18th-Century Quest: Dueling Catherine the Greats

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There were two major TV movies about Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, in the 1990s: Young Catherine (1991) starring Julia Ormond and Catherine the Great (1996) starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. I watched them both, now let’s compare how they stack up against each other!

Catherine the Great herself is a pretty interesting figure: A princess from an obscure German principality who spent almost 20 years as the wife of the heir to the throne of Russia, then took power from him in a coup six months after he had come to the throne, THEN went on to lead Russia into what has been called a “golden age” and ruled for 34 years. She never remarried AND had lots of lovers. Sounds like cinematic gold, eh?

Catherine the Great’s Story

Young Catherine is the longer of the two movies and focuses on what the title implies: Catherine’s youth. Or, more specifically, the story starts with Catherine (then Sophie) as a relative nobody in Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, then follows her life up through her coronation. Along the way, the focus is on Catherine’s personal life, but also spends some time on the political angle of things. There’s time spent while the current reigning Empress Elizabeth decides if Catherine will suit, while Catherine contemplates changing her religion. Catherine marries Peter, then you watch their relationship develop (or really, start from next-to-nothing and go downhill from there). She takes a lover (Count Gregory Orlov), has a child, deals with her shitty husband and autocratic mother-in-law, and finally plots and executes her coup in 1762 to take power. Early on, Catherine befriends the English ambassador, played by Christopher Plummer, who provides a guiding hand to Catherine and an explanatory voice for the viewer.

In general, Young Catherine beats Catherine the Great hands down for almost everything, most notably much stronger acting, better (and bigger) locations, more time, and more emphasis on the politics.*

* Minus one point for Catherine’s father’s line, which he says to his wife/her mother, “We’re talking about our daughter’s happiness here, not your corsets!”

BPE03D JULIA ORMOND & CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

Christopher Plummer as “Sir Charles,” the English ambassador.

Catherine the Great, on the other hand, starts with Catherine’s marriage to heir-to-the-throne Peter. Then we skip forward a few years and Catherine has an affair with Sergei Saltykov and a child. She breaks up with Saltykov, gets involved with Potemkin, then Empress Elizabeth dies, and the coup ensues. We continue on as Catherine negotiates her reign (a bit) and (primarily) her relationship with Potemkin.

This production feels pretty cheesy, with lame voiceovers from Catherine that make it all feel like a romance novel adaptation. Plus, there’s horrible, TV-movie-of-the-week music that constantly leads you (like when a knife is pulled out, and the harps go PLINK!). There’s a LOT of scenery chewing from supporting actors like Omar Sharif and Brian Blessed. And the locations are generally small and repetitive (and apparently it’s always summer in Russia, who knew?).

Chess is a metaphor for politics... GET IT?

Chess is a metaphor for politics … GET IT?

Who’s Playing Catherine the Great

You’ve got your Julia Ormond (Young Catherine) and your Catherine Zeta-Jones (Catherine the Great). Yeah. No contest. Julia is subtle, nuanced, and believable. Catherine Zeta is all sultry glances and noble stares.

Julia Ormond, looking regal.

Julia Ormond, looking regal.

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You can almost feel Catherine Zeta-Jones’s eyebrows are about to waggle…

 

Catherine the Great’s Husband

Peter III — From my skimming history, the jury is out as to whether he was crazy or  has just gotten a bad rap. In Young Catherine, he’s flat-out insane: He starts as a giggly 10-year-old in a 20-plus-year-old’s body, then degenerates through smallpox and domineering aunts and bad mistresses. He’s obsessed with the military but as his playthings. He’s only into sexytimes if they include military role-playing. He starts off being okay with Catherine, but very quickly decides she’s the root of all that is un-fun.

"Let me introduce you to my nephew! He's FABulous!"

“Let me introduce you to my nephew! He’s FABulous!”

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“Let’s torture a rat, shall we?” says Young Catherine‘s Peter (Reece Dinsdale).

On the other hand, Catherine the Great‘s Peter is an overly sweaty jerk who has a tacky mistress and is overly excited by fires, but otherwise he seems comparatively sane. He’s also not around for TOO much time before he’s couped and then killed.

Catherine the Great's wedding scene, with sweaty Peter (Hannes Jaenicke) on the left.

Catherine the Great‘s wedding scene, with sweaty Peter (Hannes Jaenicke) on the left.

As a side note, both productions include the fact that he had phimosis (or an overly-tight foreskin, making sex impossible) — what IS it with 18th-century monarchs and their foreskins??!! Louis XVI (Marie Antoinette‘s fella) may have had this, I guess Peter had it, apparently there were a lot of enthusiastic foreskins in this era!

Catherine the Great’s Lovers

Both productions clearly felt the need to redeem/reform the real Catherine and limit her lovers. God forbid a woman take charge AND have multiple, real (or hell, even superficial) relationships!

In Young Catherine, it’s all Orlov, all the time. He worships her, she (with the encouragement of the empress) initiates an affair, and then the two remain in love throughout the rest of the movie. He becomes the key player in the coup and helps her lead the army in her coup. It should be noted that there’s no sex scenes in this production, only kissing and then cut away to happy lovers in bed the next morning.

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Young Catherine‘s Orlov (Mark Frankel) is quite attractive, although he could use an eyebrow pluck.

BPE0A8 JULIA ORMOND & MARK FRANKEL YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

Count Orlov, top left, looking manly on the battlefield.

Catherine the Great features more than one lover. Her first is Saltykov, who is herded Catherine’s way with the express permission of the Empress Elizabeth. He does his duty in some cheeseball, gettin’-down-in-front-of-the-fireplace (but not overly interesting) shagging. After some time doing his duty, he wanders off, and Catherine is broken-hearted.

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Sergei Saltykov (Craig McLachlan), extra cheeseball.

Later, she hooks up with Potemkin, “the most handsome man I ever saw” (HUH?) who becomes the great love of her life, although things don’t always run smoothly.

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Catherine the Great‘s Potemkin (Paul McGann). Nice, but no top 10!

Pre-fireplace writhing.

Pre-fireplace writhing.

 

Catherine the Great’s Aunt-in-Law

The Empress Elizabeth is a major figure in Young Catherine, and good on them for casting Vanessa Redgrave, who chews the scenery with the best of them. She’s autocratic, at times a major bitch, and at other times just a quirky ruler. Either way, she looks great, and her performance is strong.

Empress Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) keeps it REAL, yo!

Empress Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) keeps it REAL, yo! Really autocratic!

Jeanne Moreau makes a strong empress in Catherine the Great, although she gets much less screen time so it’s not really a comparison.

Jeanne Moreau

Catherine the Great‘s Empress Elizabeth (Jeanne Moreau)

 

Catherine the Great’s Costumes

And now we come to the most important aspect, amirite? Only five years separate the two productions, but while Young Catherine wins hands down at EVERYTHING, it loses at the most important thing: the costumes!

Young Catherine‘s Costumes

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“DON’T YOU LOVE IT, DADDY?”

En route to Russia, Catherine wears a padded cloak that could double as a flotation device.

En route to Russia, Catherine wears a padded cloak that could double as a flotation device.

When Catherine first shows up in in Russia, she’s wearing dresses with these big pleated lizard neck frills. Now, I don’t know enough about regional German fashion to say whether or not these are historically accurate, but I certainly raise my eyebrows. Obviously they are there to contrast with what’s being worn in Russia:

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Lizard neck frill

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“I’ll wear my lizard neck frill, you wear your plausible court gown!”

Catherine’s wardrobes are RIFE with poly baroque satin, princess seams, bust darts, and a whole lot of crazy:

BPE03D JULIA ORMOND & CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

Shitty fabric, extra shitty grandma curtain lace, horrible seaming.

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“Maybe if we hot glue some polyester rose bows on the front of it, people won’t notice how shitty the dress is!”

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“My stomacher is a pool mattress, and my sleeve ruffles are made of coffee filters!”

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“I just don’t know, dear. If they’re only giving you crappy polyester fabric and sleeves that are 4″ too short, you may be going back to Germany.”

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I can’t find a full-length shot of this outfit, but it’s essentially a 1780s silhouette, when the rest of the time everyone’s rocking the mid-century paniers (side hoops).

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This one is probably my favorite, though. SO MUCH THAT’S GOOD HERE! The long, V stomacher-y thing. The standing collar. The weird elbow sleeves. It’s like Star Trek descended on 18th-century Russia and was hoping to fit in.

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Catherine’s one redeeming outfit, I think maybe worn for her wedding. It actually looks mostly like an 18th-century court dress — okay, from the 1780s, not 1745.

Of course, the sad thing about this is that Catherine’s wedding dress STILL EXISTS, and it looks nothing like this:

Catherine the Great's very real, surviving wedding dress, 1745.

Catherine the Great’s very real, surviving wedding dress, 1745.

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“Hey, at least I’m rocking a 1780s hairstyle to go with my 1780s dress!” says Catherine, getting married in 1745.

About the only outfit that I DID like was Catherine’s military uniform:

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Not too sure about the hair down, but I’m giving it a pass.

And because it will come up later, you can’t really tell what’s going on with her coronation dress, because it’s pretty quickly covered up with a big gold cloak:

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Supporting characters don’t fare any better:

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Catherine’s mother. You can tell that sometimes they’re trying for a tête de mouton hairstyle but failing. Also, when someone powders their hair, they mysteriously turn blond, not gray/white.

"Princess Deshkova, I'll tell you all about sex if you'll tell me why your bodice has such shitty seamlines."

“Princess Deshkova, I’ll tell you all about sex if you’ll tell me why your bodice has such shitty seamlines.”

The ONE exception to all of this (and it’s not consistent!) is Empress Elizabeth, who actually gets some good-to-great court dresses:

BPE0AB VANESSA REDGRAVE YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

This one is my favorite. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than anything else in this movie!

BPE0A6 FRANCO NERO & VANESSA REDGRAVE YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

Awfully froofy for mid-century, but I’ll take what I can get.

BPE03H VANESSA REDGRAVE & FRANCO NERO YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

Empress Elizabeth occasionally rocks the menswear look. THIS is far more appropriate hair. (FYI, this is historically accurate, especially for horseback riding!)

But lest you get too relaxed, know that the princess seams sneak their way into Elizabeth’s wardrobe too:

BPE0A0 VANESSA REDGRAVE & JULIA ORMOND YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

Not just princess seams. Underbust cup seams!

BPE0B4 VANESSA REDGRAVE YOUNG CATHERINE (1991)

Is that a … cotton print? *Goes for a lie down*

 

Catherine the Great‘s Costumes

No, they’re not perfect, but (especially comparatively) they’re either not half bad or surprisingly well done!

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A robe à la française with proper bust silhouette and nice trimmings!

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A nice, loose robe battante (an early, loose form of the robe à la française) in a period appropriate fabric worn for post-childbirth!

EFAT2T CATHERINE ZETA-JONES CATHERINE THE GREAT (1995)

Another robe battante for lounging seductively!

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Elbow cuffs, which were fashionable mid-century!

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A chic military-inspired riding habit!

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Another chic riding habit!

0. Die junge deutsche Prinzessin Sophia von Anhalt-Zerbst (Catherine Zeta Jones) fŸhrt am russischen Hofe zunŠchst ein sehr zurŸckgezogenes isoliertes Leben. Honorarfrei - nur fŸr diese Sendung bei Nennung ZDF und Noreen Flynn

A lovely robe à la française with great silhouette and trims, even if the sleeves are too long!

But here’s where it’s most exciting. Remember how I said above that Catherine’s wedding dress still exists? Well, they made a decent attempt at it:

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Catherine the Great’s wedding dress, 1745.

BPF8H0 MEL FERRER BRIAN BLESSED HANNES JAENICKE CATHERINE ZETA JONES & OMAR SHARIF CATHERINE THE GREAT (1995)

Catherine the Great‘s wedding dress, 1996.

But wait there’s more! Catherine’s CORONATION dress is still surviving, too! (Thank you, Russians!)

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Catherine the Great’s coronation portrait, 1762.

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THE REAL DEAL: Catherine’s coronation gown, 1762.

And you guessed it … they made a DAMN good copy of it for the film!

kinopoisk.ru 109979672_zeta_318962c BPF7FM CATHERINE ZETA JONES CATHERINE THE GREAT (1995)

Now, before you go getting TOO excited, it wasn’t all perfect:

A not-so-great robe à la française, with too-high bustline, not-great bust silhouette, and waaaaay too long sleeve ruffles -- looks like a McCall's pattern cover.

A not-so-great robe à la française, with too-high bustline, not-great bust silhouette, and waaaaay too long sleeve ruffles — looks like a McCall’s pattern cover.

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Empress Elizabeth’s neckline is way too high, and she’s got a really crappy parasol. Catherine carries this (or one like it) later too.

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The men’s wigs were ALL white (they needed to mix it up and use other colors too!) and way too shiny.

 

My Recommendation

… is hard to come up with! Watch Young Catherine if you want quality acting, nuanced story, and better locations. You can find it on DVD and on YouTube (part 1 and part 2).

But, watch Catherine the Great if you want to see decent costumes (only available on DVD). Or, do like I did and watch both!

 

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

9 Responses

  1. Bea

    Clearly, our ideas of handsome men are… utterly opposed. :) Frankel completely turned me off. OTOH, I find McGann incredibly attractive–in his youth almost ethereally pretty–and he’s still sexy.
    *fans self*

    Reply
  2. Michael

    Review “The Scarlet Empress” 1934, just for the fun of it. Not even an attempt at accuracy but for an Old Hollywood costume extravaganza they’re divine…

    Reply
  3. lesartsdecoratifs

    It seems like some sort of trade-off happened here: cut down on locations and you can afford expensive silks and antique lace for your primary actors or get Vanessa Rredgrave and dress her in polyester curtains. I’ve seen both movies but that was a long time ago and remember nothing about them.

    The difference between the painted coronation dress and the real thing is kind of shocking though because material looks so rough in comparison, like something out of the carnival aisle in the fabric store.

    Reply
  4. Roxana

    Why are they using knock-offs of the St. Edward’s Crown as nuptial crowns in the wedding picture?

    Reply

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