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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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??!!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…
God Loves Caviar (2012)
Who played her? Catherine Deneuve, baby! (French actress who you know from Indochine, Belle 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.
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?
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?
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!
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?