TBT: The Scarlet Empress (1934)


Marlene Dietrich died on May 6, 1992, so this Throwback Thursday is in her honor! The Scarlet Empress (1934) was one of the last collaborations between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg. It’s not so much a historical drama as a highly stylized indulgence in the grotesque and spectacular. The sets are grand, the costumes are flashy, the lighting is dramatic, this flick is all about the visuals. Don’t go looking for historical facts or dramatic nuance — just sit back and let the art wash over you.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Josef von Sternberg & Marlene Dietrich on the set.

This film more closely resembles silent movies than the “talkies” that had been common for nearly a decade. There’s very little dialogue, and the plot relies on  title cards to move events forward. The acting also has that broad, almost campy feel, that’s closer to silent films than something that relies on snappy banter like The Thin Man or emotional appeal like Imitation of Life, both released in 1934.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Princess Sophia between Count Alexei & her father.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

This is the kind of frothy white extravagance “young Sophia” wears at the start of the film.

In The Scarlet Empress, Dietrich begins as an unbelievably naive and innocent Princess Sophia. She arrives at the exaggeratedly decadent Russian court where the older empress renames Sophia as Catherine, and the young girl is married off to the imbecilic Grand Duke Peter.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Empress Elizabeth makes herself known.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Sophia, now Catherine, gets to know her fiance, Grand Duke Peter.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Alexei is easy on the eyes, I’ll give him that.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The wedding veil scene is intense, like Catherine is now trapped in a spider’s web.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Her wedding ensemble has a tiny nod to traditional Russian clothing.

Meanwhile, the hottie Count Alexei flirts with Catherine, though he’s also bedding the older Empress Elizabeth. In a quick turn, Catherine realizes Alexei already has a lover, so she takes one of her own. And then she’s screwing anything in pants (except her creepy husband, of course). At this point, Dietrich seems more natural as she’s playing a sexually experienced adult woman instead of a virginal teenager. It’s just that the change between the two comes at the drop of a hat, basically.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

This riding habit is a frothy feather & lace confection on-screen.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The costume looks more severe (& a smidge more historically accurate) on display.

There isn’t much to the story, either as fiction or as history — it’s a vague series of massively staged scenes, as the director said, “a relentless excursion into style.” Most every scene is packed, almost claustrophobically, with things like candles, gargoyles, and icons. Then there’s the lighting, the glorious light and shadow that plays perfectly over Dietrich’s elegant face! The camera loves her, and von Sternberg knows precisely how to capture her on film.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The court ladies wear typical 1930s-does-18th-century gowns. The general court pannier shape is there, but so are back zippers, white wigs, no corsets, & all the standard cliches.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

I wonder if this gown was reused in the 1938 Marie Antoinette movie?

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

It’s a beautiful design.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Check out that arm full of pearls! In this scene, she’s giving away jewels as alms for the poor.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Then there’s this wacky nightie. It has a hooped skirt in sheer black fabric, the sheer top practically falls off her, & only the feathers keep it relatively decent.

The costumes by Travis Banton give a nod, here and there, to 18th-century fashion, but his designs are more interested in conveying opulence, movement, and drama. He’d been working with Marlene Dietrich since her first Hollywood movie, and he helped create her look on film. Banton and Dietrich came up with the idea of he dressing in men’s white tie and tails for Morocco (1930), and here in The Scarlet Empress, Banton gave her another masculine look with a white Hussar’s uniform at the end of the film.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Can’t tell here, but she’s wearing tight white pants, & she jumps astride the horse.

Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress (1934)
The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Perhaps the most iconic costume in the film, which I guess really is blue? I’d love to see a color picture of it!


Have you seen The Scarlet Empress? What did you think?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

14 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Yes and it’s fun to watch if you suspend all knowledge of Catherine the Great and go with the flow. Likewise with the costumes. Some are totally off the period, others not as much when the try showing 18th Century styles. Marlene is a joy to watch. And I wonder since she probably knew more about the period, bc of her education that she plays it tongue in cheek. Costume grade: C-C+.

  2. Maggie May

    Yes, I have seen it. I care deeply about real history and accurate production values — including costumes.

    But this blast of decadent artiness blows several mediocre somewhat accurate miniseries into atoms. It is a fever dream of eroticism and twisted religion, all in splendid black and white.

    Now, to find a DVD or subscribe to yet another streaming service….

  3. Michael McQuown

    A different age portraying a different age. Would it be worth it, I wonder, to see it colorized? Probably not.

  4. hsc

    I’ve never actually managed to see it, alas. Vintage films are harder and harder to see these days, and this never made it to the revival house I was blessed with back in the ’70s.

    But I’ve got to ask– would a star costume by Travis Banton for Paramount somehow make it over to MGM for Adrian’s MARIE ANTOINETTE?

    I know studios reused costumes on their own productions, but would something that deluxe have been discarded and gone into a stock costume service within five years?

    There is a very similar gown worn by Gladys George in the later film, with a lot more embellishment, but I think it’s a new design, not the Banton dress with alterations.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      A leading character’s costume becomes a background figure’s costume all the time. In Hollywood, Western Costume has been around since the ’20s as the big rental house, & they work with every studio (in the UK, it’s Angels & CosProp). The designers didn’t have much say over what happened to their costumes, & really, nobody cared about movie costumes after they were filmed for decades! Use it as many times as possible, remake it over, then trash it (that’s why the Debbie Reynolds collection was so special).

      Now, I haven’t rewatched the ’30s MA recently so I’m not saying any gown from this flick was definitely reused in it, but with those big ballroom scenes in MA, I wouldn’t be surprised if some were.

  5. M.E. Lawrence

    I would so love to see these sets and costumes on a big screen; I never really appreciated its overblown weirdness on television years ago. If one keeps remembering that the many OTT elements are just imperial Russia filtered through the experience and eyes of a down-to-earth foreign princess, it sort of works as history (emphasis on “sort of”).

  6. Popka Superstar

    One of my favourite movies of all time! And also, one of the only times I like this kind of weird, ahistorical costuming, because the whole movie is pure expressionism and that aesthetic is in every detail of it, even some of the acting.

    I went to a great academic talk once about the way the style symbolises the oppression of the Russian people by the old regime.

  7. Al Don

    I enjoyed it mostly. I do remember the hodgepodge of accents being distracting. The models they used for cities were also way too small and shot at a betraying angle. I did appreciate the interior set design and most of the costumes in any event.

  8. Frances Germeshausen

    OK, next time this comes up on TCM, I’ll stick it out. I just need to adjust how I’m watching it.

  9. LouisD

    The photo of the wedding ensemble is not from that movie. It is from the “Knight Without armour” which is set (in Russia) in 1917.