Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Rise of Catherine the Great, The (1934)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Rise of Catherine the Great, The (1934)
DirectorPaul Czinner
Production Co.London Film Productions
ProducerAlexander Korda, Ludovico Toeplitz
ScriptLajos Biro, Arthur Wimperis, Marjorie Deans, Melchior Lengyel
Original playMelchior Lengyel, Lajos Biró

Cast: Elisabeth Bergner (Catherine II); Douglas Fairbanks Jr (Grand Duke Peter); Flora Robson (Empress Elizabeth); Gerald Du Maurier (Lococq)

Show full cast and credits

Young German Princess Sophia-Augusta von Anhalt-Zerbst travels to Russia to marry Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. Renamed Catherine, for years she endures the unstable Peter's humiliations, but finally she must take his place for the good of Russia.

Show full synopsis

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) was the second of London Films' lavish historical epics, following the international success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Alexander Korda, 1933). Despite being a comparative commercial failure, the film was one of the most accomplished films to emerge from the studio in the 1930s.

Adapted by Lajos Biró, Marjorie Deans and Arthur Wimperis from a 1913 Hungarian stage play by Biró and Melchior Lengyel, Catherine the Great is set in mid-eighteenth-century Russia and charts the early years of the empress Catherine II, 'mother of all the Russias', from her arrival as a naïve young princess from Germany, to her dethroning of her husband, the reckless and unstable Czar Peter III.

Studio head Alexander Korda appointed Hungarian Paul Czinner to direct, with Czinner's Austrian wife Elisabeth Bergner in the title role. Thanks to Korda's distribution deal with United Artists, Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. played the volatile Peter. The starry cast was completed by Flora Robson as Empress Elizabeth.

Korda, confident after completing Henry VIII, quickly found himself quarrelling with the director, and in what was to become a characteristic, insisted on interfering with the production, demanding scenes be re-shot and even directing some himself. All the same, Catherine the Great lacks the weaknesses that affected much of Korda's work, with unusually rich characterisation, and finely judged performances which are supported, rather than swamped, by Vincent Korda's opulent designs and Georges Périnal's elegant cinematography.

The film is less cavalier with historical accuracy than Henry VIII and, although it condenses the events of 12 years into an hour and a half, it convincingly parallels Catherine's growth in wisdom and confidence with Peter's descent into madness. This success owes much to the understated performances of Bergner and, especially, Fairbanks, who resists the temptation to ham it up.

Catherine the Great's poor box-office was perhaps inevitable given that it was released in direct competition with Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (US, 1934), which covered similar territory in even more glamourous style, with the added attraction of Marlene Dietrich as Catherine.

Mark Duguid

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Her Imperial Majesty (2:05)
2. The Grand Duke (3:35)
3. Suspicion (1:25)
4. Mother of all Russia (3:16)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Knight Without Armour (1937)
Biró, Lajos (1883-1948)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Robson, Flora (1902-1984)
Alexander Korda and London Films