Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Movies I love: The Scarlet Empress (Jet Pilot is O.K.!)

Or MOROCCO, SHANGHAI EXPRESS, BLOND VENUS, or THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN - all as spell-binding as Von Sternberg/Dietrich's 1934 classic THE SCARLET EMPRESS - and lets not forget THE BLUE ANGEL or DISHONOURED ...

Young Princess Sophia of Germany is taken to Russia to marry the half-wit Grand Duke Peter, son of the Empress. The domineering Empress hopes to improve the royal blood line. Sophia doesn't like her husband, but she likes Russia, and is very fond of Russian soldiers. She dutifully produces a son -- of questionable fatherhood, but no one seems to mind that. After the old empress dies, Sophia engineers a coup d'etat with the aid of the military, does away with Peter, and becomes Catherine the Great.
That's the bones of the story, as delirious as Marlene emerging from the gorilla suit in BLOND VENUS, or the journey on the SHANGHAI EXPRESS, or that mythical Spain of THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN... or the exotic settings of Von Sternberg's MACAO or THE SHANGHAI GESTURE ....

THE SCARLET EMPRESS was the sixth and most expensive of their 7 films together but did not perform too well at the box office. Maybe it was too expensive, opulent, staggeringly visual for audiences just coming out of the depression and preferred simpler, most optimistic and accessible subjects? There was also that other version of the Catherine The Great story a more basic version. This one is a lurid tale set in 18th century barbaric Russia about the corruption of an innocent young girl forced into marriage with a despotic halfwit. As with all Von Sternberg films the camerawork and sets are stupendous. Dietrich ages as the young princess (her daughter Maria plays her in the early scenes). It is a stunning work full of great moments with those enormous sets.   
Marlene is dazzling, but so is John Lodge making a very attractive foil for our wilful princess.... 

JET PILOT, 1957 - Von Sternberg's last film was also screened this week and remains an odd curiosity, produced as it was for Howard Hughes. We all know Howard's prediliction for the female form and he certainly gets young Janet Leigh into all kinds of poses as she changes from her bulky flying outfit to having a shower and posing in her mini tee shirt, with that chest jutting out ... no wonder Howard kept tinkering with this material shot in 1950 when Janet was a lovely pert ingenue, until 1957 when it finally saw the light of day and Janet was a much older leading lady. (In 1958's THE VIKINGS her chest is equally eye-catching, and of course PSYCHO starts with her in her bra ...)

The airline footage is terrific of course, and 1957 also saw another defecting Russian, the equally oddly-paired Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope in THE IRON PETTICOAT farrago, and let's not forget Cyd Charisse in the remake of NINOTCHA, that SILK STOCKINGS musical, which I like a lot. The Cold War has a lot to answer for !

Janet here looks more like Wayne's daughter than romantic lead - he fared much better with 23 year old Sophia Loren in LEGEND OF THE LOST, also 1957. So THE CONQUEROR was not the worst of Wayne's for RKO, though JET PILOT now has the Universial-International logo. It must surely have been a colossal dud back in 1957 ? Of course its main point of interest now (apart from Janet's attractions) is it was directed by the legendary Von Sternberg ... his last credit, and writer Jules Furthman (who scripted Von Sternberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS and BLOND VENUS) only did the screenplay for RIO BRAVO after this. Left: Janet with Von Sterberg.

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