'Queen Kelly' finally on the throne

Times Staff Writer

Four films directed by "the man you love to hate," two very, very long epics, Bogey's last bad-guy movie and a ghostly screwball comedy head the pack of oldies recently making their DVD bows. They make up a diverse group that nonetheless together offers an antidote to the patriotic fare filling TV screens at the moment.

In Billy Wilder's 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard," there is a memorable sequence in which Max (Erich von Stroheim) is screening one of Norma Desmond's (Gloria Swanson) silent films. In reality, that film was the infamous 1928 melodrama "Queen Kelly," which Von Stroheim directed but never completed. Now the most complete version of this unfinished film is the centerpiece of Kino's new three-disc Von Stroheim set ($30 each).

The bald-pated, Austrian-born Von Stroheim had butted heads with studio brass throughout his directorial career due to his extravagance and attention to detail. His most famous film, 1925's "Greed, " originally ran seven hours. MGM, though, ended up cutting it to 100 minutes.

"Queen Kelly" was financed by Joseph Kennedy, then Swanson's lover, and produced by Swanson. Von Stroheim envisioned this perverse melodrama as his crowning achievement. Planned as a five-hour movie, "Queen Kelly" found Swanson playing an innocent convent girl who falls for a handsome but womanizing prince (Walter Byron) on the eve of his marriage to a mad queen (Seena Owen), who likes to walk around the castle nude clutching her white cat to her breast. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, Swanson's Kelly ends up the madam at her late aunt's brothel and married to a lecherous old man.

A third of the way into the shooting, Swanson fired Von Stroheim, who had already spent $600,000 on the film. Swanson tacked on a silly ending and tried to release the silent film in the talkie era of the early '30s. Von Stroheim never directed another film.

The disc features fascinating outtakes, Kino's restored ending, Swanson's alternate ending, a videotaped intro by Swanson from the 1970s, production documents, excerpts from the original screenplay, a photo gallery, astute commentary by Von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski, a 1952 TV performance by Von Stroheim and excerpts of scenes directed by Von Stroheim from 1923's "Merry-Go-Round," another film from which he was fired.

The Von Stroheim collection also features a double bill of "Blind Husbands," the sophisticated 1919 melodrama that put the director on the international map, and the 1929 talkie "The Great Gabbo." There's also a double feature of his highly entertaining 1922 exercise in perversity, "Foolish Wives," and the Von Stroheim documentary "The Man You Love To Hate."

When Sergio Leone's mob epic "Once Upon a Time in America" was released in the U.S. in 1984, it was cut to shreds. But Warner Bros.' two-disc set ($27) restores the film to the 227-minute director's cut. Although visually stunning, with many noteworthy performances, it just doesn't have the poetry or passion of Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" films. Plus, Leone's gratuitous violence toward women in the film is disconcerting, to put it mildly.

Robert De Niro and James Woods head the cast in this film about turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants in New York City who become gangsters. Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly and Treat Williams also star. The handsome DVD includes a photo gallery, an excerpt from the documentary "Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone" and thought-provoking commentary from film historian and critic Richard Schickel.

If you thought you could save time watching the film version of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" instead of reading the novel, forget it. Be prepared to keep a few evenings free to get through Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk's adaptation, which won the 1968 Oscar for best foreign-language film. The five-disc set ($80) features all six hours and 43 minutes of the epic that took five years to make and cost approximately $100 million. Bondarchuk also stars as Pierre, along with Ludmila Savelyeva as Natasha and Vyacheslav Tihonov, a dead ringer for Christopher Plummer, as Prince Andrei. There's certainly a lot to admire about the film: its extraordinary scope, the lavish sets, beautiful costumes and magnificently staged battle scenes. But it's inert dramatically, compounded by stiff acting.

Criterion is slowly releasing Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's landmark films on DVD. The latest is 1957's "Throne of Blood" ($40), his exceptional adaptation of "Macbeth." In this haunting, ghostly version, Kurosawa sets the action in 16th century feudal Japan and casts his favorite star, Toshiro Mifune, in the Macbeth role -- an ambitious samurai who betrays his friend and master to become the ruler. Isuzu Yamada is also outstanding as his conniving wife.

The disc features a new high-definition transfer with restored image and sound, two subtitle translations -- from Japanese-film translator Linda Hoagland and Kurosawa expert Donald Richie -- an essay by Stephen Prince and breezy commentary from Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck.

Humphrey Bogart made a name for himself in the 1930s and early '40s as one of cinema's best bad guys. His image began to change with his tough-guy-with-a-romantic-heart role in 1942's "Casablanca." But two years before he died, Bogey got the opportunity to return to his bad-guy roots in the 1955 thriller "The Desperate Hours" (Paramount, $20).

Bogey makes the most of his role in William Wyler's deftly directed chiller as the leader of a group of ruthless escaped convicts holding a suburban family captive at home.

Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are the stars of the genial 1937 screwball comedy "Topper" (Artisan, $20). The attractive pair play a rich, spoiled couple who die in a car accident only to return as fun-loving ghosts intent on livening up the life of a milquetoast bank president (a wonderfully adept Roland Young).

The film doesn't hold up as well as most of the screwball comedies from the 1930s, but Young is a delight. The disc also features the wan 1941 sequel, "Topper Returns."

Truly one of the most terrifying horror films ever made is the 1945 British classic "Dead of Night" (Anchor Bay, $30), which was produced by Ealing Studios. The film revolves around people gathered at a country estate who reveal a tale of the supernatural to each other. The most famous sequence stars Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist who descends into madness and murder when his dummy begins to develop a mind of its own. The transfer is of uneven quality.

Also featured on the disc is the equally entertaining 1949 British thriller "The Queen of Spades," starring the always wonderful Anton Walbrook ("The Red Shoes"). Set in 19th century Russia, the film finds Walbrook playing a Russian army captain who learns that an aging countess (Edith Evans) knows the secret of how to win a popular card game, and he will stop at nothing to get the secret.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°