Great Catherine (1968)
“By day she was Catherine the Queen. By night she was Catherine the Great.”
Director: Gordon Flemyng
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Zero Mostel, Jeanne Moreau
Synopsis: Slapstick comedy based on the play by George Bernard Shaw.
An adaptation of one of George Bernard Shaw’s lesser plays, Great Catherine is something of a forgotten movie, despite boasting an impressive cast. Whether you find it agreeable or not will depend largely on whether you’re a fan of Shaw’s and, perhaps paradoxically, of broad farce, because Great Catherine boasts a fair amount of comedy that verges on slapstick. Peter O’Toole plays Captain Charles Edstaston, a British officer despatched to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great (Jeanne Moreau). Edstaston is betrothed to Claire (Angela Scoular), the daughter of the British Ambassador to Russia (Jack Hawkins) who feels the dashing young officer might be able to win the Empress’s confidence. First, however, Edstaston must get past Potemkin (Zero Mostel), the Empress’s drunken, boorish chief minister. Fortunately, after an initially difficult encounter, Potemkin eventually comes to believe that Edstaston would make a perfect lover for Catherine and literally carries him to her boudoir. Unfortunately, Edstaston is so deeply mired in the social dictates of his country that he almost immediately blows his chance of learning anything from the Empress, even though she clearly takes a shine to him.
The hulking, bearish figure of Zero Mostel is the figure that will last longest in most people’s memory, and he effortlessly steals every scene he’s in as the dissolute Potemkin. Certainly, O’Toole is overshadowed in their scenes together, and also struggles to match the engaging performance of Jeanne Moreau. Jack Hawkins, sadly in his last film before having his voice box removed because of throat cancer, lurks in the background with little to do. The decadence of Catherine’s reign — and its inevitable consequence — is symbolised by the movie’s high point, an opulent ball that degenerates into a drunken orgy while Catherine pleasures herself by teasingly torturing a prostrate Edstaston in her own private torture chamber.
Definitely an acquired taste, Great Catherine will appeal only to fans of Shaw and O’Toole, and those who feel obliged to take advantage of viewing a movie that only rarely graces our screens these days.
(Reviewed 16th January 2014)