Catherine the Great is one of a handful of historical figures, like Napoleon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, whose legend so exceeds the historical record that she proves an irresistible subject for filmmakers. Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Pola Negri, Jeanne Moreau, and Julia Ormond, among many others, have all played the Russian empress; in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great the part is played by German actress Elisabeth Bergner, who fled Nazi Germany for England after Hitler's accession to power and whose collaborations with Laurence Olivier and J.M. Barrie are of greater interest today for their sakes than for hers.
In fact, the most common complaint lodged against this sumptuous and historically fantastical film is that Bergner lacks charisma. She is accused of dullness, of vapidity, of artificiality, but I wouldn't call these charges quite fair. The screenplay, based on a play by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis, frames Catherine as an ingenue, devastatingly in love with the Grand Duke Peter before she sees him, easily softened by kindness, insistent on the right of the peasant to bread and the right of her mad and beloved husband to live. The domain where the young Catherine gained her skill in intrigue and her prowess in domination, the bedroom, must perforce remain off-screen; even under the less rigid censorship standards of England, as opposed to the absurd strictures of the Hollywood Production Code, the film suffers from the impossibility of allowing Catherine any but imaginary adultery. The centrality of sex in royal politics is not as prudishly papered over as it is in Hollywood films, but the insistence on Catherine's sexual purity as a sign of her morality, and thus right to be the heroine, prevents Bergner from delving too deeply into the most complex parts of her character.
She stars opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whose striking physical beauty isn't at all effaced by a blonde wig and a brilliant performance free of vanity. Fairbanks never attained the super-stardom of his athletic father, and is remembered today mostly for his debonair looks and his tabloid-sensation romance with the much older Joan Crawford, but as the Grand Duke Peter, volatile, moody, changeable, lusty, always contrary, and dangerously close to genuine insanity, Fairbanks proves his abilities as an actor. In the first scene of the film, without dialogue, he broods in his dacha as fawning courtiers sing songs and make love on cushions scattered on the floor. Staring into the fire, his ears prick up at the sound of a lady's tinkling laughter. He glances up and sees her, and the man, his dearest friend as it turns out, who ravenously kisses her arm and neck. Peter observes them a moment before taking the hand of the woman and leading her away. His entire character is established in this first wordless scene, a tour de force for directors Paul Czinner and an uncredited Korda, for production designer Vincent Korda, and for Fairbanks himself. He is matched by Flora Robson, as his strong-willed aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. Robson was an actress who became somewhat type-cast as powerful aging monarchs, even as a young woman, but she was consistently a stand-out in every film fortunate enough to include her. Here she is called upon to radiate power like the sun: her furious grip on power, Elizabeth claims, is all the more tenacious because she is a woman. Women ought to rule, she tells Catherine, for men lack the strength to do so.
In many ways, the film's story is beside the point. The title already says everything about the plot and even a glancing notion of Russian history reveals the ultimate fates of the characters. The real reason to see it is visual, not narrative: the enormous sets, grand rooms of state scattered with velvet and gilt furniture, ceilings painted with cherubs and adorned with candle-bestrewn chandeliers of crystal, balustrades set with roaring lions, and the lavish costumes, a sweeping, glossy black dressing gown for Peter, both rakish and hinting at his sickly mind, a fur-lined brocade gown for Elizabeth, making her seem twelve feet tall, glittering lace cuffs for Catherine as a princess, her luxurious shackles, as well as a stunningly boyish uniform, to match that of her regiment and to foreshadow her victory. Even if the drama passes without surprises or emotional highs, every frame is a treasure trove of exquisitely designed objects.
I can understand the reservations most critics have about this film, especially when compared to its predecessor, Korda's mega-hit The Private Life of Henry VIII, a film that made Charles Laughton an internationally renowned star and featured equally gorgeous costumes and sets with a story bursting with incident. The Rise of Catherine the Great moves at a more stately pace, its intrigues negotiated tacitly more often than not, its political alliances too clearly delineated by declarations of passionate love or loathing, but there is no scenery-chewing in the Laughton mold. Fairbanks, in particular, gives a performance quite modern in its subtlety, all the more striking given that it is insanity that he portrays so delicately. Yet, this film, in contrast to Henry VIII, embraces a more challenging and complicated perspective on despotism. The great rulers here are women, while men are essentially tools of power, dangerous, useful, alluring, but not eligible for the governance of empire. The throne of Mother Russia seems to demand a female body, but it would be too easy to simply stick a feminist label on Catherine and call it a day. Compassion, an abhorrence of cruelty, a horror of murder, a melting and maritally sanctioned adoration of a husband - these are the qualities that Catherine must combat in order to take power and save Russia from the wandering whims and tantrum-driven vagaries of Peter III. The paradox of queenship renders the political maneuverings of this film fascinating, for Catherine is both the perfect woman and the perfect empress, but cannot be both at once. Rather than a conflict between a mad emperor and a sane empress, The Rise of Catherine the Great traces the conflict between the woman who loves Peter and the empress whose rise to power necessitates destroying him.