Okay, so this requires a small bit of explanation. Erich von Stroheim was hired to write and direct a film for Gloria Swanson (acting as both star and producer), and Stroheim’s tendency towards sadism eventually just angered Swanson enough that she had him fired from the production. Not wanting to waste any more money or the footage that had already been shot, she and her other producers hired Richard Boleslawski to film a new ending at about the hour mark. There exist two version of this film, the first is Stroheim’s pretty much as far as he went (with some gaps filled by still images ala the reconstruction of Greed) and then a handful of intertitles to explain about, I would guess, the final 2 hours of the story (Stroheim didn’t tell stories quickly). The second version is Boleslawski’s that quickly ties everything up after a certain point and runs almost a full half-hour shorter. I watched both (well, I watched the first version and then found the second and watched from where they diverge on), and I have come away with some thoughts, as is my wont.
Erich von Stroheim was his own worst enemy. He was, reportedly, a sadist towards his actors (including Swanson), and a perfectionist in terms of his filmmaking so that he spent gobs of money that wasn’t his to get details right that very, very few people would ever notice. This has worked against him so much that almost none of his films were taken by his producers or studios and cut heavily down to the point it becomes hard to figure out what he was trying to do because so much material is lost. Despite six of his films being “complete”, really none of them are (maybe The Merry Widow, but probably not), and he honestly had no one else to blame other than himself. If he hadn’t needed to exactly recreate Vienna in The Wedding March, maybe he could have saved enough money so that he wouldn’t have been shut down after 9 months. Maybe he could have filmed everything he needed in nine months. If he hadn’t been so mean to his actors, maybe Swanson would never have tried and successfully fired him from Queen Kelly. I bemoan that we have none of these “masterpieces” complete, but I don’t blame MGM, Paramount, or Gloria Swanson for this. I blame Stroheim himself. He was an ass, and the rest of the world recognized it.
Anyway, Queen Kelly…
Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron) is the consort to the Queen Regina V (Seena Owen) of Kronberg, a central European country. She’s a sex-fiend with unending appetites, and he’s a sex-fiend who enjoys the company of lower women, especially when he pays them. He is due to marry her, but he’s going to enjoy his final days of freedom no matter what, flagrantly showing off his independence no matter the cost. One day, on maneuvers with his regiment, he comes across a gaggle of nuns walking towards the convent and notices that one of them has their underpants around her ankles. This is Kitty Kelly (Swanson), and she takes the attention poorly, removing the underpants and throwing them at Wolfram who pockets the underpants in his saddlebag with a laugh. This is all kinds of shocking, and we get a delightful little scene (reminiscent of a similar one in The Wedding March) where Wolfram and Kelly communicate silently as they march side-by-side, leading to Wolfram giving back the underpants.
He’s smitten by this girl (another reminiscence of The Wedding March) and decides that he must see her again, so, of course, he decides to sneak into the convent and start a fire so that everyone flees and he can steal Kelly away without anyone noticing. The absurdity of the plan is really amusing, to be honest. He gets her out of the convent and into the palace where he seduces her (genuinely, it seems), only to be found out by Queen Regina. Kelly, distraught at the news that Wolfram is due to marry Regina, throws herself off the castle into the water below, and this is where the movie splits. The original version takes her to Africa where she goes to a brothel run by her aunt. The aunt (Florence Gibson) is dying, and a moneyman, Jan (Tully Marshall) hears about this new, innocent woman, shows up, and convinces her to marry him, literally over the aunt’s corpse where Kelly has a vision of Wolfram right until she accepts the marriage. Then, the intertitles and couple of still images take over because, reportedly, Stroheim had Marshall spit tobacco on Swanson as a joke and Swanson was so believably angry that that’s when she had Stroheim fired (the “dance hall” ending up a brothel helped none at all).
The second version takes her from the water through a handful of very quick scenes ending with Wolfram finding Kelly’s dead body in the convent, reportedly a suicide. It’s a very quick way to end the film without spending a whole lot of money, but, you know what? It’s actually an ending. The first version doesn’t really have an ending. I don’t see how Kelly marrying a random, creepy, old guy is an ending in her story because, honestly, it’s not. It’s a random place where production was brought to a screeching halt and the producers decided to cut their losses.
I don’t really think either version works well enough to be called good, though. I prefer the first because we at least get hints of the story that the first hour was working towards, even if it’s in an absurdly truncated form, but the second actually feels like an ending to the story of the first hour, even if it’s too short and wouldn’t exactly be what I call a good ending. That first hour, though, is Stroheim at his playful height.
Stroheim wasn’t known for short, efficient scenes. He let scenes play out as far as he could take them, and he filled them with as much amusing action as he could. The stuff around Kelly’s undergarments is slightly absurd but somewhat delightful, especially the interplay between Swanson and Byron. The whole ploy to get Kelly out of the nunnery being a huge fire is just so audacious in the best and most irresponsibly silent traditions.
Queen Kelly is easily von Stroheim’s least successful film, but there’s still a lot to admire and even enjoy across the bulk of its running time. That’s largely a testament to von Stroheim’s strengths as a filmmaker. I just wish he was less antagonistic and extravagant so that, maybe, he could have actually finished a movie once.
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