on January 24, 2005
One of the most audacious in jokes in the history of American movies occurs in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard when Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) shows Joe Gillis (William Holden) a silent film being projected by her onetime director-husband and now butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). But the film they are watching, as few viewers then or now would realize, is Queen Kelly, a 1929 production starring Swanson and actually directed by von Stroheim. The director was, of course, never Swanson's paramour any more than Swanson was a real life Norma Desmond. But this movie was the last to be released with von Stroheim's name on the credits as director. He made a sound film for Fox, released as Hello Sister, but the only copy I have seen listed no director, and it would appear that some thankless studio drudges shot additional scenes after the studio trashed most of von Stroheim's work.
Von Stroheim's career might well have been invented by another offspring of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Kafka. Born in Vienna, the son of a Jewish hat manufacturer, he emigrated to the United States as a young man and passed himself off in Hollywood as the scion of an Austrian aristocratic family. Although he is often remembered today as the director of Greed, an adaptation of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, which he photographed mainly on location in San Francisco and Death Valley, von Stroheim remained as much a spiritual inhabitant of Central Europe as did another quite different émigré director-Ernst Lubitsch. There the similarity ended. Both directors benefited from a Hollywood vogue for vehicles with a pre-World War I setting, but where Lubitsch looked back to the vanished glory of Wilhelmine Germany in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1926), von Stroheim delighted in stripping away the pomp and circumstance of alt Wien, figuratively and literally, in Merry-Go-Round and The Wedding March.
Von Stroheim had a basic scenario that he recycled from Merry-Go-Round to Wedding March by way of The Merry Widow, one in which a titled debauchee falls in love with a commoner. In Queen Kelly, he used this device once more, but pumped it up to the max. In this movie, the depraved nobleman is Prince "Wild" Wolfram (Walter Byron) and the girl the orphan Patricia Kelly (Gloria Swanson), who has been raised in a Catholic convent. Not content to merely reproduce the Hapsburg Empire inside a Hollywood studio, von Stroheim this time invented a Central European monarchy of his own, Kronberg, ruled by the sadistic, lascivious Queen Regina V (Seena Owen). When Regina finds Kelly in Wolfram's apartments, she whips the girl out of the palace and sends Wolfram, her own fiancé, to prison.
At this point, von Stroheim sends his heroine to hell-to a brothel in German East Africa presided over by a dying aunt who forces the girl to marry a real monster of lust, the wealthy, crippled planter Jan Vreyhed (Tully Marshall). (Only a part of this sequence was shot before Swanson called a halt to the shooting, and the remainder of the film as made available here has been reconstructed from photos and script materials by Denis Doros.) Like Alfred Hitchcock's imaginative universe, von Stroheim's is a bestiary: its inhabitants are either vicious, cunning predators or their prey. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, G.W.F. Hegel wrote of a "spiritual animal kingdom," but von Stroheim may have gone a step farther in depicting a spiritual food chain ruled at the top by characters like Regina or Jan, lording it over the meek of the earth.
Great art sometimes thrives off the obsessions of the artist, an effect that seems more conspicuous in the cinema than elsewhere. Although the names of Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Bresson all come to mind, von Stroheim probably went farther in this direction than any comparable figure in movie history. According to an anecdote Richard Koszarski repeats in his audio commentary, when Irving Thalberg complained about the numerous rushes devoted to documenting Baron Sadowa's collection of shoes in The Merry Widow, von Stroheim haughtily explained the Baron was a foot fetishist. "You're a footage fetishist!" Thalberg supposedly retorted. Whether the quip be authentic or not, there is more than a grain of truth in it. Wasn't there a grandiosely self-destructive artistic passion in planning a movie that would have run some five hours, as Queen Kelly would have had it been completed according to von Stroheim's intensions?
Quite apart from the virtual impossibility of a film of that length being produced by a Hollywood studio and exhibited in commercial theaters-as von Stroheim well knew-the real question is much more: who could have endured watching it? The African scenes in Queen Kelly are among the most oppressive I have ever viewed in a movie. Even if the action did culminate in Kelly's being reunited with Prince Wolfram, returning to Kronberg, and then ascending the throne, who could have swallowed such a denouement after suffering through what had preceded it? At the end of such a metaphorical journey through the desert, might we not have found ourselves confronting an infernal panorama like that which McTeague faces at the end of Greed? Had not Von Stroheim doomed his characters to perish in a Death Valley of celluloid?
Queen Kelly is a damaged but imposing monument to the art of the film. Kino Video has done itself proud-and done us all a great favor-in producing this DVD. In addition to Koszarski's informative commentary, the disk includes two endings-Swanson's and the reconstructed one-as well as scenes from Merry-Go-Round, audio interviews with various people, among them Billy Wilder, a 1952 TV appearance by von Stroheim, and, not least of all, a TV appearance by Swanson in which she discusses the making of Queen Kelly.
The great silent film QUEEN KELLY, is Swanson's most popular film, aside from SUNSET BOULEVARD.
Swanson plays Patricia Kelly, a naive and innocent convent girl, who catches the eye of a Prince (Walter Byron), when her underpants accidentally fall down. He falls in love with her, despite the fact that the demented and jealous Queen Regina (Seena Owen), is after the Prince herself.
The scene where Regina chases Kelly out of the palace, whip lashing and her feathered robe flaying, is truly memorable.
One of the most sought-after silents, this great tinted version is backed by a full orchestra soundtrack.
This is Director Eric Von Stroheim's last film, produced by it's star, Gloria Swanson. There is much to be learned from the commentaries and additional features on the deluxe Kino DVD of this silent film. The film itself is a wonderful lesson in filmmaking of its period. Von Stroheim loved to take shots of all the props and costume details of a character - believing that this focus on detail told you more about the character than the actor alone could convey. This technique was later perfected by Hitchcock, where details shots are followed by reaction shots to move the story and emotional life along.
QUEEN KELLY is the story of a convent girl who falls in love with a dissipated prince who is promised to a debauched Queen. By today's standard, Seena Owen's performance as the queen is laughably over the top; she slithers and glowers and when she's really angry, she seems to have something stuck in her eye.
The original story was only about 1/3 completed when the production went way over budget and delved into areas that would never be approved by censors. Arguably, given Seena Owen's almost 100% nude (wearing either chiffon negligee, or a stratiegically held cat) performance, most of it may not have passed censors.
The restoration makes much ado of finding reels from the abandoned "African brothel" sequences, but when all is said and done, the "Swanson Ending" (the only way it was shown - after talkies had come in and silents were pretty much a done thing) is a very serviceable and good ending... evoking Shakespearian tradgedy. Most silents were big on action, short on story, with fairly simple plots. Granted the original was supposed to have a happy, if rather suspicious, happy ending, but this makes total sense, and makes Queen Kelly seem very complete.
The only real loss of the Swanson ending is losing the believably sick (in both senses of the word) performance of Tully Marshall. Between Owen and Marshall, it is a lesson in why the production "code of decency" was developed in the first place. The irony is that, as much as she may have been considered heavy handed or intrusive for firing Von Stoheim, Swanson's ending demonstrates that Swanson really did know what she was doing as a producer. A memorable and informative trip into film history.
on August 20, 2007
This film is unbelievable on many levels. First, I can't believe anyone would have trusted von Stroheim, consistently a quintessential "mad genius," to not break the financial backs of his financiers, which he did. Second, I can't believe that anyone would have trusted him to come across with a film that would make it through the censors, which he couldn't. Third, I can't believe that any film, much less a silent film, could so compellingly depict the fast journey to the heart of darkness, which he does. I highly recommend this picture. The DVD extras are all terrific- Kino as usual does a wonderful job, including the von Stroheim-shot scenes from Merry-Go-Round (1923). There's good commentary from a von Stroheim scholar that heightens enjoyment of the film. Although von Stroheim couldn't control his spending or his temprement, or his ability to be so far ahead of his time (who knows what more great pictures he would have gone on to make- and how much more intact those that he did make would remain- if he could have just nodded a little more to those realities), the money's long gone, so enjoy the perversity in the environment of the authenticity he achieves by watching this after seeing another movie of the time- e.g., The Swan (Dimitri Buchowetzki, 1925) or another film of the period depicting a "fairytale" kingdom with its dissolute nobles- which won't approach von Stroheim.
on May 28, 2006
I was at Borders, looking for this musical called Good News, and another one called Dixiana, but I saw something sticking out on another shelf, and it was Queen Kelly! Normally I only like musicals, but remembered how much I enjoyed and Beyond the Rocks on TCM, so I bought it! And I was like wow! Swanson is good! Although sometimes it got boring, it was pretty good all together. I wish they would put Beyond the Rocks on DVD, the movie Gloria Swanson made with Rudolph Valentino. also, Greed. Greed is my favorite silent movie EVER. It is so amazing, and also directed by Erich von Stronheim.
Erik von Stroheim once more proved he was the Wunderkind of his generation in this exquisite and extravagant, daring and mature script. A Covent girl is swept off her feet buy a roguish prince who will send her to live in East Africa where her aunt regents a brothel. As you can guess or imagine the whispering comments originated in that age, I only can remind that clever statement of Nicolas Maquiavello: The half of the sin is the scandal.
on April 18, 2015
This is the movie that was supposed to cement Gloria Swanson's position as one of Tinseltown's greatest and most popular actresses, as well as make her and her production company a major player in Hollywood. It was supposed to rescue Eric von Stroheim from the oblivion in which his career as a director had seemed to have landed him after a succession of costly box office (but critically acclaimed) failures. It was supposed to prove once and for all that Joseph Kennedy (Pres. JFK's father) was indeed a wizard at movie production. But the movie ultimately proved a disaster for just about everyone associated with it. Stroheim was fired after too many cost and schedule overruns; Kennedy abandoned the project after realizing, among other things, that he may have to invest some of his own money into the production; and Swanson couldn't afford to throw any more of her time or her money at the making of this movie. The script's original ending was never filmed (or, if it was, that footage soon disappeared). The movie was never released to American theaters and had a short run in Europe in 1931 after an alternate ending directed by Ms. Swanson herself was appended to it. Kino acquired the rights to the movie in 1985 and restored it, using the so-called Swanson ending while also releasing the film with another alternate ending. The ending presented in this version is not the Swanson ending and incorporates still images where movie footage is unavailable, much as the restored version of the 1954 "A Star Is Born" does. In any event, the "Queen Kelly" you have here presents a Gloria Swanson in her prime, giving one of her best performances ("Sunset Boulevard" notwithstanding). Enough footage remains of Stroheim's mastery at directing (and he was a master, if not a very good manager of finances and schedules) to give you a good sense of what could have been had the industry been more adept at overlooking his foibles and embracing his talents.
on September 20, 2006
Like just about all of the films directed by von Stroheim, this one too is only available today in a much-shortened form and not the way he intended it to be seen. It's quite sad, since what we do have here, at about an hour and forty minutes, is a very good and compelling story, with fascinating characters and plot developments. Like many of his other films, this one also begins by focusing on the decadent royalty of old Middle Europe, and throws in a lot of bizarre and macabre elements along the way. This was a man with a very unique artistic vision, someone who demanded everything, even down to the smallest details, be done accurately and down to perfection, whose vision was ahead of his time and too wide to be limited to the average hour and a half movie length of the time, someone who had no time or patience for the censors and the self-appointed morality police with their unrealistic and oftentimes Puritanical demands. Sadly, however, the footage we have only comprises about the first half or third of what von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson, and Joe Kennedy, Sr. envisioned as a long epic-length movie. Things are going so well and getting more and more interesting and suspenseful when it all ends abruptly, and we're told, via intertitles and a few stills, about the pivotal events and scenes that were to have come after, complete with the ending that they finally decided on. (Among the numerous extras are descriptions and footage of several different endings different people had in mind.)
The storyline starts out simply enough; the mad Queen Regina V, ruler of an unnamed nation in Central Europe, is betrothed to the handsome rogue Prince Wolfram (great name!) but is sick and tired of his notorious escapades and how he doesn't even want to be with her and doesn't have feelings for her. As punishment for one such escapade which he didn't know she was watching, he is made to ride, with the regiment he commands, in the hot weather down the Kambach road. This proves to be far from the punishment she intended, for a large group of convent girls are also walking by. Wolfram becomes smitten with one of them, Patricia Kelly (Gloria Swanson), who soon finds herself in trouble with the nuns because of an embarrassing accident that culminated in a rather risque way. Wolfram only sees her as another meaningless conquest, and goes to the convent that night to kidnap her and bring her back to the palace. Kelly meanwhile uses her own punishment, praying alone in the chapel and without supper, to light a candle and pray that she'll see the prince again, instead of repenting what she did. Once back in the palace, Wolfram soon drops his plans of seducing Kelly and then dumping her, genuinely falling in love with her. (It usually annoys me when characters fall into one another's arms at such short notice or with no development of their relationship, but I can excuse it here a little, since it is supposed to be a fairy tale and fantasy of sorts, not a gritty realistic film.) However, while they're making out, Regina catches them in the act and chases Kelly out of the palace, furious at Wolfram as well, throwing him into prison. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Kelly is sent to her dying aunt in German East Africa and finds herself among a bunch of seedy characters who work in a brothel. Even worse, she is expected to marry the very seedy creepy Jan Vryheid. This unwanted wedding takes place around her aunt's death bed. This is the point where things are really starting to get interesting, the viewer wondering how everything will work out, what poor Kelly's fate will be now that she's married to this disgusting man and living in a brothel, not knowing anyone there, if Wolfram will ever get out of jail and manage to find his way back to Kelly. Maddeningly, this is where the footage ends, and minus the luxury of seeing the actual story through to the end via film instead of written explanations, it seems kind of like a bunch of deus ex machina developments instead of realistic plot developments, really convenient events leading to an ultimately happy ending (as opposed to the much darker ending von Stroheim had in mind). I also feel that Gloria Swanson looked a bit too old, womanly, and mature to realistically play an innocent virginal convent girl (indeed, she probably would have been more believable as one of the nuns or even Queen Regina), but again, she was such a great actor and the story is so good that one can kind of look past that detail before long.
There are also a bunch of extras included, such as excerpts from the 1924 von Stroheim-directed film 'The Merry-Go-Round,' memos from him, parts of his original script of 'Queen Kelly' and excerpts from the novel version of 'The Merry-Go-Round,' an audio commentary, deleted scenes and footage, descriptions of and footage of a number of alternate endings (none of them as convenient and happy as the one described to us via the text at the end of the actual film), audio interviews, footage of Gloria Swanson talking about 'Queen Kelly' on a television program dedicated to showing silents (she had such a lovely voice, and aged very well), and a lot of other stuff. It does leave the viewer wanting more, even knowing that the film was never completed (the reasons for which are described in the extras and the audio commentary), but overall it's a fantastic package.
on November 20, 1998
Financed by Joseph Kennedy, Stroheim was hired by his old friend Gloria Swanson, but when talkies came in and it was apparant there would never be a market for a silent Swanson vehicle, production stopped and the film was unreleased for decades. Almost completed, and later restored with stills replacing lost footage, the film has a unique power like all of Von's work. This was Von's swan-song (no pun intended.) He would never complete another film, but go on to immortality as a great actor, ignored in the U.S. but worshipped in Europe. This film is proof that there was a brief period in which American films could be held up against the films of the world as great works of sophisticated filmatic art. Von's films make even the best products of the "studio System" look like bad soap operas. It is impossible to fully appreciate Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" without seeing this film (Von referred to his performance in Wilder's film with contempt as "that butler role." The world of course knows better. As Elenor Roosevelt said, Von was the greatest director in the world.
on April 2, 2009
This is one of the best DVD restorations Kino has put out. The inclusion of the reconstructed ending and the Swanson ending are great. The disc has a wealth of extras, most notable to me are the Swanson TV appearance, the excellent commentary, and the Orient Express episode. This DVD is a great example of what a professional DVD release should be.