(La czarina)
Ernst Lubitsch (US 1924)

In her fanciful 1970 autobiography Memoirs of a Star, Pola Negri claims that the inspiration for Forbidden Paradise came to her as she was reading a biography of Catherine the Great by the Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel. Here was the perfect property to bail out her old Berlin colleague and present Beverly Hills neighbor Ernst Lubitsch, whose Hollywood career wasn’t going so well. “Before I was half through, I knew that I had found what I was looking for and bounded across the lawn to his house, waving the book in my hand like a victorious banner.” According to Mariusz Kotowski in his recently published biography of Negri, “based on the success of her previous movies, Negri was able to present the owners of Paramount with her own material. She showed them The Czarina and suggested Lubitsch as a director.”
Not much of this appears to be true. The Czarina was, in fact, a successful Broadway play of the 1922 season, adapted by Edward Sheldon (Dishonored Lady) from a 1912 Hungarian original by Lengyel and Lajos Biró, A cárnö [The Czarina]. Produced by Charles Frohman (as one of the original partners in Famous Players-Lasky, Frohman frequently provided Paramount with material), the play had been a triumphant comeback vehicle for the veteran actress Doris Keane, and had also provided a young British actor, Basil Rathbone, with his Broadway debut.
If anything, it was probably Lubitsch – already on his long roll of critical successes – who had been brought over from Warner Bros. to prop up Negri, whose first American films had not lived up to the tidal wave of publicity generated by her public romance with Charles Chaplin. The first mention of Forbidden Paradise in the trade press seems to be a March 1924 advertisement in the Exhibitors Herald that promises “the greatest Negri triumph of them all – Negri again directed by Lubitsch, the very director who first discovered her genius and who first brought it to full flame.” There’s no mention of Catherine the Great here, however – this is a contemporary drama to be “based on a story by Paul Bern,” featuring “a Negri lavishly gowned and splendidly supported in a sensational story of society romance and intrigue.” It seems likely that the Bern story was rejected in favor of The Czarina at some point into the production process – leaving behind, perhaps, only Bern’s title, which has little obvious bearing on the scenario as finally signed by Agnes Christine Johnson (Show People, The Patsy), and Lubitsch’s regular collaborator Hans Kräly.
Traces of the contemporary story may also remain in the film’s engaging blend of 18th-century imperial grandeur and 20th-century urban detail – motorcars that suddenly appear in feudal landscapes, a queen who startles and dismays her ladies-in-waiting by deciding to bob her hair in the latest (1924) French fashion. No longer the Empress of All the Russias, this Catherine is the queen of a small kingdom, whose “loyal subjects boast that they are ruled by the greatest woman with the greatest heart in all of Europe.” By casting Negri as the center of power in this ahistorical world, Lubitsch is inverting the formula that shaped his most successful German films with Negri (as well as his recent Rosita): no longer the proletarian outsider who wields erotic power over an aristocrat, she is now the ruler in thrall to her own desires, in this case for the handsome, callow Lieutenant Alexei (Rod La Rocque, reportedly Negri’s offscreen paramour as well).
Desire, as always in Lubitsch, is the great disrupter. Alexei already has a fiancée (Catherine’s newest lady-in-waiting, played by Pauline Starke) who is appropriately pretty and naïve, while Catherine is already married to her office – a relationship movingly personified by Adolphe Menjou as her wise, tolerant Lord Chamberlain. (Menjou had appeared in Negri’s first American film, the 1923 Bella Donna, and would appear with her one last time under very different circumstances, in the 1943 independent production Hi Diddle Diddle.) Alexei is not the first of Catherine’s distractions and he will not be the last (as Lubitsch’s rhyming opening and closing sequences make clear), but he is perhaps the most inconveniently earnest of them. Unable to accept his dalliance with Catherine for what it is, and frustrated by his lack of authority over her, Alexei turns moralistic and destructive, throwing his lot in with a group of ostentatiously bearded revolutionaries who proclaim, “We don’t want to be ruled by a woman – especially such a woman.”
Catherine, of course, must pay a price for her privilege, and Lubitsch portrays her ultimate isolation with grace, sympathy, and no trace of pathos – most powerfully in a sequence in which Alexei passes through a series of courtyards and ceremonial halls, through doors that grow gradually smaller and smaller, until he finally finds her alone, in the innermost bedchamber of the palace (doors and floors, the eternal elements of Lubitsch’s mise-en-scène.)
Throughout the film, Lubitsch shows Catherine checking her reflection in a hand mirror and smiling at what she sees; she is checking her equipment before she sallies forth on another mission of seduction. In the extraordinary final scene, after she has definitively dismissed Alexei and allowed the world to return to its conventional order, she checks her reflection again, but this time is dismayed by what she finds there – the mask has begun to slip. Only her chamberlain’s timely compliment – “Your Majesty looks beautiful, today” – allows her to regain her faith in her appearance and carry on with state business (which now involves the handsome, callow newly arrived ambassador of France). Lubitsch accords the entire last reel to this single extended sequence, stepping back to observe the intricate range of emotions that Negri allows to move across the wide planes of her face, intervening only with a few well-placed cuts to aid the transitions. This is one of the great moments of silent screen performance, and a most fitting way for Ernst Lubitsch to conclude his eighth and final film with Pola Negri

Dave Kehr    

regia/dir: Ernst Lubitsch.
scen: Agnes Christine Johnson, Hans Kräly; dalla commedia di/based on the play by Lajos Biró & Melchior Lengyel, A cárnö (Budapest, 1912), adattata da/adapt. Edward Sheldon (The Czarina, New York, 1922).
photog: Charles Van Enger.
scg/des: Hans Dreier.
cast: Pola Negri (la zarina/The Czarina), Rod La Rocque (Alexei), Adolphe Menjou (lord ciambellano/Lord Chamberlain), Pauline Starke (Anna), Fred Malatesta (ambasciatore francese/French ambassador), Nick De Ruiz (il generale/General), Madame Daumery (dama di corte/lady-in-waiting).
prod: Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky, Famous Players-Lasky.
dist: Paramount Pictures.
uscita/rel: 24.11.1924.
copia/copy: DCP, 73′ (da/from 35mm, 6461 ft.; orig. 7351 ft.); did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Restauro effettuato nel 2018 da/
Restored 2018 by The Museum of Modern Art & The Film Foundation, con il sostegno della/with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation.