Queen Kelly (1929)

“You think you can share the Queen’s bed? I’ll share him with no one!”

Synopsis:
A young woman (Gloria Swanson) living in a convent is courted by a prince (Walter Byron) who’s been forcibly engaged to marry a mad queen (Seena Owen). When the queen learns about Byron’s romantic interest in Kitty Kelly (Swanson), she banishes Kelly, who eventually ends up in an African brothel visiting her dying aunt (Florence Gibson), and facing her own enforced marriage.

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Review:
The final downfall of Erich von Stroheim’s notoriously challenge-filled directorial career was precipitated by his work as a writer and director on this epic love story, conceived by silent-screen star Gloria Swanson as a way to revive her own waning career (and brought to the renewed attention of moviegoers when a clip was screened by Swanson’s aging diva in Sunset Boulevard). Production on Queen Kelly halted midway through, and it was never completed; the version that exists thus offers merely a tantalizing glimpse of von Stroheim’s estimable talents and broader vision for the story. (Viewers interested in learning more about the film’s production history and restoration should check out any of the informative links below.)

It’s primarily the first third or so of the film that we’re left with — and what an exposition it is! We’re shown a mad queen taken to walking around mostly nude and carrying a white cat loosely draped over her bosom; a drunken playboy prince (not at all in love with the queen) racing to the palace in a chariot filled with gleeful prostitutes (“Come on Wild Wolfram! I’ve bet my nightie on you!”); and a coy convent girl who accidentally (?) drops her panties in front of the prince, then balls them up and throws them at him in a fit of anger. My goodness! What could possibly come next? From there, the storyline shifts to showing us the rapid blossoming of Byron and Swanson’s romance, with Byron nearly burning down the convent to get Swanson’s timely attention, eventually carrying her off to his bedroom in a scene filled with plenty of remarkably risque Pre-Code intimations.

Unfortunately, it’s shortly after the infuriated queen discovers Byron’s betrayal that the film (literally) begins to fall apart; the next scenes we’re shown (reconstructed in part from stills) take place in Africa of all places, and feel like they belong in a decidedly different film all together. (They actually hearken back to Swanson’s role the previous year in Sadie Thompson, set on a South Seas island.) Kelly’s enforced marriage to a demented older man — a scene that seems to go on forever, in a truly nightmarish fashion — is nothing short of surreal. There’s no telling, of course, what type of continuity von Stroheim could or would have offered between these two radically different settings, had he been given the opportunity; Queen Kelly instead remains a classic example of a semi-lost film which will forever be known primarily for its potential.

However, as indicated in my assessment above, the delightfully demented scenes that do exist in full are finely produced and acted. While there’s no denying Swanson (at 30) was too old to be playing a schoolgirl, she nonetheless brings just the right amount of coyness and romantic longing to her role; meanwhile, Byron makes a suitably charming prince, and Owen — while not given quite enough to do — projects appropriately haughty disdain and madness. The cinematography throughout is luminously atmospheric, and the royal sets are just as grandiosely baroque as one would expect for such a milieu.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gloria Swanson as “Kitty” Kelly
  • Opulent sets
  • Luminous cinematography

  • Some creatively conceived inter-titles
  • A remarkably racy, memorable, ultimately bizarre screenplay

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as von Stroheim’s final film, and Swanson’s silent-era swan song. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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3 Responses to “Queen Kelly (1929)”

  1. Not a must.

    First viewing of this ‘notorious’ film. …And, if all of it had been filmed, it would have been about 5 hours long…? Um…why?!

    It’s true that Swanson was “too old” for her role. That kind of pulls the carpet out from under her performance. And the film. ~although there are a few giggles to be had from some of Swanson’s ‘convent girl’ lines (i.e., “What would the Reverend Mother say?’, “Holy Mother of Patrick! I’m in my nightshirt!”, etc.).

    The main problem with ‘Queen Kelly’ – what we have of it – is that surprisingly little happens in the film that’s just under two hours. The bulk of it is taken up – and not in all that interesting a fashion – with the courtship of the Prince and the girl (Swanson). There’s something bizarrely off about Swanson playing the coquette. (Although it does add weight to Swanson’s performance in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ if you’ve seen ‘Queen Kelly’.)

    Camp value: the whipping scene.

  2. Von Stroheim certainly had trouble with limiting the scope of his vision; and it’s likely that at five hours long, this would most definitely have ended up some kind of epic flop (and/or a butchered bastardization).

    As it is, it’s simply an incomplete bastardization — and while the first section is quite slow and doesn’t get all that far narrative-wise, I found it compellingly bizarre enough that I was curious to see where things would go (and quite disappointed to see where von Stroheim DID envision taking his heroine).

    I think Swanson’s (over)-age merely adds to the camp value of the piece.

  3. For me, what remains behind of ‘Queen Kelly’ is more or less a bore. It has the odd bit of enjoyment here and there: there are some lovely, epic-scale visuals, and the Queen’s bed is hilarious! But, otherwise, it seems an almost-endless 105+ minutes. I admit to being very slightly curious about what would happen in Africa (at least the story finally found another direction to go in) but the overall impression I have is that ‘QK’ is one huge vanity production – which is why it’s so illuminating in terms of Swanson’s Norma Desmond…esp. considering that Holden’s Joe Gillis is called on to ‘crawl’ his laborious way through Desmond’s own mammoth screenplay.

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