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The Rise Of Catherine The Great

The Rise Of Catherine The Great(1934)

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teaser The Rise Of Catherine The Great (1934)

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), also known as Catherine the Great, had the misfortune of being released in the same year as a much more famous take on the same subject, Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934). Consequently, Catherine has become somewhat lost to film history. But while Catherine is more of a straight version of the story as compared to von Sternberg's deliriously stylized (and brilliant) rendering, and Catherine's leading lady Elisabeth Bergner is today completely forgotten as compared to her counterpart Marlene Dietrich, the film deserves recognition nonetheless as an important and entertaining achievement.

The story of the shy German princess destined to rule Russia begins in 1745, when young Catherine is forced to marry the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. He is reckless, mad, and utterly lacking in leadership ability -- and he does not welcome his arranged bride. When he eventually becomes Emperor Peter III and is then murdered, Catherine assumes the throne and rules Russia for 34 years as Catherine the Great, completing a dramatic transformation from timid to powerful.

The Rise of Catherine the Great was adapted from a 1912 play, The Czarina, by Lajos Biro and Melchior Lengyel. Their play had actually already been adapted for Ernst Lubitsch's 1924 film Forbidden Paradise, starring Pola Negri as Catherine. This new screen version came about for two principal reasons. Producer Alexander Korda had just had a huge success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and was anxious to recreate the magic by applying the "private life" formula to new subjects, and Korda had also just signed into a new partnership with United Artists, augmenting the stable of actors and artists available to him -- a stable that was suitable for mounting The Rise of Catherine the Great and also The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), his other new picture.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., for instance, was plucked from the UA roster to play the part of Peter. The 24-year-old actor was thrilled to get this "marvelous" part, later recounting, "Now I would have a chance to show Hollywood's producers what I could do with a real character-lead. No longer would I have to play nice young light comedies or listen to offers to ape my father's swashbuckling fantasies. I had long before decided that no one could follow in his footsteps. They were so light they left no trace."

Fairbanks had recently been set to star in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933), but when he came down with double pneumonia the studio was forced to replace him with Gary Cooper. Bitterly disappointed, Fairbanks was determined not to let the same thing happen with Catherine the Great. His doctors actually recommended that he drop out of Catherine as well, for he was at risk of contracting tuberculosis, but he defied their orders and traveled to London to make the film, and luckily he recovered.

Fairbanks later wrote that the real Peter III "was stubby with a puffy, pockmarked face" and "I looked nothing at all like [him]. I wanted to create a real character in the part, but [director Paul] Czinner and Korda insisted our story was essentially romantic." Camera tests followed with Fairbanks donning a wig, satin suits and knee britches, and wearing white makeup, lipstick and even beauty marks. "Had I not been so in love with my part and delighted with my good fortune in landing it, I might have been more stubborn, but I was afraid I would be paid off and replaced.... When Korda saw the tests, he said I looked all right, though 'far too young and pretty.'" Fairbanks grew a mustache to counter this effect. "The result," he wrote, "was inauthentic but apparently satisfactory."

Variety heaped praise on Fairbanks: "His definition of the fuming Peter is one of the best he has ever done. His appearance does much to help the authors mold the character away from repugnant and to make Catherine's devotion to him reasonable."

European actress Elisabeth Bergner made her English-language debut with Catherine the Great. She'd already built quite a reputation on German stage and screen, so much so that she had considerable clout and was able to insist that Korda hire her husband Paul Czinner to direct. Czinner had already directed her eight times in major German productions, so this wasn't a terrible idea. Czinner would direct her five more times in English films.

Critics were excessively effusive in describing Bergner, whose naturally diminutive frame seemed perfect for the demure Princess Catherine and which, appropriately enough, masked the strength her character was capable of; it also somewhat masked her great strength as an actress. The New York Times, which overall compared The Rise of Catherine the Great unfavorably to The Private Life of Henry VIII, said that when Bergner first appears on screen, she is "a timid little creature... Her face is doll-like, her hair fair and curly, her eyes big and round and her eyebrows barely visible, very much a la mode of 1934... Notwithstanding her modest appearance, Miss Bergner gives a clever portrayal... [She] goes through most of her scenes with rare dignity and she accomplishes marvels with her large eyes and expressive lips."

Variety called her "a little, skinny thing, without orthodox sex appeal but has charm and a screen personality that will keep them coming back to see her." But while Bergner did make more films and found some success in the years ahead, a major American screen career was not to be. A year after Catherine, Bergner received her only Oscar® nomination, for Escape Me Never (1935). More British pictures followed, and a few years later she made her one American film, Paris Calling (1941), a Universal release with an oddball cast of Randolph Scott, Basil Rathbone and Lee J. Cobb. She didn't catch on in Hollywood, however, and turned exclusively to the stage, though she did resume a film career in Germany decades later.

Playing the Russian Empress Elisabeth, who summons Catherine to marry her nephew Peter, was Flora Robson -- who at age 32 was actually five years younger than Bergner! Robson greatly enjoyed this role and was amused that her old Empress was supposed to have lovers; the actress found it difficult to feel attractive in her pale wig and makeup. Alexander Korda, ever the charmer, helped her through it. Robson later remembered "he used to kneel at my feet before a take and say, 'My Greta Garbo!' in his delicious [Hungarian] accent, which made me laugh and feel better. He was good at bolstering people with a sex inferiority complex." It worked, at least for the Variety critic, who called Robson "the ugly but sexy old Empress."

Also notable in the cast is Sir Gerald du Maurier, a giant of the British stage and father of novelist Daphne du Maurier. Fairbanks was thrilled to have the chance to work with du Maurier, "my great hero," even though he was a little embarrassed that the stage legend had only a supporting part of a valet. He was even more embarrassed when he found that du Maurier had been assigned a small dressing room, while Fairbanks, Bergner and Robson all got deluxe rooms. On the first day of shooting, Fairbanks stealthily replaced the name on his dressing room door with du Maurier's. Fairbanks later wrote, "We became and remained good friends until he died, and I'm glad to say he never knew of my switch." (Du Maurier died only months later.)

There was considerable friction on the set of Catherine the Great. Czinner and Korda did not get along, and Korda intruded to direct several scenes on his own. While it's difficult to pin down exactly what was directed by whom, it's fair to assume that Czinner at least directed the majority of scenes involving Bergner. Robson biographer Janet Dunbar has claimed that Korda directed all of Robson's scenes, and that if her performance comes off as a bit strident, it's because Korda did not technically compensate for her stronger voice: "Her voice was too powerful for the microphone positions, which shot high in the air when she spoke; there were so many adjustments that in the end her voice came though sounding high and thin. Korda did not always allow for the fact that full-bodied acting came out as overacting on the screen: he placed his cameras and microphones too near the set. What was needed was understatement, not strong projection. Flora was instinctively aware of this, but one did not argue with Korda."

Supporting actress Diana Napier also claimed to have been directed by Korda, telling author Karol Kulik that she didn't even remember seeing Czinner on the set. And Bergner later recalled, "[Korda] wasn't a very good director and suddenly after Henry VIII he thought he was, and he could butt in and say it should be done this way or another way and forgot our contract which didn't allow him this. So we had fights."

In any event, The Rise of Catherine the Great is still an impressive Korda production and was no doubt helped tremendously by the great technical crew, several of whom came directly from working on The Private Life of Henry VIII: cinematographer Georges Perinal, one of the greatest cameramen of the '30s and '40s, art director Vincent Korda, and costumer John Armstrong.

Producer: Alexander Korda; Ludovico Toeplitz (uncredited)
Director: Paul Czinner; Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Screenplay: Lajos Bir, Melchior Lengyel (play); Marjorie Deans; Arthur Wimperis
Cinematography: Georges Prinal
Art Direction: A. Hallam, Vincent Korda
Music: Ernst Toch (uncredited)
Film Editing: Stephen Harrison, Harold Young
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Grand Duke Peter), Elisabeth Bergner (Catherine), Flora Robson (Empress Elisabeth), Gerald du Maurier (Lecocq), Irene Vanbrugh (Princess Anhalt-Zerbst), Joan Gardner (Katushienka), Dorothy Hale (Countess Olga), Diana Napier (Countess Vorontzova), Griffith Jones (Grigory Orlov), Gibb MacLaughlin (Bestujhev).
BW-95m.

by Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:
Kenneth Barrow, Flora
Brian Connell, Knight Errant: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Janet Dunbar, Flora Robson
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Salad Days
Karol Kulik, Alexander Korda
Martin Stockham, The Korda Collection
Paul Tabori, Alexander Korda

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