“You think you can share the Queen’s bed? I’ll share him with no one!”
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
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: