"Joseph, you better get out here fast!" exclaimed a distraught Gloria Swanson, on the telephone to Miami and her lover, Joseph Kennedy, father of a future President of the United States and at that moment the backer of what was to be one of the most ambitious silent films ever attempted. "Our director," she continued, "is a madman!"
It had been bad enough, in the face of the strict Hays Office code, for Erich von Stroheim to instruct Swanson's handsome leading man to sniff her panties, but when Von Stroheim told her elderly bridegroom to drool tobacco juice on her hand as he slipped a ring on her finger, Swanson had had enough. "It was a bit early in the morning for that," Swanson wryly recalled years later.
With that phone call, she dealt a death blow to the directorial career of a man whose monumental talent was surpassed only by his gift for self-destructive controversy and extravagance, and gave birth to the legend of "Queen Kelly" (1928) as a great unfinished film. Swanson was eventually to tack on an ending, releasing the film only in Europe and Latin America in an attempt to recoup at least a fraction of an investment that she estimated at $800,000. Outside of some special screenings of the Swanson version that she herself presented, "Queen Kelly" has never been seen publicly in the United States in any form. Billy Wilder did, however, incorporate a brief clip from it, showing a radiant Swanson surrounded by votive candles, in "Sunset Boulevard," the film that reunited Swanson and Von Stroheim (who, subsequently reconciled, once again thought of how they might rescue their film maudit ).
Restored as much as possible by Dennis Doros for Kino International, "Queen Kelly" at last premieres Friday night at 8 and again at 10 in the Bing Theater at the County Museum of Art, launching a monthlong Von Stroheim retrospective unprecedented in its completeness and commemorating the centennial year of his birth.
Just as Swanson in person lived up to her legendary glamour, "Queen Kelly" lives up to its legend too. Like Sergei Eisenstein's "Que Viva Mexico," Josef von Sternberg's "I Claudius" and Andrzej Munk's "The Passenger," "Queen Kelly" really is one of the cinema's great fragments. Indeed, so painstaking, so beautifully paced is Doros' 96-minute restoration, incorporating stills and explanatory titles, that the film is actually a surprisingly satisfying and even meaningful experience. Not as meaningful as Von Stroheim would have had it, of course, but far superior to Swanson's version with its abrupt ending.
"Queen Kelly" opens in a Ruritanian principality, one of Von Stroheim's favorite settings. Its elegant, blonde queen (Seena Owen, who had been D. W. Griffith's Princess Beloved in "Intolerance"), described as "vain, self-indulgent and cruel," has a mad passion for her fiance, the crown prince (Walter Byron). He is a dashing playboy whose roving eye lands on beautiful Irish convent girl Kitty Kelly (Swanson) as she and her schoolmates gather to watch the prince's regiment in review. The attraction is mutual, and he boldly kidnaps her, but before they can consummate their love, the queen discovers them and drives Kitty from the palace with a blacksnake whip. The prince winds up in jail--and Kitty in a Dar-es-Salaam bordello she inherits from her dying aunt (Florence Gibson).
Superbly visual--the cameramen were Gordon Pollock and Paul Ivano--"Queen Kelly" is a work of barbaric splendor, its key setting--Owen's grandiose palace (Harold Miles is the credited designer)--more Roxy than royal. Vienna-born Von Stroheim, the son of an Austrian-Jewish hatter, was obsessed with the sexual hypocrisy of the aristocracy to which he, paradoxically, pretended to belong.
His mastery of the telling detail, often revealing a sophisticated, even decadent sexual psychology, informs every frame of "Queen Kelly." Amusingly, no sooner has Swanson caught Byron's eye than her pants fall down. He taunts her so she throws them at him, stuffing them into his pocket. (Any sniffing Byron may have done apparently ended up on the cutting-room floor.) However, soon the two are linked by their sniffing of a handful of fresh hay. Similarly, in the opening scene, Von Stroheim's probing camera tells us all we need to know about Owen--the Veronal packet and Champagne bucket as prominent by her bedside as her cross and Bible. (Her bed, incidentally, is encircled by a balustrade of cupids, bows and arrows at the ready.)