SCARLET EMPRESS, THE
1934 - ****
Von Sternberg was a genius but one could argue whether he never quite 'got' narrative pacing or dialogue, preferring the language of symbols, small gestures, posed tableaux, incidental and ambient noise and Wagnerian gesture, all of which nearly suffocates the first half of arguably his best and worst of the Dietrich collaborations, SCARLET EMPRESS. Taken from the then still-sizzling diaries of the sexually voracious Catherine II of Russia, the film begins in a flower-encrusted choke-hold as the stuffily regimented duty and sickeningly sweet playtime of a young Austrian noble (Dietrich, in curls) is contrasted with overlapping montages of DeMille-level lurid tortures endured by the Proletariat at the hands of the fur-hatted Cossacks in frigid Russia. The handsome, brooding, impeccably-uniformed John Lodge suddenly materializes like a tall black shadow with sable highlights in the stuffy Prussian parlor of Catherine's mother, to unite the two, and things start looking up for all conerned. But the pompously over-orchestrated Russian melodies and airless claustrophobia is a long time clearing. One unbearable matriarch after another pokes and prods Dietrich like a piece of meat at the butcher's until your feminist blood is curdling, and you want to go on a regicidal rampage; and it's only after Lodge has whisked her fully off to Moscow --and has her in between one evil broad and the other--that we feel we can start to soak up the glories of the snow and the richly photographed sable wraps. Louise Dresser overplaying to near Shelly Winters-ish levels of unpleasantness is the seated "dowager empress", while her no-good nephew the half-wit prince Peter (Sam Jaffe), prefers prowling through the Satanic art-bedecked corridors of the royal palace like Harpo Marx on meth crossed with MESA OF LOST WOMEN's Dr. Leland rather than bedding young Catherine. She's fine with that, but the dowager is ranting about needing a male heir to the throne, making Bette Davis' mom in Now Voyager seem a model of demure compassion. If Peter won't perform, surely there are good little soldiers who can get the job done.
It should all be salacious fun but between all the horses marching tediously along by the hundreds past the camera (JVS digs filming his "1,000 extras"), dehumanizing intertitles ("Pushed like a brood mare into a marriage with a royal half-wit"), Vaseline-lensed nature shots better suited to silents, lockets falling gently down the length of vast fir trees, interminable liturgies droned in candle-lit churches (enough to bore Eisenstein half to death), endless ringing bells, and strangely modern, rather overwrought Satanic sculptures at ever turn, this may be the most staid, stuffy, boring film that ever included shots of topless women being flogged and branded.
That said, if you're in the right frame of mind (the kind wherein you dig falling asleep to the molasses-slow poetic kink of Jean Rollin) you might forgive Von Sternberg being a little too obsessed with the sadomasochistic double bind of Marlene being forced to brood mare it up, and dig how Peter's drilling holes through his mom's walls so he can spy on any lesbian hanky panky reflects JVS' own predilection for the peeping camera, and sponge up the aesthetic gloom overkill and be able to just lean back and watch Dietrich age quicker than her character does over the course of the film thanks to (based on what Von Sternberg writes in his Notes from a Chinese Laundry) the cruelty he inflicted on his icy, incompetent star. Her face in the final shot--wild eyed and triumphant in white--clanging the bells after storming the palace (forever)--is terrifying--it should have been the last image in their collaboration, but instead there was The Devil is a Woman next, a film that unwisely casts Dietrich as a Spanish peasant gold-digger mining Lionel Atwill--it looks gorgeous but the hair combs are horrid and with her fake tan and brassy demeanor she's almost Crawford-level shrill.
LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT
1933 - ***1/2
"Watch out for her. She likes to wrestle," notes convict Lillian Roth of a cigar-smoking lesbian who looks not unlike a boxier version of famed sewing circle ringleader Mercedes De Acosta (lover of Garbo, below right). It's only one quick shot during a long and engaging women's prison tour Roth gives new inmate Barbara Stanwyck and though she never came out of the closet it's interesting to find Babs semi-mocking an alleged fellow sewing circle sister onscreen. But at least the gay/lesbian reality was represented, at Warner Brothers, where butch masseuses and flaming tailors (such as a recently restored scene of one taking Cagney's measurements in PUBLIC ENEMY) were winked at and cajoled but never taunted or humiliated, which is at least more than they'd get after the code, when they'd have to just disappear even deeper back into the closet until Hollywood could peer over Fellini's shoulder to learn what to do with them (after Fellini'd cribbed from Jack Smith).
|Mercedes De Acosta - right / Dyke in LADIES - left|
1933 - **1/2
It’s one of those films that could only have been made in the pre-code era at MGM, the studio who had the hardest time being truly subversive and often wound up just kinky and deeply racist instead. Egyptian guide Emil (Ramon Navarro) begins the film saying a tearful good-bye to a rich white European tourist lady on the outgoing Cairo train, and then affixes himself to an incoming British socialite played by Myrna Loy. Naturally, it being MGM, miscegenation would be out of the question, except that --like all British socialites visiting Egypt who catch the eye of skulking Arabs in the pre-code era--she has an Egyptian mother (or rather 'had' - they're always dead before the film starts, saving any alleged social discomfort with the all-white side of the family). In Egypt to visit her indefatigably British fiancee (Reginald Denny) and his unbearably controlling mater (Blanche Friderici), she's blessed with the king of 'harrumph' - C. Aubrey Smith (lower left) as a more understanding pater. Clearly MGM is pointing towards two 1932 hits for its box office hopes ---Universal's THE MUMMY and Columbia's BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN. But it's still MGM and therefore falls woefully short of Paramount's surreal jubilance or Universal's lurid expressionism or even Columbia's humanist handball, even if the pyramids are superbly evoked and the whole scene alive with rear screen magic.
|Erich taunts his wife with Adolphe's love letters|
FRIENDS AND LOVERS
1931 - **British officer Laurence Olivier goes a bit bananas as the other man who loves nymphomaniac Lily Damita in this stuffy, tangled FAREWELL TO ARMS-meets D.H. Lawrence-ish saga set partly in London, partly in Paris, partly in.... India, and always squarely on the MGM stage. The best parts are in the beginning with porcelain collector Erich Von Stroheim (as Damita's aesthete husband) lolling languidly in the surf of Menjou's discomfort as one of his wife's lover caught bringing her home with a lame alibi. It turns out Erich's habit is to blackmail his errant wife's many lovers, charging Menjou $10,000. because "porcelain is... expensive." We root for Erich all the way, especially since Damita is such a wearying screen presence. She can be charming, but when she's not 'on' she radiates a restless peevishness, like she's been kept waiting all day and is tired of being prodded and mussed by the make-up lady. Nice legs, though. Too bad that fellow Damita-schtupper Olivier later tries to shoot Menjou in a fit of jealous pique (by this time Damita already has another fiancee in the wings).
This all seems to be enough of a climax for MGM and the ending abruptly dumps everyone out on the curb after weekending at beloved old character actor Frederick "Here's to the House of Frankenstein!" Kerr's estate, and though he's cool with underhanded business, eh wot? his shrewish wife boots them out for conformity's sake. It's a lot of familiar (for the era) love triangle business that adds up to little more than the bros-before-hos credo 'tested' and broken on the rocks of Damita's scattered lips and alleged sex appeal. Better we should have followed Erich von Stroheim's porcelain, to the floor... in shards if needed!
THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US
1932 - **1/2Divorce--still scandalous, risque and o-so progressive in and of itself in 1932--was enough of a subject for entire films back in 1932, even at the already risque and progressive Warner Brothers, so here's novelist Julian (George Brent) pestering newly-divorced rich socialite Ruth Chatterton into marriage. She wants to have a little fun in Paris first but secretly wants him to come out and pester her, presumably. Trouble is, Brent always presumes that is the case, in every role he's ever played, which is why I don't like him on principle--his whole attitude reflects the gateway rationalization of many a stalker. Meanwhile, as Chatterton talks on the phone from Paris, her kid sister-like college chum Bette Davis tries to steal Julian away, but in a Midge kind of semi-joking manner that never works, until maybe the very end, (unless the man you're stealing is Frank Sinatra).
What's so fascinating this time around is the idea that ex-married couples can still be friends and look out for each other. Ruth's investment broker ex-husband starts losing his clients once he's seen snoozing the night away at ritzy clubs with his energetic, younger Paris Hilton-esque trophy wife. So Chatterton comes home and throws her weight around to keep him afloat, rather than marrying the sappy and sacharine Brent, who's fond of purring bad lines like, "Will you think I've fallen out of love with you if I light a cigarette?" like it's the cleverest most sincerely romantic string of words ever uttered. Davis' dialogue is, on the other hand, pretty smart, and the issues of marriage and divorce are rather adultly presented. Alfred E. Green (BABY FACE) directs with plenty of that old WB pepper but there's only so much you can do with material this thin. No sooner has the bitchy new young wife announced on the drive home that she's pregnant but doesn't want to have the baby since it would ruin her figure, for example, she's instantly killed in a car wreck. But at least she got to say what everyone's thinking. Julian would be better off with Davis, but that's not to say Chatterton doesn't have great ditzy appeal; she's the living hybrid stop between Carole Lombard and her mother in MY MAN GODFREY (1936), and I mean that as a compliment.