Queen Kelly (1929)
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Cast: Gloria Swanson, Walter Byron, Seena Owen
Synopsis: A convent girl is abducted and seduced by a prince before being sent off to a brothel in East Africa.
On paper, Queen Kelly must have looked like a sure-fire winner. It was written by Erich von Stroheim, one of 1920s Hollywood’s most mercurial directors, and starred Gloria Swanson who, although her popularity was undoubtedly waning, was still a major draw and a luminescent beauty. And Joseph Kennedy, Swanson’s co-producer and secret lover, had near-bottomless pockets. With a combination of von Stroheim’s vision, Swanson’s acting chops and Kennedy’s backing, how, they must have wondered, could anything go wrong?
Well, the obvious conclusion to draw is that von Stroheim’s notoriously profligate nature eventually broke the nerve of even a moneybags like Kennedy. But apparently the director, who was all too conscious of the fact that his clashes with the studios over his extravagant spending had rendered him almost unemployable, was uncharacteristically accommodating when it came to cutting back, reducing the shooting schedule from a staggering 735 scenes to a comparatively modest 510. He even sold his right to a share in the movie’s profits for the princely sum of one dollar to keep the project on track. No, it seems that what finally derailed Queen Kelly was Swanson’s growing discomfort at the increasingly seedy tone the story was assuming as its focus shifted from the airy romance in a fairy-tale European principality to the depraved surroundings of a filthy brothel in German East Africa. And, to be fair to Swanson, that unaccountable shift in tone is incredibly jarring in an Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-The-Devil’s-Rejects way. Apparently, when von Stroheim wanted to film tobacco juice dripping from the mouth of Tully Marshall (playing a diseased and half-crippled brothel owner) and onto the back of Swanson’s hand, the actress went straight to her trailer and alerted New York that perhaps Queen Kelly wasn’t such a sure-fire winner after all.
The money-men, once they saw the footage already in the can, were quick to agree with their leading lady, and von Stroheim was dismissed and the shoot closed down with about only a third of the movie in the can. Fortunately for Swanson, the movie was largely shot in sequence, which meant she was at least able to put some kind of movie out in an attempt to recoup some of her and her lover’s outlay. It was only released in Europe for a short period of time, however, before being locked away in a vault, never to be seen again until a clip appeared in Sunset Boulevard in which both Swanson and von Stroheim appeared.
The plot is fairly simple. Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron, one of those silent leading men who ended their careers in tiny un-credited roles following the introduction of talkies) is a dissolute playboy betrothed to the half-mad lush Queen Regina V (Seena Owen) who spends most of her time in the nude with just a sheer negligee or strategically positioned cat to preserve her modesty. Wolfram drinks because he doesn’t want to marry Regina, but she’s jealously possessive of him and has no intention of letting him slip out of her grasp. After he returns home at dawn a little the worse for wear, Regina punishes Wolfram by having him and his cavalry troop spend all day on manoeuvres. That proves to be a mistake, because while he and his mates are out and about, they run into a gaggle of schoolgirls from the local convent, one of whom is fiery Irish orphan girl Kitty Kelly (Swanson), who instantly charms her future king by promptly losing her drawers.
That night, after being told by Regina that they are to be wed the very next day, Wolfram determines to kidnap Kitty from her convent by setting off the fire alarms and spiriting her away in the confusion. Back in his chambers, he plies the poor girl with booze and aphrodisiacs, and he’s just about to get down to business when in walks Regina. Obviously, she’s not too pleased about finding her fiance in the process of deflowering a virgin on the eve of his wedding, and her vengeance is both harsh and painful. It’s around this point that the movie becomes fragmented with titles and stills — mixed with those sleazy brothel scenes that got Swanson all hot and bothered — telling the remainder of the story.
Apparently, Swanson had all the film von Stroheim had shot edited together to make up the first 100 minutes of the movie, which the director said had not been his intention. On viewing Swanson’s version he complained that the film was too slow, and he wasn’t wrong. Individual scenes, such as Wolfram’s seduction of Kitty, seem to go on forever and we can be perversely grateful that von Stroheim never managed to get two-thirds of the movie in the can otherwise we’d have had to sit through four turgid hours instead of one-and-a-half. The movie looks sumptuous however, with the usual von Stroheim care lavished on costume and set design. And there are some effective scenes — Regina’s thrashing of Kitty following her discovery of Wolfram’s seduction of the convent girl, in particular. Swanson looks gorgeous but, at 31-years-old, she’s way too old to get away with the role of a sheltered convent schoolgirl, and it’s a serious piece of miscasting the movie fails to overcome.
(Reviewed 1st December 2013)