It was the first roseate flowering of the sound era in motion pictures. It was the time before strict enforcement of the Production Code made movies a little less sensual. And it was the middle of the Great Depression, when audiences sought out movies for comfort and escape. In the early 1930s, Hollywood faced a period of unprecedented challenges and opportunities, offering to show the world to its customers in more exciting ways than ever before. Two of its major stars represented the sophistication and decadence of foreign lands, exoticism in physical form. But their popularity began to wane as the public’s taste shifted to more “American” fare, and in a few years both actresses would be tarred with the label “box office poison.” The films that arguably started this downward trajectory hold up today as vehicles for two of the brightest stars in the history of the medium — works that are simultaneously fitted and unfitted to their time, but endlessly interesting.
Narratively, Queen Christina and The Scarlet Empress trace opposing arcs after opening with scenes of their protagonists as children. The former chronicles the events leading to the abdication of the seventeenth-century Swedish monarch of the title. The latter tells of the rise to power of Russia’s Catherine the Great a hundred years later, culminating in the coup that wins her the crown. Both are strong women who find ways to seize control over a male-dominated world. Christina negotiates the end of the Thirty Years’ War (to the chagrin of the military and the Church alike) and tries to inaugurate a period of cultural flourishing. For her part, Catherine is swept into the Russian court and, finding it in monstrous disarray, goes about forcibly cleaning house. Being women, though, they must reckon with the fact that getting the right man to impregnate them is prioritized. These films illustrate a curious fact about monarchies: that establishing legitimate succession is almost as important as ruling well. In each case, the king is something of a troll, whereas an underling who catches the queen’s eye just happens to be a fox.
Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were born for these roles. No two faces have ever been more suited for the camera’s worship. Although each film boasts an enjoyable script, nothing comes close to the enjoyment of these performers and their indelible presence on the screen. The occasional harshness of Garbo’s features is a perfect match for the cross-dressing queen who is mistaken for a boy by her future suitor, played by longtime Garbo counterpart John Gilbert. The plot exists primarily to show off her emotional versatility. There are many impossibly beautiful close-ups, with the legendary final shot fully expressing the inner life of a woman left adrift but also free for the first time. Dietrich plays a more dynamic character. The naiveté of the film’s first half, expressed with saucer eyes and a babyish voice, morphs into the confidence of sexual experience, Dietrich’s eyes lowered into conspiratorial slits and her voice in a more familiar register. The focus, again, is on the hypnotic qualities of her candlelit face — sometimes filtered through screens or veils, a diaphanous image to complement the baroque surroundings.
While the stars steal the show, each film was helmed by an auteur whose importance in establishing the art of the sound film was incalculable. Rouben Mamoulian’s virtuosic movement of the bulky cameras remains a marvel, less experimental here but crucial in tracking from Garbo’s Christina to the roiling politics surrounding her and vice versa. He displays an intelligent grasp of the characters, with Christina and her lover at center stage but with each of the queen’s advisers leaving a distinct impression as well. Josef von Sternberg brought even more flair to his work. The set design of The Scarlet Empress is unforgettable: grotesque sculpture everywhere, twisted faces observing every assignation. It’s never meant to be “realistic,” but a nightmare world where gaggles of ladies in sumptuous dress struggle to push open massive doors and where clarion bells signal the revolutions of fate. Sternberg holds the personal and political in tension with slow dissolves, yet another delicate visual signature.
The perspective on history in these films is quintessential Hollywood fluff. The Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox faiths are reduced to political factions. Politics is reduced to the public manifestation of private jealousies and, in a word, sex. The Swedish queen’s love for a Spanish envoy may be a political and religious blunder, but it’s a romantic necessity. Meanwhile, Catherine’s motivation is to torment Count Alexei, her unfaithful paramour. She works in conjunction with the military class (a very particular kind of conjunction) to overthrow her goblin of a husband, Peter III. The Scarlet Empress has at least a nominal interest in the concerns of the common people, beset by tyranny. But these films’ lavish depiction of royals may have played some role in their relative financial failures. The costume epic was beginning to seem a bit too remote for American audiences. Queen Christina proposed the ideal of a philosopher queen who could kick off a golden age if given the opportunity, and The Scarlet Empress answered with a tale of potentates always and only acting in their own self-interest. Through it all, the forgotten man remained forgotten.
Important for bringing silent film artistry to a world where actors were expected to say things with their mouths as well as their eyes, these films beckon from across history with unusual bravado. As tempting as it is to say that Garbo and Dietrich single-handedly hold their films up, there are plenty of qualities that would have made the films worthwhile even in the absence of the European goddesses. Queen Christina boasts sharp dialogue and a classic tragic-romantic conclusion. The Scarlet Empress looks like nothing else, fulfilling the dream of an art form that transports the viewer to unimagined worlds. But MGM and Paramount knew which side their bread was buttered on, and Mamoulian and Sternberg concurred. Presiding over these snow-draped kingdoms were a couple of all-time greats, avatars of the art of dancing light.