne. After making the arduous trek to St. Petersburg, she finds her husband (Sam Jaffe) to be an impotent, moronic sadist and her life taken over by a domineering mother-in-law (Louise Dressler). Taking solace in the arms of a rogue officer (John Lodge), she learns the ropes of the courts, and gradually transforms herself into a powerful, calculating Catherine the Great. The Scarlet Empress was the sixth of seven films in a short term though highly prolific collaboration between Josef von Sternberg and Dietrich. Made at the time of the newly adopted Hayes Code, this grand spectacle is somehow still incredibly suggestive (and blatantly carnal at other times), made with a sly sense of humor, and dominated by amazing set pieces, dizzying camerawork, and unrelenting editing. Dietrich runs an impressive gamut, going from naive pawn to manipulative seductress.
**** out of ****