The imagination can become a horrible thing indeed when it is given as much scope and freedom as Von Sternberg apparently enjoyed while making his version of the Catharine the Great legend ["The Scarlet Empress"]. Or perhaps one had better say that when, as happens every so often. Hollywood decides to make a mistake, it is able, because of the vastness of its resources of every kind, to make a truly colossal mistake…. Josef Von Sternberg now shows us just what can be hatched when an overcharged imagination is set loose upon an eighteenth-century Muscovite background. One had always recognized that the Russia to which Catharine came as a bright and ambitious young bride must have been far from a pleasant and civilized sort of place. But in "The Scarlet Empress" one is transported to such a nightmarish realm as never existed outside the less plausible tales of Hoffmann and Poe. Evidently Von Sternberg has read or been told that the Moscow palaces of Catharine's time retained many crude Tartar influences in their architecture and furnishings. This seed of archaeological discovery blossoms immediately in the directorial fancy into the most original grotesqueries of every description…. [The] lighting, or rather the absence of lighting, in the picture is alone sufficient to create the feeling of the sinister and the unhealthy, the uneasy conviction that what one is witnessing can only be the product of an elephantiasis of the imagination….
William Troy, "Russia à la Mode," in The Nation, Vol. 139, No. 3613, October 3, 1934, p. 392.