The Rise of Catherine the Great

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The Rise of Catherine the Great
The Rise of Catherine the Great FilmPoster.jpeg
Directed by Paul Czinner
Written by Lajos Bíró
Arthur Wimperis
Melchior Lengyel
Produced by Alexander Korda
Ludovico Toeplitz (uncredited)
Starring Elisabeth Bergner
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Flora Robson
Narrated by Alexander Kerensky
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited byStephen Harrison
Harold Young
Music by Ernst Toch (uncredited)
Irving Berlin
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • 9 February 1934 (1934-02-09)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The Rise of Catherine the Great (also titled Catherine the Great) is a 1934 British historical film about the rise to power of Catherine the Great. It was directed by Paul Czinner, and stars Elisabeth Bergner as Catherine, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Grand Duke Peter, Dorothy Hale as Countess Olga, and Flora Robson as Empress Elizabeth.


The movie was banned in Germany. On 14 March 1934 this matter invoked a question in the British Parliament (House of Commons): "Is it to be understood that no British film in which there is a Jewish actor or actress will be permitted to be shown in Germany in future?". [1]


This historical drama recounts the events that led to the accession of Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russias. The film opens with the arrival in 1744 of Princess Sophie Auguste Frederika – whose name would be changed to ‘Catherine’ – from her father's court of Anhalt-Zerbst (in modern Germany) to the court of the Empress Elizabeth. "Little Catherine" is to marry the Grand Duke Peter, nephew and heir presumptive of the unmarried and childless Empress Elizabeth.

Peter already displays signs of mental instability and a sharply misogynist streak. He rejects Catherine on their wedding night, reacting to something innocently said by his French valet, claiming that she used feminine tricks to win him over. In time, though, Peter accepts her and they have a happy marriage for a while. Meanwhile, Catherine gains important experience of government from working as principal aide to the empress.

The empress dies and Peter becomes tsar, but his mental illness is starting to get the better of him, along with sheer boredom in the job. Catherine still loves him despite beginning a very public love affair with one of her best friends – until one night when Peter goes one step too far in publicly humiliating his wife. She ceases to love him, which enables her to be clear-headed in supporting a planned coup d'état . The following morning, he is arrested and Catherine is made Empress of All the Russias.

The elevation is marred by Peter's murder that very morning, contrary to Catherine's command. Grigory Orlov explains that everything has a price, and the crown has the highest price of all. The film ends, with Catherine in tears on her throne, while the cheers of the crowds are heard outside.


Variety's original 1933 review summed up the film as having numerous sequences with outstanding "direction, portrayal and dialog," particularly crediting performances by Fairbanks (whose performance they described as one of the best of his career) and Robson, while noting that Bergner was "altogether believable" as the young Catherine. [2]

New York Times reviewer Dave Kehr described the film as "a handsome but conventional melodrama," but inferior to the contemporaneous rival Catherine biopic The Scarlet Empress (1934) by Josef von Sternberg. [3]

The Guardian's historical films reviewer Alex von Tunzelmann credits the film with both entertainment value (grade: B-) and substantial historical depth and accuracy (grade: B-). [4]


Fairbanks and Bergner in a scene from the film Fairbanks Bergner Catherine the Great.jpg
Fairbanks and Bergner in a scene from the film

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