Wednesday, September 7, 2022

#2,812. The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) - Alexander Korda Triple Feature


Empress Catherine II, born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, ascending to power following the overthrow of her husband, the Emperor Peter III, who reigned a mere 6 months before being deposed. Produced by Alexander Korda, who a year earlier brought the superb The Private Life of Henry VIII to the screen, 1934’s The Rise of Catherine the Great is a highly dramatized but entirely effective account of Catherine’s turbulent path to the throne.

Russia, 1745. Princess Sophie Auguste Frederika of Prussia, who would adopt the name Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner), arrives at the court of Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) to meet her future husband, the Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr), Elizabeth’s nephew and heir to the Russian throne. Though he initially rejects this arranged marriage, Peter has a change of heart when he meets the shy but beautiful Catherine.

Alas, their relationship would be rocky from the start. Peter refuses to spend their wedding night with his new bride, and over the course of several years will have a number of affairs, all the while hoping and praying that his elderly aunt will die, making him Emperor of all Russia. As for Catherine, she grows very close to the Empress, from whom she learns how to be a strong, just ruler.

When Elizabeth dies, Peter becomes Emperor, yet his volatile behavior angers both the military and members of the court, all of whom press Catherine to overthrow her husband and become Empress in his stead.

Directed by Paul Czinner (with an uncredited assist from Korda), The Rise of Catherine the Great is an ambitious, elaborate motion picture, with wonderful costumes and grand set pieces that bring both the time (the mid-18th century) and place (the Russian Imperial court) vibrantly to life. But like The Private Life of Henry VIII, this 1934 film focuses more on the plight of its title character than the pomp and majesty of its setting. Elisabeth Bergner delivers a solid performance as Catherine, conveying first her naivete as a young bride-to-be and, eventually, her strength and intelligence. When Peter first takes power, he issues a decree banishing many of his late aunt’s supporters to Siberia, a declaration that Catherine, using guile, convinces him to withdraw.

Yet as good as Bergner is, she is overshadowed at all times by both Robson as the strong-willed Elisabeth (their scenes together are superb) and Fairbanks Jr. as the impulsive, unstable Peter. Upon hearing that his aunt Elizabeth was on death’s door, Peter lets out a cheer, shocking members of the court, and later on has Catherine banished from her room in the palace, all the while carrying on an affair with one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting. Whereas Bergner and Robson manage to win over the audience, Fairbanks is, for most of the film’s running time, the villain of the piece, and like her advisors, we pull for Catherine to issue the order placing her husband under arrest.

It may not be as factual an account as Korda and his team would lead us to believe (there’s a terrific scene in which Catherine makes Peter jealous by falsely claiming she has had lovers, though history tells us the real Catherine had more than her share of dalliances), but The Rise of Catherine the Great works perfectly as a dramatic telling of its title character’s early years, and is presented with such bravura that we are fully engrossed from the first scene to the last.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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