Dietrich Sardonic in 'Empress'

Article excerpt

Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

My edition of Maria Riva's 800-page biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich, published in 1993, lacks a table of contents or index, making it something of an inconvenience to locate specific movie titles. Patience is usually rewarded, however, since Miss Riva's memory and descriptive powers seem exceptionally vivid and evocative. She provides a phenomenal front-row seat, even as a girlish eyewitness, to numerous works in progress and legendary personalities. Beginning, of course, with the oversized maternal-stellar personality that dominated her youth and loomed large forever after, prompting the observation, At age three, I knew quite definitely that I did not have a mother, I belonged to a queen.

In 1933, when Miss Riva was 9, Marlene Dietrich was preoccupied with playing a notorious monarch, Catherine the Great of Russia, in a fascinating and obsessive historical caricature that is now approaching its 75th anniversary. This film, The Scarlet Empress, was the next-to-last in a distinctive cycle of seven collaborations between the German-born actress and director Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese transplant who became a major director at Paramount in the late 1920s.

Performer and director, or newly minted Trilby and Svengali as some observers preferred to regard them, crossed paths fatefully in Berlin about 1930 for a pioneering talkie, The Blue Angel. It elevated Miss Dietrich to overnight international stardom while portraying a humorously carnal cabaret singer who proves the ruin of a smitten, virginal, pathetic pedagogue. The initial impression of erotic allure with tawdry show business trappings and potentially devastating consequences was modified and romanticized in a subsequent quartet of vehicles directed by Mr. von Sternberg at Paramount: Morocco, "Dishonored " Shanghai Expres "(the stylistic and sentimental high point) and"Blonde Venus."

Despite wayward tendencies, the heroines of these films remained romantically susceptible and admirable. The Scarlet Empress seemed to take a leap into a portentous and coldhearted void while grooming Miss Dietrich for tyranny. Introduced as the ingenuous Prussian princess, Sophia Frederica, Miss Dietrich remains a decorative hoot as an embodiment of wide-eyed teenage innocence, destined for profound disillusion and ruthless transformation when conveyed to imperial Russia as the bespoken bride of the Grand Duke Peter.

During the journey - we're informed that her new protectors won't spare the horses while hastening eastward - Sophia gets a crush on her escort, John Lodge as Count Alexei. Upon arrival she must reconcile her self to systematic bullying from the resident empress, forcefully impersonated by Louise Dresser, and prolonged revulsion at the sight of her betrothed, a leering and hostile imbecile in the person of Sam Jaffe, who suggests Harpo Marx doing an impression of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. …