Queen Kelly (1929)
Directed by: Erich von Stroheim, Richard Boleslawski | 101 minutes | drama | Actors: Gloria Swanson, Walter Byron, Seena Owen
“I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small”. In Billy Wilder’s masterpiece ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950), Gloria Swanson basically plays herself; a movie star from the ‘silent’ movie era who can’t believe her heyday is over. At one point, when her character Norma Desmond and co-star William Holden watch one of Norma’s old silent films, they see a scene from ‘Queen Kelly’ (1929), starring a young Gloria Swanson. A film that marked the end of an era: the silent film was a thing of the past, the ‘talkies’ were the future. Erich von Stroheim, who directed ‘Queen Kelly’, plays the role of the butler Max in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, who acts as a film operator in the relevant fragment. Later in the film, he reveals to Holden’s character Joe Gillis that he used to be a silent film director and that he was also the one who discovered and made Norma great. According to Wilder, it was Von Stroheim’s idea to use an excerpt from ‘Queen Kelly’ in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, in the context of ‘art imitating life’. ‘Queen Kelly’ is known as one of the biggest failures in film history.
Known as one of history’s first movie divas, Swanson not only starred in ‘Queen Kelly’, she also produced the film. When von Stroheim, who was known as a very ambitious filmmaker, had filmed barely a third of the script and had already exceeded the budget twice, Swanson fired him. She did so in close consultation with her then-lover Joe Kennedy (indeed JFK’s father), who had pulled out his wallet to make the film. To be able to deliver a film with a head and a tail, Swanson himself directed the missing scenes. However, Von Stroheim had no intention of relinquishing the rights to the film, making it nearly impossible to release ‘Queen Kelly’ in the US. With much pain and effort, Swanson managed to get the film – which was never fully completed – in a number of European halls, but few people came to see the historical epic. It was Von Stroheim’s last major film to direct, and Swanson’s career was also in the doldrums for a long time after this failure. Only after Von Stroheim’s death in 1957 did ‘Queen Kelly’ become freely available for the American market.
Is an unfinished, setback movie like ‘Queen Kelly’ worth it? The film has built up a certain reputation over the years; some critics even call it a ‘lost masterpiece’, but that’s really too much credit. However, this is an interesting film. In a fictional Central European kingdom, the rebellious Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron) is betrothed to the villainous Queen Regina (Seena Owen), whom he deeply dislikes. On his way to the palace he meets the modest orphan girl Kitty Kelly (Gloria Swanson in a role that doesn’t suit her at all), for whom he falls head over heels. With a ruse he smuggles her into the palace, where she soon surrenders to his charms. But Regina naturally gets wind of this intruder. Furious, she locks Wolfram in the basement. Kitty is sent out of the palace, makes a desperate suicide attempt, but is saved. Due to a somewhat coincidental coincidence, she ends up in eastern Africa, where she takes over the brothel her aunt ran there and enters into a marriage of convenience with plantation owner Jan Vryheid (Tully Marshall).
Where Von Stroheim wanted to go with ‘Queen Kelly’ from this point on, we’ll never know because the story breaks down right at the point where we finally get a little bit of ‘income’. The film was finished with title cards and stills to give the viewer an idea of how Kitty Kelly fared, but such a business-like conclusion is of course not very satisfying. The original script could have produced just five hours of film, now we have to make do with the approximately one hundred minutes that are available. With the newly arrived diva Swanson in the role of an innocent wench; totally unbelievable. She’s also outclassed by Seena Owen as the memorable Evil Queen Regina (which no doubt also kicked Swanson’s sore leg).
For lovers of silent films, ‘Queen Kelly’ still has a lot to offer, such as the beautiful cinematography of Paul Ivano. But above all, the image remains of a series of scenes that were cut and pasted together by Swanson to save what could be saved. She herself once called ‘Queen Kelly’ ‘a child who just wouldn’t be born’ and that is an apt description: the story surrounding it is in fact more interesting than the film itself.