Catherine the Great: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Catherine the Great, empress of Russia from 1762-1796, is one of those key historical figures who shows up on screen repeatedly. There are at least TWO productions in the works (details below), so I thought it was a good time to look back at her major roles in movies and TV series. Her story is fascinating: she was born a German princess, negotiated a tense relationship with the empress, married the heir to the Russian throne, overthrew him in a coup, then reigned on her own for decades over one of Europe’s most powerful countries (all while taking lovers as she pleased). No horse jokes here!

 

Madsalune (1923)

Who played her? Danish actress Bodil Ipsen.
What’s it about? Other than the fact that it’s a Danish film, sadly I can’t find any further info!
Is it any good? Ditto!

1923 Madsalune

I feel like this is a picture of from a future BiddyCon…

 

Forbidden Paradise (1924)

Who played her? Pola Negri, an originally Polish actress who became a huge star in American silent films.
What’s it about? A silent film directed by famous German director Ernst Lubitsch, which is based on a Broadway play. In an apparently comic take, Catherine takes a lover who then becomes involved in a rebellion against her.
Is it any good? The only (random user) review I’ve found is positive!

1924 Forbidden Paradise

Hey, you can’t go wrong with a Big Honkin’ Crown!

 

The Eagle (1925)

Who played her? Louise Dresser, American actress who would play Empress Elizabeth (Catherine’s mother-in-law) in The Scarlet Empress (below).
What’s it about? A Rudolph Valentino film about a soldier who catches Catherine’s eye, rejects her, and becomes an outlaw.
Is it any good? It was a huge hit when it was released and is included on a lot of classic film lists, so it seems like it’s Significant if nothing else.

1925 The Eagle

That’s some fake hair alright!

 

The Prince of Adventurers aka The Loves of Casanova (1927)

Who played her? French actress Suzanne Bianchetti.
What’s it about? A French film depicting the life of Casanova, with many Russian emigrés participating in the film.
Is it any good? Sounds like it’s a mixed bag, but visually impressive.

1927 The Loves of Casanova

I actually kind of like that court gown and the jacket on the bowing guy! Swoon!

 

Tarakanova (1930)

Who played her? French actress Paule Andral.
What’s it about? Catherine wants to get rid of a pretender, Princess Elisabeth Tarakanova. She sends her lover’s brother to Venice to seduce Elisabeth, but the two fall in love.
Is it any good? Reviews say it seems stiff and dated today.

1930 Tarakanova

Crappy screenshot, crappy bodice fit. At least it sparkles?

 

The Ring of the Empress (1930)

Who played her? German actress Lil Dagover.
What’s it about? All I’ve got is that it’s a German production!
Is it any good? Ditto!

1930 The Ring of the Empress

Catherine did love her military uniforms!

 

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934)

Who played her? Elisabeth Bergner, originally an Austrian actress who later worked in England.
What’s it about? A biopic of the young empress, just up until she ascends the throne.
Is it any good? It’s got a star cast — Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Grand Duke Peter, Flora Robson as Empress Elizabeth. Sounds like the storyline is disjointed, but the acting is great and the costumes are (proverbially) “lavish.”

1934 The Rise of Catherine the Great

I really don’t see what’s 18th century about this. At all.

 

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Who played her? Marlene Dietrich.
What’s it about? Young Catherine, up through her coup through which she took power in her own right.
Is it any good? Ok, so I haven’t seen it yet (I KNOW), and it sounds like it takes its liberties with reality, and goes very arty design-wise, but it’s a Classic with a capital C, so I think we can say yes.

1934 The Scarlet Empress

Fabulous, even if I’m not buying any kind of “young and naive”…

1934 The Scarlet Empress

YAS QUEEN

 

The Devil Is an Empress aka Chess Player (1938)

Who played her? Françoise Rosay, French actress and opera singer.
What’s it about? It’s a French film about a Polish toymaker who makes life-size mechanical toys; he makes a chess-playing automaton in order to hide an activist who is on the run from Russian troops. Clearly, Catherine must be a bit part in this.
Is it any good? Meh, from what I can find.

1938 The Devil Is an Empress

What lovely 1930s ringlets!

 

A Royal Scandal (1945)

Who played her? Tallulah Bankhead, American actress who mostly worked in the theater.
What’s it about? A remake of Forbidden Paradise (above); sounds like it’s very “loves of Catherine the Great.”
Is it any good? It’s got Important Directors and some positive (if not overwhelmingly so) critical reviews.

1943 A Royal Scandal

I have so many questions about that hair that I included it in my Snark Week quiz

 

Shadow of the Eagle (1950)

Who played her? Binnie Barnes, English actress who played Katherine Howard in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).
What’s it about? Again with the Princess Tarakanova story — Catherine sends her lover to Venice to kidnap the princess, but he falls in love with her. (There was a real such pretender, and Orloff did indeed seduce her in order to arrest her, but she was then imprisoned until her death later that year).
Is it any good? Despite its vintage, users on IMDB praise the cinematography AND the acting!

1950 Shadow of the Eagle

So it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty!

 

La Rivale dell’Imperatrice aka The Rival of the Empress (1951)

Who played her? Italian actress Isa Pola.
What’s it about? An Italian version of Shadow of the Eagle (above).
Is it any good? Sadly I can’t find any info!

1951 La rivale dell'imperatrice

Nothing like what I picture an 18th-century cape/makeup/hairstyle would look like…

 

Tempest (1958)

Who played her? Viveca Lindfors, an actress who was originally Swedish but had a career in the U.S.
What’s it about? An Italian film based on a Pushkin novel about a Russian soldier who rescues a man, only to later face that man in battle. Catherine must be a bit part in this.
Is it any good? Lots of rave (user) reviews on IMDB!

1958 Tempest

Catherine the Goth Queen?

 

John Paul Jones (1959)

Who played her? Bette Davis, baby!
What’s it about? An American (originally Scottish) naval commander whose exploits bring him to the attention of, first, the French royals and then later Catherine the Great.
Is it any good? Leonard Maltin calls it an “empty spectacle.”

1959 John Paul Jones

You really can’t snark Bette Davis…

 

Catherine of Russia (1963)

Who played her? German actress Hildegard Knef.
What’s it about? Yet another Italian production, this one focused on Catherine’s coup in which she took the throne.
Is it any good? The very few reviews on IMDB say Knef is wooden but the rest of the acting is good.

1963 Catherine of Russia

So the wig is tragic, but not as much as the nylon lace ruffles. And I feel like that fabric is a cotton print…

 

Great Catherine (1968)

Who played her? Jeanne Moreau, French actress who starred in Jules et Jim (1962), La Reine Margot (1954), and who played Empress Elizabeth (Catherine’s mother-in-law) in the 1993 film with Catherine Zeta-Jones (below).
What’s it about? A British comedy based on the George Bernard Shaw play, in which a British envoy is sent to Catherine’s court. Peter O’Toole co-stars.
Is it any good? Apparently it’s played for total farce and is mostly for fans of Shaw and O’Toole.

1968 Great Catherine

I have to admit to being intrigued by this one…

 

Die unfreiwilligen Reisen des Moritz August Benjowski aka The Involuntary Journeys of Moritz August Benjowski (1975)

Who played her? German actress Nicole Heesters.
What’s it about? A German TV miniseries about a real-life Hungarian military officer who fought for Poland, was exiled to Siberia, and tried to found a French colony in Madagascar. I don’t make this stuff up.
Is it any good? Any German readers out there??!!

1975 Die unfreiwilligen Reisen des Moritz August Benjowski

Not bad for 1970s?

 

Meeting of Minds (1981)

Who played her? Jayne Meadows, American actress who was married to the show’s lead (Steve Allen).
What’s it about? A comedic TV show in which host Steve Allen would interview historical figures.
Is it any good? The series ran for four years and gets rave reviews on IMDB, although I’m sure it’s got to read as pretty dated by now.

1975 Die unfreiwilligen Reisen des Moritz August Benjowski

That … is a lot of look.

 

Young Catherine (1991)

Who played her? Julia Ormond.
What’s it about? Catherine’s life from engagement to Grand Duke Peter through her coup and coronation. It focuses on Catherine’s relationship with her mother-in-law (Empress Elizabeth), her maturation in her marriage and at court, and her lurve for Count Orlov.
Is it any good? Shockingly, yes, in terms of acting, story, and most production values, but the costumes are tragically crappy.

1991 Young Catherine

Ormond is pretty!

Young Catherine (1991)

Even if she’s swathed in polyester and princess seams.

 

Catherine the Great (1996)

Who played her? Catherine Zeta-Jones, who you know from Chicago (2002), the Zorro movies, and The Return of the Native (1994).
What’s it about? Catherine’s love life, and a bit of politics, from her marriage through the early part of her reign.
Is it any good? The costumes are surprisingly good, but everything else (acting, screenplay, sets, locations) is cheeseball.

1996 Catherine the Great

Lots of eye candy, costume-wise!

 

Russian Ark (2002)

Who played her? Russian actress Mariya Kuznetsova.
What’s it about? An experimental Russian film that is basically a POV shot through various episodes of history, all taking place in the Winter Palace. Catherine is featured in one of the episodes.
Is it any good? Sadly, nope. Some of the visuals are great, but if you have ANY interest in a plot, this sucker ain’t for you. I nope’d out half-way through!

2002 Russian Ark

Some of the costumes in this film look great. This, not so much. I KIND OF like the hair. Maybe.

 

Catherine the Great (2005)

Who played her? English actress Emily Bruni.
What’s it about? A British TV documentary about Catherine.
Is it any good? The (very few) reviewers on IMDB liked it…

2005 Catherine the Great

Shitty hair, crappy construction, faux-18th-century style, what’s with those sleeves?

 

God Loves Caviar (2012)

Who played her? Catherine Deneuve, baby! (French actress who you know from IndochineBelle de Jour, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
What’s it about? A Russian-Greek drama based on the true story of a Greek caviar merchant. Don’t ask me. At one point he gets an audience with Catherine in order to ask her to replace his ship, which he had donated to the Russians during a war. I am kind of questioning a lot about life here.
Is it any good? It was a huge hit in Greece, but most reviewers seem to say that Deneuve’s cameo is the only positive aspect.

2012 God Loves Caviar

It’s not BAD per se. But those sleeves….

 

La Figlia del Capitano aka The Captain’s Daughter (2012)

Who played her? French/Italian actress Edwige Fenech.
What’s it about? An Italian TV miniseries based on the Pushkin story. A Russian aristocrat is sent to a frontier outpost where he falls in love; he later tries to warn the army of a cossack revolt.
Is it any good? Any Italians out there?

2001 La figlia del capitano

Did they repurpose the wardrobe from Amadeus?

2001 La figlia del capitano

So the dress is kind of pretty, but I am just mesmerized by her “NO I HAVEN’T HAD ANY PLASTIC SURGERY” face…

 

Velikaya aka Catherine the Great (2015)

Who played her? Russian actress Yuliya Snigir.
What’s it about? A Russian TV series, yet again about Catherine’s marriage and rise to power.
Is it any good? Anyone seen it?

2015- Velikaya aka Catherine the Great

I am deeply confused about those sleeves. Yet again.

2015- Velikaya aka Catherine the Great

This is kind of interesting, if wtf…

 

Ekaterina (2014-2017)

Who played her? Russian actress Marina Aleksandrova.
What’s it about? A Russian TV miniseries about Catherine’s youth and rise to power.
Is it any good? Great storytelling, great acting, shitty costumes!

2014 Ekaterina

It’s shiny?

 

And Coming Up…

Barbra Streisand is directing a film about Catherine the Great, and guess who is rumored for the lead? Your favorite and mine, Keira Knightley!

MEANWHILE, HBO is working on a separate Catherine the Great miniseries, and Helen Mirren will star!

 

Which is your favorite screen portrayal of Catherine the Great?

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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.

38 Responses

  1. Danuta

    Not at all connected with Catherine, but I remember writing a thesis in high school about Benjowski (yes, I’m Polish) and I think he is THE person who deserves a big TV series at least! A Hungarian, exiled in Siberia for fighting for Poland, he established a big community of political prisoners there (on a land which he won when playing chess with the governor of Kamchatka!), he then escaped by stealing one of the greatest Russian ships and went on it to Japan, discovering some new bays and islands before Bering did. At the end of his life he established a colony on Madagaskar for France, but then changed his mind and started fighting for freedom of the locals and died during one of the battles. He is still considered a national hero in Madagaskar. I know, it sounds all unbelievable, but that’s history! It’s kind of nice to find Benjowski here :)

    Reply
  2. Mary

    “Meeting of Minds” — that brings back memories! I loved that show. Even after it’s TV run was over, one college professor used its premise — for two historical periods, we students had to pick a character, research him/her, then be part of a meeting of minds conversation.

    Reply
  3. Cheryl Washer

    If Liam Neeson isn’t Grigori Potemkin to Helen Mirren’s Catherine, I will be extremely dissapointed.

    Reply
  4. Lisa

    I’ve been obsessed with the pretender Tarakanova since I first heard the story…I even started a screenplay ten years ago, but realized there are so few reliable English sources it’s basically impossible. It’s funny to be reminded about it.

    Reply
  5. Fogbraider

    Shadow of the Eagle is a beautiful film, a joint British-Italian production filmed in Italy, including Venice, with striking black and white photography. Richard Greene is a bit too nice (though he does a good turn as a man’s man in scenes where he’s commanding or fighting) – a more dangerously brooding actor like James Mason would have been great – but the Italian actress playing Tarakanova is lovely as an ingenue.

    Reply
  6. Andrew.

    Catherine was also played by the German actress, Brigitte Horney, in the 1943 adult fairy tale, Munchhausen, opposite Hans Albers. The first part of the youtube clip below shows the formal meeting of the Czarina and the Rittmeister.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Thanks! I tried to look up info about that film, but couldn’t get a handle on whether Catherine really was in it, or to what degree it was fantasy (I love the 1988 film, haven’t seen this one).

      Reply
      • Andrew.

        I’ve got on DVD if you want to borrow it. Transfer could likely be arranged through your confederates if direct is not possible.

        Reply
  7. Dorthesalling@gmail.com

    I have never seen the movie Madsalune, but I read the book by Carit Etlar in school. It is about a smugler named Madsalune and it’s mostly set in Denmark. I don’t remember Catherine the Great playind a big part in it. I didn’t even know that there was a Madsalune movie, so it’s not well known even in Denmark.

    Reply
  8. Marietta

    I have some information for The Ring of the Empress. It’s (loosely?) based on a the play “Spielereien einer Kaiserin” by Max Dauthendey and seems to end with the marriage and Catherine sending the heir to the monastery. In this movie, Catherine is a sutler or victualer who becomes the mistress of a Russian general Menschikoff and then Peter I.’s wife.

    I found some contemporary German criticism. It received mixed audience reviews for plot, costumes and acting, harsh criticism for the historical inaccuracy.

    Reply
  9. Lauren Rachel

    I just have one question: WTF IS THAT MAN THING NEXT TO MARLENE DIETRICH?!
    It’s so creepy/weird. Definitely not lending to a “young and naive” vibe, as you said.

    Reply
    • Popka Superstar

      Yeah, the love interest is reeeaaally sexy. I looked him up in other films but he was nothing like he was in this. Too bad! You’re right on the money, except I’d add there’s an expressionist/socialist element to the sets that is really special and interesting.

      Also, Dietrich is FAAAAABULOUS.

      Reply
  10. mmcquown

    Scarlet Empress was on TCM recently. Fun, but probably not great history. You guys have got to read George Macdonald Freaser’s “Hollywood History of the World.”

    Reply
  11. Laura Boyes

    The Scarlet Empress has little to do with history and lots to do with von Sternberg’s obsession with Marlene, which pays off big time with the insane sets, and beyond fabulous costumes by Travis Banton. The Eagle is one of Valentino’s better films, quite swashbuckling, and, if I recall properly, Catherine is played with sly humor by Ms. Dressler.

    Reply
  12. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    Are my eyes deceiving me or is the gown that Catherine Zeta-Jones wearing in the 1996 version of Catherine The Great repurposed for the 2005 version? Because the embroidery on the stomacher looks identical too me.

    Reply
  13. 1903 Romanov Ball Playing Card

    Please give Russian Ark another try! The massive ballroom scene is not until the end.
    Plus Anastasia and her siblings running around in fairy dresses around the Czar & Czarina – quite enchanting.

    The film was groundbreaking in that it had one of the first films using a single 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot – all of the actors and technical crew did everything on cue in one go! I saw the behind the scenes and I think they only a had a couple of tries before the finished piece.

    Catherine looked the best in her fur/velvet? cloak pacing through the snow in the fading natural light.

    But if you knit, or do any crafts, that is good to do while waiting to get to the opulent ballroom scene with live orchestra. (I had my sketchbook)

    Otherwise, sadly yes, the conversations between the deceased men are sleep inducing.

    Reply
  14. PJ Sparrow

    I LOVED Young Catherine when it aired, I recorded it on VHS and then watched the tape to death. I have always been on the lookout for a good DVD transfer but I’ve yet to find one.

    I also really enjoyed Ekaterina. I think it was the same company but they did one about Sophia Palaiologina that was pretty good too.

    Reply
  15. Bukhanka

    Velikaya is really nice – it actually aired simultaneously with Ekaterina and the latter has a more soap-opery feel, though it doesn’t shy from some nastier stories. Really sorry Velikaya didn’t get a second season, but eh, that’s Russian TV for you. :(

    There are actually more Russian films with Catherine the Great, for instance in Gogogl’s Night before Christmas. Blacksmith Vakula rides a demon to Saint-Petersburg to ask Catherine for her shoes because his girlfriend said so. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Eve_(Gogol)
    https://img-fotki.yandex.ru/get/6414/121447594.1f1/0_a5c46_ea9b3f29_XL.jpg

    Reply
  16. M.E. Lawrence

    Wow, I had no idea there had been so many movies about CG. (Dietrich as the young Sophia/Catherine is odd, but then Dietrich was born looking about 36.) But I just reserved the documentary with Emily Bruni! She looks as I imagine CG: not pretty, but striking and intelligent. Now must await possible Corset Weirdness.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Am midway through the CtG docudrama and, yes, the corsets appeared suspiciously chemise-free. There’s also streaming hair where not appropriate. I can’t speak with authority about the rest of the wardrobe, but Bruni looks terrific in the Imperial Guards uniform when she’s staging her coup, and the transvestite ball (Empress Elizabeth liked dressing up as a guy) is impressive. All in all, the actual historical account here seems pretty accurate and the staged scenes of Catherine, her awful husband, Elizabeth, and various politicians and courtiers/lovers, are well acted.

      Reply
  17. Orastella

    They really never focus on anything but her coming to court and rise to power, do they?

    Reply
  18. Joe

    I saw “Meeting of Minds” on PBS when I was a senior in high school (yeah, I’m dating myself) and enjoyed it, though I did note that Jayne Meadows almost always seemed to be playing the female roles. I suppose it was partially for budget reasons, though. I wonder if there’s a DVD anywhere.

    As for the subject at hand, I do believe “Young Catherine” is available on DVD via Amazon.

    Reply
  19. Rowan

    Since you mention the British documentary; my Russian history professor would occasionally show us bits of a documentary series available on youtube.
    It’s about all the Romanovs, not specifically Catherine the Great, but I really liked the look of the actress they got for older Catherine. At the time, this was the first Catherine portrayal I’d seen that actually looked like her portraits. I’ve yet to pay much attention to the costumes but I think they look fairly decent for a documentary.

    The episode about Catherine can be seen here: https://youtu.be/ii7HgNJpkMQ
    skip ahead to about 19:20 to get a good look at the actress who portrays older Catherine

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Rowan, thanks so much for the link; I agree about the casting. In fact, the actress reminds me of a younger Angela Merkel. One of the better docudramas I’ve seen, and this time I noted the similarities between C the G and Elizabeth I: both of them intellectuals, patriots, pragmatists, and good judges of character. (I am recovering from surgery, and find history and sports the best distractions.)

      Reply

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