Of the two 1934 film versions of the life of Russia's Catherine the Great, Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress was the most opulent and exotic. Marlene Dietrich plays the German-born Catherine, who is required to marry Russia's mad Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe, decked out in a Harpo Marx wig).
As if her joke of a marriage isn't torment enough, Catherine must endure the excesses of her new mother-in-law, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). Eventually, Catherine finds solace -- and romance -- in the form of Count Alexei (John Lodge). But even this balm is denied her when the ambitious Alexei begins wooing the much-older Elizabeth.
When the old Empress dies, Catherine ascends to the Russian throne, knowing full well that her addled husband would kill her at the slightest provocation. Soon her power outstrips Peter's, and the opportunistic Alexei now comes back into her life.
The finale finds Catherine emerging triumphant over all her enemies -- and, in the film's least subtle sequence (which is saying a lot!), the new Empress is shown astride a horse, to whom she displays far more affection than any of her human compatriots.
The Scarlet Empress has even less to do with accuracy than Paul Czinner's Catherine the Great of the same year, which starred Elizabeth Bergner. Watch for Dietrich's real-life daughter Maria Sieber (aka Maria Riva) as the 7-year-old Catherine in the early scenes.