not in our stars, but in ourselves
Thank heaven, or thank doom, for university libraries. My own copy of Queen Kelly (1929) has decided that it doesn’t want to work anymore, and I really wanted to re-watch it! The library came through, bless it, and I was able to watch the absurd, wonderful, choppy epic-that-never-was.
More of you have seen bits of Queen Kelly than you might realize: in Sunset Boulevard (1950 – coming soon, very soon!) Norma makes Joe watch her old movies. The clips included in Sunset Boulevard are actually from Queen Kelly – which was directed by Erich von Stroheim, who plays Norma’s former director/husband and current butler. Quite a sardonic little nod there. Norma is enraptured by her own image up on the screen, and why wouldn’t she be: Queen Kelly is an opulently gorgeous film. At least, what’s left of it is.
First a bit of plot, and then we can get to all the juicy backstage stuff. In some mythical central European country ruled by the mad Queen Regina V (Seena Owen), Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron) likes to gallivant around and avoid his Buffalo Bill-like bride-to-be (that is, Regina). One day, while he and his regiment are horsing around on the same road that the local convent orphans use to go on their daily walks, he spies the lovely and passionate Patricia “Kitty” Kelly (Gloria Swanson). It’s love at first sight, especially when she throws her underwear at him. Regina tells Wolfram that they’re getting married tomorrow – rather, she is marrying him – and he realizes in a panic that he must see/seduce Kelly. Fool that he is, he brings Kelly back to Regina’s palace; she walks in on them in flagrante; chases Kelly out with a whip; and has Wolfram locked up in solitary confinement until he decides he wants to let Regina marry him. Kelly tries to kill herself, but is saved, and then swiftly shipped off to German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania) to see her dying aunt. Kelly walks straight into a brothel, where aunty is in a back room expiring and a bevy of disreputable types are in the front. One of them is Jan Vryheid (Tully Marshall), a disgusting old man who has literally tried to buy virginal Kelly for his bride. Dear aunty would just love to see the two of them married, and Kelly chokes back sobs as she grants the request – just as aunty dies. Kelly then refuses to live with Jan, and so he makes her live in the brothel. She soon establishes herself as an imperious madam, called Queen Kelly by the whores – and then, hey presto, Regina is assassinated and Wolfram comes to rescue Kelly and they have a marriage-coronation back in Europe. The end!
Sound a bit involved? A bit rushed and sketchy in parts? Well, friend, you’re not wrong. According to an intertitle at the beginning of the Kino Video edition of the DVD, Stroheim envisioned a grand, thirty-reel epic. It was to be his masterpiece. Swanson and her lover, Joseph P. Kennedy (yes, that Kennedy family), were financing the film. They had initially believed that it would just be a nice, sexy little love story and star vehicle for Swanson. When Stroheim began to outline and shoot the scenes set in Africa, however, they balked and shut down production. As such, only about a third of the intended film was actually made, and Stroheim’s directorial career was thereafter ruined.
As for what remains…well! It’s quite something. Straight melodrama, really, but with some extraordinary Stroheim touches. If I were to describe it, I’d say it’s sort of Cinderella and The Firebird mixed together, plus some Inferno, with quite a bit of s & m thrown in for good measure. There is some WEIRD sex stuff going on in this movie, guys, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. We’ll start with Regina: she blatantly derives pleasure from causing pain. Even when she’s about to “surprise” Wolfram by marrying him sooner than he’d feared, he says to her that the surprise must be unpleasant, because she seems so happy. She grins in assent. After she’s caught him gadding about town early one morning, she beats him fiercely…and then they melt into an amorous puddle in the bed together. In an intertitle, it says that Regina follows “no law but her own desire.” Maybe she’s a feminist icon in some circles, but I’d put her in the company of Ted Bundy and Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed myself.
Then there’s Wolfram, or “Wild Wolfram” as the lovesick girls in the kingdom call him. Initially, he seems like a standard sex-crazed macho man. Then he falls head-over-heels in love with Kelly after her knickers fall down (her “er-er-what-nots,” as the intertitle calls them), sets off the fire alarm in the convent so he can get her out and back to the palace, hides her clothes so that she’ll have to cover up by wearing his coat or just run around in her nightie, says that it’s HER FAULT HE FAKED A FIRE TO ABDUCT HER BECAUSE SHE’S JUST SO BEAUTIFUL, and then begs her to tell him she loves him, which means “begs her to have sex with him immediately.” Their scenes together are electric in their eroticism, but there is some bizarre stuff going on.
It’s such a shame that this ridiculous movie was never finished. I mean, Stroheim probably could well have trimmed down a few sections, so that it wasn’t a six-hour-long erotic epic – but really. Don’t we ALL want erotic epics? Isn’t that what the movies are all about? I sure think so.