Director Josef von Sternberg has long been famous for the mannered pretentiousness of his photophays, but never has his weakness for ostentation reached the extremes to be found in The Scarlet Empress….
Mr. von Sternberg has concentrated on the wild pageantry and the grim ferocity of the period, and, with his gift for atmospheric settings, pictorial effects, and visual suggestion, it seemed, at the outset of the film, that he was destined to vanquish his rivals.
It is not long, however, before the director's passion for lavish ostentation overreaches itself. Mr. von Sternberg's brooding preoccupation with the mood and color of a story, rather than with the story itself, frequently has made for a distinguished and original cinematic style, but here he carries the trait to such excesses that the picture comes to seem a particularly cruel burlesque of Sternberg methods.
Argus, "On the Current Screen: 'The Scarlet Empress'," in Literary Digest, Vol. 118, No. 13, September 29, 1934, p. 29.