"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.)
In her understandable hysteria at being so savagely driven from the palace by the queen, Kelly throws herself into a river in a suicide attempt. Swanson decided that she should succeed, adding a final sequence (shot by Gregg Toland) of the prince discovering the drowned woman laid out on a bier in the convent's chapel. But this was not completed until the very end of 1931, when sound had decisively edged out silents and after she and Kennedy had tried various other complicated salvage jobs and then gone their separate ways, professionally and romantically. (Allan Dwan, who directed Swanson in "What a Widow!" for Kennedy while new writers were at work trying to save "Queen Kelly," once confided that Kennedy had come to him saying, "How am I going to get rid of her (Swanson)? My wife is threatening to leave me.")
Doros deletes Swanson's ending (but keeps the fine Adolf Tandler score she had commissioned) and, complemented with stills, incorporates the two edited reels of the African sequences first discovered in 1963. Von Stroheim had actually shot only one third of his script when Swanson and Kennedy called a halt to shooting because his increasingly baroque (and expensive and time-consuming) touches would never pass the Hays Office. These sequences are truly bizarre, with Kelly married off to an elderly, singularly repulsive Tully Marshall, a drunken, drooling, lip-smacking plantation owner.
"Queen Kelly" now ends with a still of Swanson dressed in a cheap mockery of Owen's marabou-trimmed finery, installed in her new role as her own kind of queen, madam of her aunt's bordello. Von Stroheim, however, had intended to show us that Swanson eventually ended up on Owen's throne alongside Byron. Richard Koszarski, in his invaluable "The Man You Love to Hate," suggests that Von Stroheim intended to set up a contrast between Europe and Africa, rich in symbolic cultural and racial implications.
So transcendent is Von Stroheim's vision that even in the film's truncated form it plays more like romantic tragedy than lurid melodrama. And when you think about it, "Queen Kelly" really is more powerful leaving us with the image of Kitty ending up a travesty of Owen than happily occupying Owen's throne as the wife of Byron.
The real tragedy, of course, is that Von Stroheim got so carried away that, in the eyes of Swanson, it was folly to allow him to complete "Queen Kelly" as he saw fit.
The complete Von Stroheim retrospective schedule: "Queen Kelly," Friday; "Blind Husbands" and "As You Desire Me," Saturday; "Merry-Go-Round" and "The Great Gabbo," March 9; "The Man You Love to Hate," March 10, 12:30 p.m.; "Foolish Wives" and "Five Graves to Cairo," March 10, 8 p.m.; "The Merry Widow" and "I Was an Adventuress," March 15; "Greed," March 16; "The Wedding March," March 22; "La Grande Illusion" and "The North Star," March 23; "The Man You Love to Hate," March 24; "Sunset Boulevard" and "The Lost Squadron," March 29; "The Great Flamarian," "The Lady and the Monster," "The Man of Many Skins," "The Crime of Dr. Crespi" and "Walking Down Broadway," March 30.