After five years of unremarkable roles in American films, petite French actress Renée Adorée had the good fortune to land in King Vidor’s WWI infantry epic, The Big Parade. The former circus performer and Folies-Bergère chorine secured her place among the stars playing the romantic interest of John Gilbert who was, at the time, second in popularity only to Valentino as the screen’s great lover. Pert, excitable, and spunky, Adorée, in an era of flappers, seemed a refreshingly different sort of screen type, at once quaintly old-fashioned, as a provincial peasant who’s never chewed gum, and chicly knowing, like all French women (her nonplussed reaction when she stumbles across the soldiers showering in an open field is particularly amusing). The Big Parade provided Adorée with a demanding emotional workout and accorded her much flattering face time, especially during one of the most teary, sentimental partings in all cinema, as she tries holding her doughboy’s departing detachment back with every bit of strength in her tiny little being. She could’ve stopped right there and won an Oscar. Point of fact, it might have been preferable if she had. For while The Big Parade rolls on, her Melissande gets left in the dust by the wayside. As with most women in war movies, once the boys leave for the front, Adorée has little else to do but worry, weep, and wait. The movie fails to sustain her character, and the fault, I think, lies with director Vidor. He likewise let the actress down by not fully developing her captivating Musette in La Bohème. My selection as the year’s best supporting actress is Louise Dresser, who soared above the competition in The Eagle. Opposite Valentino himself, she made the most of her limited screen time to excel in the underdeveloped character part of Catherine the Great.
During a troop inspection, Cossack Vladimir Doubrovski (Valentino) commandeers the Czarina’s favorite horse to chase down a runaway carriage containing an aristocratic beauty named Mascha (Vilma Banky). Thrilled at this daring exploit, the Czarina demands Doubrovski’s presence at dinner that night, intending to add him to her long list of conquests. The empress’ attempt to seduce the inexperienced young soldier merely succeeds in scaring him off, however, prompting her to declare him a deserter. Unable to appeal to the Czarina when he learns that Kyrilla (James Marcus, who’s also exceptional) has seized his father’s estates, Doubrovski instead becomes the outlaw Black Eagle, consecrating himself to vengeance against the corrupt land baron and all his kin, unaware that Mascha is the villain’s daughter.
Gaining entrance into Kyrilla’s palace in the guise of a French tutor, Mascha’s presence stays The Eagle’s hand every time he comes close to striking. Forced to publicly reveal himself as the outlaw bandit, Doubrovski escapes on horseback with Mascha, who’d already guessed his true identity. Caught between the Czarina’s imperial guard and Kyrilla’s pursuing Cossacks, Vladimir is hauled off to await execution. Though the empress’ new favorite, Kuschka (Albert Conti), pleads with her for leniency, she remains unmoved as zero hour approaches. A veteran of vaudeville and Broadway, where she’d originated the song My Gal Sal, Dresser, not to be confused with Marie Dressler, whose own successful career as a character actress ran concurrently, had been playing circumspect bits for several years onscreen before she was selected to star in The Goose Woman, a rare movie lead, by Clarence Brown. Her powerhouse performance as a former opera singer turned slatternly drunk so impressed the director that he promptly reused her, to equal effect, in his follow-up film, The Eagle. Her Czarina in this Valentino vehicle proved the actress’ crowning achievement. Officially adapted from an unfinished Alexander Pushkin story, The Eagle was intended, in part, as a takeoff on Ernst Lubitsch’s recent Forbidden Paradise, which had also concerned itself with the amorous escapades of Russia’s Catherine the Great. The scenarist here, Hans Kraly also co-wrote that film and was well acquainted with the famous Lubitsch ‘touch.’ He’d worked with the director back in Germany and would author nearly all of his Hollywood scripts. Despite the shadow of Paradise, Dresser manages to make the part of Catherine entirely her own with an unorthodox interpretation, portraying the now elderly empress as a still lascivious, irascible old tart. Casting a distinguished actress of advanced years as a woman who boasts not just a healthy sexual appetite, but promiscuous proclivities as well, must have been daringly risqué for the time and still seems pretty provocative; Lubitsch had cast a much younger, more nubile actress for his Catherine. At a time in life when women are presumed to be past it, in Hollywood terms, she’s completely unapologetic about exercising her sexual prowess.
The Czarina is a tough old bird, one who never takes no for an answer, a fact Dresser makes abundantly clear, whether running her eyes up and down an increasingly apprehensive Valentino, while circling him like a buzzard, or relishing her job as Captain of the Guard, raking over her queued prospects with all the lecherous glee of a Broadway producer eyeballing the gams in the chorus line. While Catherine’s toy soldiers respond eagerly to her standard come-on (“Do you have the desire to become a general?”), hoping to sleep their way up through the ranks, this sexual martinet, an old pro at exploiting men for her personal pleasure, remains in firm control. If her aspiring lovers don’t satisfy her, or desert her bed, she issues their death warrants. In Brown’s earlier Smouldering Fires, Pauline Frederick had played a buttoned down, tough as nails female executive who became warmer and more humane after falling for an employee half her age. Though this theme has been relegated supplementary space in The Eagle, it remains just as fascinating. In order to be taken seriously by her subjects, to be seen as a strong and capable leader, Catherine, like the Frederick character, feels she must present herself to the world as an implacable iron butterfly. She’s repressed her femininity, along with those other qualities that might make her appear weak, such as passivity (rather than waiting to be courted, this female Henry VIII has adopted the customary male role of sexual aggressor), indecisiveness (it’s why she hesitates issuing a reprieve until the eleventh hour, even though she no longer desires Doubrovski’s death), and sensitivity (“You are the first Russian to see your Czarina cry,” she claims, upon squeezing out a few crocodile tears). The director relies heavily on superficial surface changes in clothing and makeup to get this point across visually, tricking the poor actress out in masculine military attire, unflatteringly heavy makeup, and a severe hairdo. Yet the joy of love serves to soften Catherine both physically and emotionally. Given a makeover as stringent as the one she’d been subjected to as The Goose Woman, the inflexible ramrod of earlier cuts a much softer figure by film’s end, trading in her starched, stiff-necked uniforms for filmy, flowing Empire waistline gowns, designed by the incomparable Adrian. She’s let her hair down, literally, unloosing that tightly wound, braided bun, so that it now falls in romantic ringlets about her shoulders. Catherine’s love for Kuschka has finally brought out the inner woman she had long suppressed. She no longer feels it necessary to negate her nascent femininity in order to compete as an equal in a man’s world. As she comes to find, being a woman doesn’t detract from her ability to rule with both strength and wisdom. Instead it permits her to become a more compassionate queen, one who can empathize with her people’s plight, rather than crushing them beneath an iron fist. Catherine, who had never been moved to tears, and displayed impatience when signing orders of execution, now breaks down sobbing, upon hearing her delay to grant a reprieve has resulted in Doubrovski’s death. Having spent the duration of the film hunting down the one man to ever reject her advances, she can, in the end, pity and release him, no longer feeling compelled to demand satisfaction, to exact the petty, spiteful vengeance of a woman scorned. Just like The Eagle she frees from his cage, Catherine, too, now grasps the meaning of Mascha’s biblical quote: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” From here on out, the empress intends to make love, not war. It’s a suitable about-face for Russia’s most legendary libertine. Though Dresser would make memorable appearances in other movies, both silent and sound, including Mr. Wu, The Garden of Eden, Mammy, Caught, State Fair, and even be nominated for the first Best Actress Oscar for A Ship Comes In, her most rewarding later role actually proved to be in The Scarlet Empress, Josef von Sternburg’s own chronicle of Catherine the Great. A decade on it seemed a logical extension to cast the actress as the mother-in-law of the character she’d previously played in The Eagle, and in bossing around no less forbidding a figure than Marlene Dietrich, Dresser proved to have lost none of her imposing authority or command in the intervening decade.