powered by AFI
Knight Without Armour (1937) was producer Alexander Korda's biggest and most expensive movie to date. Everything about it was big -- the cast, the budget, the sets and the scope of the story itself, a sweeping romantic adventure set against the Russian Revolution.
Robert Donat plays a young British journalist named Ainsley Fothergill working in 1914 St. Petersburg. After he writes an article critical of the state, he is ordered to leave Russia. Instead he is recruited by a British secret agent to become a spy. Posing as a revolutionary, Fothergill winds up falling in love with Countess Alexandra Vladinoff (Marlene Dietrich), the daughter of a Russian general, and then embarking on an extensive odyssey through revolutionary Russia that culminates with the pair trying to escape the country in 1917.
The film was co-written by the renowned Frances Marion, who adapted James Hilton's 1934 novel Without Armour, and directed by Jacques Feyder, a Belgian who is little remembered today even though he directed a handful of famous Hollywood movies such as The Kiss (1929) and Anna Christie (1931), both starring Greta Garbo. Mostly, however, Feyder worked in Europe.
Korda's Denham Studios, outside London, served as the primary filming location. A few months after production wrapped, director King Vidor came to England to shoot his own film, The Citadel (1938), and he ended up using some of the same sets. In an interview years later, Vidor recalled: "They had these wonderful night scenes [in Knight Without Armour] with railroad trains coming in at a station. I had seen this beautiful photography and I said, 'Wherever they did that shooting, I want to use it, too!' It turned out they had shot it on the lot. They still had the tracks and the railroad station set standing when we moved in to use it. They also had a river going right through the middle of the studio. It had swans and willows and flowers and plants, and it looked great. They had built the studio around an old house, and the river just happened to be next to the house." The Citadel, incidentally, was shot by Knight Without Armour cinematographer Harry Stradling.
For Dietrich's acting services, Korda paid an unprecedented salary of $350,000. Author Steven Bach later wrote: "That Marlene had once been a Korda dance extra and bit player who he had advised to go home and bake cakes gave a certain piquancy to the phenomenal fee." When the shoot was over, Korda still owed Dietrich $100,000, and he didn't have it available. Dietrich hinted that she would waive the sum if Korda would hire Josef von Sternberg to direct the upcoming I, Claudius, starring Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon. Korda took the offer and hired Sternberg, but unfortunately that film turned out to be a highly troubled production and was never completed.
Dietrich was eager to work with Donat on Knight Without Armour because she believed he would be as romantic and irresistible in person as she found him on screen. "He is so beautiful!" Dietrich's daughter Maria later recalled her as saying. "In this film, they won't know who to look at first -- him or me." As things turned out, though, Dietrich was disappointed to find that Donat was married, that he wasn't a bon vivant, and that his asthma condition severely hindered his work. In fact, it led to a month-long delay in production. (Donat's asthma was the reason he made relatively few movies in his career, and fewer as he went along; by the 1950s, he required an oxygen canister to be ready on set at all times.) Korda's instinct was to replace Donat, but Dietrich was opposed. Despite being annoyed by Donat's condition, she compassionately helped him when shooting resumed. According to Bach, she "rehearsed with Donat to perfect a dialogue technique to get him through the film. He learned to inhale deeply, [to] speak his dialogue in single, controlled exhalations of breath without a sign he was suffering anything more than the occasional pause in which he thought about England.... Donat got through it with her help. She called him 'Knight Without Asthma.'"
Dietrich would soon be labeled with her own nickname. At one point during production, writes Bach, Dietrich "slipped on a bar of soap during a bathtub scene and fell spread-eagle before cast and crew." A day or two later, a newspaper article recounted the incident, with the headline dubbing her "Countess Without Armour."
by Jeremy Arnold
Steven Bach, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend
Nancy Dowd and David Shepard, King Vidor (A Directors Guild of America Oral History)
Michael Korda, Charmed Lives
Maria Riva, Marlene Dietrich