Now available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives is a brittle trifle produced by Ernst Lubitsch, directed by Otto Preminger, and based almost entirely on sharp and sparkly dialogue.
The court intrigues around Russia’s Catherine the Great (Tallulah Bankhead) reveal a thoroughly corrupt yet elegant world where your best hope lies with the frankest and most accomplished scoundrels. Into this den comes an honest naive soldier (William Eythe) whose greatest attributes are looking good in a white uniform and being “a good horseman”. He soon rises to dizzying heights as the plot essentially declares him Catherine’s consort, or her latest “toy”. His forgotten girlfriend (Anne Baxter) is in a rage. Catherine is driven by sexual appetite and never by love, which is rare enough in classic Hollywood, but the screenplay tends to undermine her as a figure of ultimate power. Various horse references may be allusions to a notorious piece of gossip that Joseph von Sternberg also referenced in the final shot (Marlene Dietrich and her stallion) of The Scarlet Empress. The ending is as far-fetched as can be.
Vincent Price plays an unctuous French ambassador, while seemingly the whole Hollywood crew of Russian and German character actors are present as various conspirators. The reliable Charles Coburn is the ultimate avuncular manipulator, and there’s a facetious appearance by Grady Sutton as a country boy who can barely mouth the dialogue. It’s all very suggestive and sophisticated, as produced by one man who pushed at the boundaries of the Production Code with discreet winks and directed by another whose frank subject matter would eventually be credited with “breaking the Code”. Nothing is broken yet, just a little bent.