Film review by Jason Day of Queen Kelly, the unfinished silent film starring Gloria Swanson as a convent girl who is seduced by a Prince. Directed by Erich von Stroheim.
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In the tiny European country of Kronberg, playboy Prince Wolfram (Byron) enjoys a carefree life of pleasure and parties as the personal toy of the country’s unbalanced ruler, Queen Regina V (Owen). As an absolute monarch her word is law and extends not only to her betrothed but to her subjects. Kitty Kelly (Swanson) is one of those, a precocious convent girl who catches the Prince’s eye one day when he is out on manoeuvres. He seduces her in the palace but, when the Queen catches them, she chases the girl out of the royal house and banishes her from the kingdom. Depending on which version of the film you view, Kelly either drowns herself out of shame or travels to Africa to visit her long-lost Aunt (Ashton) and eventually inherits a fortune.
In Billy Wilder’s cruel, mordant melodrama Sunset Boulevard (1950), put-upon butler Max tells jaded screenwriter William Holden his back-story. Another lost Hollywood soul cast adrift by the capriciousness of Tinsletown, it transpires he used to be a film-maker of some note who discovered Norma Desmond, the faded movie queen whom he now works for, married her, developed her into a star and was then cast aside by the star monster she became.
Holden hardly seems to be listening, but Max notes that there were three directors who showed promise in the silent days. D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and himself.
In a film littered with the most delicious, stinging irony, Max is played by Erich von Stroheim who could very easily lay claim to have been one of the top three film directors of that era. But where Griffith had an awesome sense of scale and focus and DeMille a cheeky social awareness and wit, von was stylistically, aesthetically and sexually streets ahead.
This tantalising, mutilated stump of what could have been the most audacious and kinky of silent films when that medium was in it’s death twitches, was his penultimate sole directorial credit.
One of the most famous of ‘unfinished films’ it is mostly remembered nowadays for being the biggest casualty in Hollywood’s rush to convert to sound and for the snippets that featured in Sunset Boulevard (von himself suggested using them, as Norma views an old favourite starring herself).
Von Stroheim always sailed close to the wind, but was currently riding high thanks to the box office smash that was his silent movie ‘musical’ The Merry Widow (1927; he had an orchestra playing Lehar’s tunes on set, as he directed his cast), his previous run-ins with Hollywood producers at Universal and Metro now temporarily forgotten.
Bolstered by his success, star Swanson went out on a limb hiring him to direct a film of her going out on her own. She was the steady hand with the purse-strings, United Artists and John F. Kennedy’s dad Joe (her lover at the time) both being behind her with the cash.
The original film was planned to weigh in at a hefty 4 hours, but it wasn’t long into the production that von and Swanson started to clash, for von’s script deliberately hid the saucier story he wanted to convey (according to Swanson, without her knowledge or blessing).
Now available on a spruced up DVD with new music and scenes long deleted after Swanson fired him for filming these various nefarious indulgencies (he changed Kelly’s Aunt’s hotel into a brothel and had Kelly pushed into a forced marriage with a lecherous cripple, Marshall, who dribbles tobacco on her hand during the wedding) with stills completing the film as best they can.
The original cut, not released in America, is 40 minutes shorter but still contains the full von ingredients that make his films such spankingly good viewing.
He explores in typically titillating fashion the perversity and madness of Europe’s upper classes: when Wolfram first sees Kelly, she curtsies and her knickers fall down. When he laughs at her, she throws them at him and he wipes his face with them. In the most famous sequence, used in Boulevard, Kelly prays for forgiveness before visiting the Prince, ostensibly to retrieve her undergarments, but smiles with knowing relish at what she clearly hopes will happen. Finally, the Queen uses a horse-whip on Kelly when she runs her out of the kingdom, much to the amusement of her guards on duty. Only von understood and could express human sexual psychology and cruelty with such consummate verve.
The performances he elicits from his cast jingle all the right hedonistic nerves: Swanson’s overly made-up, wide-eyed, panting ‘purity’, Byron’s greasy, louche Royal winking and roaring with laughter and expectation. Owen is the best and steals the show as the ice-cream-ripple haired, tiny despot barking orders, wielding a literal and figurative whip. This would mark the end of a stellar career as a silent actress: she ended up writing scripts for Dorothy Lamour.
The settings, as one would expect, are vast and meticulously detailed, the costumes fetishistically realised, all beautiful to look at, captured in twinkling soft focus by the hands of five master cameraman (Ivano and Pollock are credited, but William Daniels, Greg Tolland and Ben Reynolds also lent a hand).
After 10 years behind the camera in Hollywood, with mixed success and several highly truncated film’s left in his wake, von was no longer employable as a director after this failure and would be largely relegated to supporting actor roles for the next 3 decades in America and Europe, where he was feted in France (1933’s Hello Sister! was his last directing credit, though like many of his films, it was finished by someone else).
Swanson’s career as the epitome of 20’s chic clothing, hairstyles and fabulous spending was acutely embarrassing to depression era audiences and this was the beginning of the end for her as a top-flight star as the decade waned. None the less, she would garner two Oscar nominations for Best Actress at the first two Academy Awards, for Sadie Thompson (1928) and The Trespasser (1929 – her first sound film).
Director: Erich von Stroheim et al. United Artists/Gloria Swanson Pictures. (PG)
Producer: Gloria Swanson.
Writer: Erich von Stroheim.
Camera: Paul Ivano, Gordon Pollock et al.
Music: Adolph Tandler , Ugo Derouard (1985 reissue only).
Sets: Harold Miles.
Gloria Swanson, Walter Byron, Seena Owen, Sylvia Ashton, Wilson Benge, Sidney Bracey, Rae Daggett, Florence Gibson, Madge Hunt, Tully Marshall, Madame Sul Te-Wan, Wilhelm von Brincken.