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Archive for October 26th, 2008

The next in the series…

by Allan Fish

(USA 1934 109m) DVD1/2

Empress Marlene

p/d  Josef Von Sternberg  w  Manuel Komroff  diary  Catherine the Great  ph  Bert Glennon  ed  Josef Von Sternberg  m  Felix Mendelssohn, P.I.Tchaikovsky, Richard Wagner  art  Hans Dreier, Peter Balbusch, Richard Kollorsz  cos  Travis Banton

Marlene Dietrich (Sophia Frederica/Catherine the Great), John Lodge (Count Alexei), Sam Jaffe (Grand Duke, later Peter III), Louise Dresser (Tsarina Elizabeth), C.Aubrey Smith (Prince August), Gavin Gordon (Gregory Orloff), Jameson Thomas (Lt.Ostvyn), Marie Sieber (Princess Sophia Frederica as child),

If one had to pick one sequence to represent the Hollywood of the pre Hays Code, what would it be?  Colbert up to her nipples in asses milk in The Sign of the Cross?  The ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ number from Gold Diggers of 1933?  Miriam Hopkins under the covers in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?  Sorry, but no.  For me the most censorable piece of pre-code cinema is the montage of torture that comes in the opening few minutes of Von Sternberg’s visual zenith to represent the reprisals of the old Tsarina.  In this sequence we see various naked women emerging from Iron Maidens, tied face up on wheels of pain (where the camera moves quick enough to disguise the fact that the woman is full frontal, if shaven), and even burned at the stake, four at a time.  No wonder the Hays Code saw 1934 as the last straw, you might say, but at least the nudity was pictorial, and less shocking by far than the inherent sadism on view.  But the fact remains that The Scarlet Empress is many things; a hagiography of its star, a paean to silent cinema’s visual sensibilities, an insight into the use of sex in power struggles, an all-out assault on Hollywood censorship and the final statement on cinematic artificiality.  The film bombed, as it was wont to do, but it remains the supreme piece of visual blasphemy ever perpetrated by a major studio. (more…)

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