Cast & Crew
Irene Van Brugh
In 1913, after a visit to Ascot, Alexandra Vladinoff returns to the Russian court, where she is engaged to marry Colonel Adraxine. A. J. Fothergill, a former English reporter who has been in Russia for six years, is now translating novels, but he is expelled from the country by the police because of a political article he once wrote. His career ruined, Fothergill accepts the invitation of Colonel Forrester to lose British protection and join the Secret Service, as his fluency in the language allows him to pass as a Russian. Fothergill, adopting the identity of Peter Ouranoff, is enlisted in a revolutionary group headed by book dealer Axelstein. One of their members, Maronin, bombs a carriage carrying Alexandra's liberal father, but he survives. Maronin is later shot and dies in the apartment of Fothergill, who is arrested and sent to Siberia. World War I breaks out, and Adraxine is delighted, but soon leaves Alexandra a widow. After more than two years of cold hell in the Eastern snows, Axelstein predicts to Fothergill that the war will prompt a revolution. In 1917, the Siberian exiles are liberated and cheered upon their return; Axelstein is made a Commissar of Khalinsk and asks Fothergill to assist him. One morning, Alexandra is shocked to find that the servants have deserted the estate. The masses then take over the grounds and make her a prisoner. Soldiers, under the leadership of Tonsky, pillage the Vladinoff home, and many are executed. Axelstein arrives and demands discipline, assigning Fothergill to take Alexandra to Petrograd for trial. However, they are unable to leave the station because the trains are no longer running. The peasants flee the region, which has been retaken by the White army, and Fothergill leads Alexandra to the lines. The White general recognizes her, and that night she is given elegant dresses to wear to dinner as executions are conducted not far away. The next day, Reds recapture the town, and Alexandra is once more a prisoner. Fothergill manages to release her and helps her to evade pursuers in the forest; the couple now realize they are in love. They join a mob as it storms an overfilled train by laying across the tracks. Arriving at Kazan, Alexandra is nearly recognized, and Poushkoff escorts them to the next station, Samara. Along the way they become friends, and after outlining an escape plan, Poushkoff commits suicide. Fothergill and Alexandra take a boat down the Volga, where she becomes ill. Going ashore, they are retaken by the Whites. Fothergill is about to be shot when he is caught in crossfire as Reds try to sabotage the rails. Learning that Alexandra is on a Red Cross train for Bucharest, Fothergill eagerly joins her.
Irene Van Brugh
David B. Cunyinghame
A. W. Watkins
Knight Without Armour
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
Knight Without Armour
During the bath tub scene, Marlene Dietrich slipped on a bar of soap falling naked and spreadeagled before cast and crew. Ever the professional, she picked herself up, laughed and continued shooting.
According to the initial Variety review, this was the first picture set during the Russian Revolution to depict what actually occurred. The New York Times review notes that the James Hilton novel had been considerably abridged for the screen. According to a New York Times article, Hilton adapted his novel to the screen and enlarged the romantic interest so that Marlene Dietrich would play the female role. Contemporary sources indicate that production was delayed for two months because of the long illness of Robert Donat. According to modern sources, enormous time and expense were spent on authentic sets and costume. The resulting budget of $350,000 prevented the film from making a profit, and Korda was unable to pay Dietrich her full salary. The New York Times review commented on the smooth fusion of diverse international talents in the production: Englishmen Robert Donat and James Hilton, German Marlene Dietrich, Belgian Jacques Feyder, American Frances Marion, and Hungarian Alexander Korda. Modern sources include Assistant Director Adam Dawson; Assistant Editor Eric Hodges; and Sd tech M. M. Paggi in the production; and Lisa d'Esterre (Czarina) and Paul O'Brien in the cast.