Queen Kelly

Queen Kelly (1928 USA 96 mins)

Prod Co: Gloria Swanson Pictures Corporation/United Artists Prod: Erich von Stroheim, Joseph P. Kennedy [uncredited], Gloria Swanson [uncredited] Dir, Scr: Erich von Stroheim Phot: Paul Ivano, Gordon Pollock Ed: Viola Lawrence Art Dir: Harold Miles Mus: Adolf Tandler

Cast: Gloria Swanson, Walter Byron, Seena Owen, Wilhelm von Brincken, Madge Hunt, Wilson Benge, Tully Marshall, Florence Gibson

Gloria Swanson claimed, in a TV introduction to Queen Kelly, that she told a confidant on the first day of the film’s shooting that she didn’t expect the film to be completed. This may seem remarkably prescient, but considering the multitude of factors operating against the production being undertaken it is remarkable that any version of the film exists at all.

The film was the product of three strong-willed and powerful personalities who held competing visions of the film. Financier Joseph P. Kennedy (father of the President) was attempting to break into the movie business and Queen Kelly was meant to be a prestige production made for him by Erich von Stroheim, the visionary director of the hugely successful The Merry Widow (1925). At the same time, Kennedy was having an affair with Gloria Swanson, one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, who had just left Paramount Pictures to produce acting vehicles for herself, having tired of the unchallenging material that Paramount was offering her. The first of these independent productions was The Love of Sunya (Albert Parker, 1927), not dissimilar to the fare that she had starred in previously. But then she made Sadie Thompson (1928), directed by Raoul Walsh and based on W. Somerset Maugham’s controversial short story “Rain”, about the moral clash between a missionary zealot and a reformed prostitute. The film was a huge success and Swanson went looking for more of the same.

Kennedy and Swanson’s opposing agendas and the nature of their personal relationship alone would have made for a difficult gestation period for the project but, additionally, there was Stroheim, a true auteur and eccentric. Queen Kelly was to be his great masterpiece. He always had a unique vision and over a fifteen-year period as a director he worked on nine extraordinary films. The first three were relatively trouble free, but made with increasingly larger budgets. These were followed by Merry-Go-Round (1923), on which he was replaced as director during early filming, Greed (1923-4), which was savagely re-edited and the negative melted down for its silver content, and The Merry Widow, on which he was fired and then re-hired when the extras objected to the engagement of another director. Next came The Wedding March (1927), made in two parts, of which only the first part was released in America. This was followed by Queen Kelly, which was never completed, and, finally, his only sound film, Walking Down Broadway (1932), on which he was again replaced as director. With new scenes added it was subsequently released as Hello, Sister! (1933).

Stroheim was a perfectionist who had a reputation for working very long hours (apparently on Queen Kelly the crew rarely went home, sleeping on the set of the film, and Stroheim himself spent his nights at the local brothel), shooting huge amounts of footage (1) – without telling the crew exactly what he wanted – and demanding an uncompromising level of authenticity (2). As a consequence he also had a reputation for completing his films well over budget.

Into this mix must be added Will Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America. Following several Hollywood sex scandals, Hays was given the authority by the film industry to oversee the sexual content of films and the private life of the stars. Producer Swanson had already come to his attention for the salacious content of Sadie Thompson, and he made many suggestions for “improving” Queen Kelly, including deleting numerous scenes, changing the location of the African sequences from a brothel to a dance-hall, and making the African priest white instead of black (so as not to offend Catholics and draw the ire of the Ku Klux Klan). Stroheim naturally ignored this advice, to his and Swanson’s great cost.

But the factor that would definitively end the film’s production was a revolution that was initially regarded as only a minor event – the demonstration by Warner Bros. of their new invention, Vitaphone, in August 1926, and the subsequent release of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) in October 1927. This first feature film with musical and dialogue sequences was a success, but nowhere near as successful as the major silent films of that year, many of which were huge budget spectacles. At the time, neither Swanson, nor Kennedy, nor Stroheim believed that talkies would replace silent film.

In early 1928 when Stroheim met with Swanson and Kennedy, he sold them on a conventional Hollywood fairytale of redemption. A wanton philandering prince, about to enter a loveless marriage with a neurotic queen, falls in love with an innocent convent girl (Kitty Kelly). He sees the error of his ways, but still marries the queen after losing Kitty. Eventually the prince and his true love are reunited and love reigns supreme, as does Queen Kelly. The first part of the film would be centred in Kronberg, the capitol of an imaginary middle-European kingdom and, the second, more extensive part, in Africa. All of this was to be spiced with lashes of sex, but whether Stroheim fully informed them of the explicit nature of his tale of debauchery and decadence is debatable. Both Swanson and Kennedy eventually came to realise that the Hays Office would never sanction the film Stroheim was preparing to deliver without extensive re-editing. Locating his film in a fictitious locality was a stroke of genius for Stroheim, as it would partially liberate him from his usual obsession with realism and allow his imagination free reign to more effectively concentrate and amplify his themes, creating an intense, stylised world.

Stroheim’s film opens early one morning, in Queen Regina V’s bedchamber. The mad queen (Seena Owen) appears nude (except for her draped pussycat), intoxicated and gently swaying, and is introduced via a series of intertitles indicating she is vain, self-indulgent, cruel, knowing no law but her own desires, and possessed by a jealous passion for Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron). These intertitles are reinforced by a series of shots indicating she is lewd (Boccaccio’s bawdy Decameron is on her dressing table), a drunk (a bottle in a champagne bucket decorated with nude figurines), takes drugs (Veronal – a sleeping tablet), and was an emancipated (a seeming negative trait) and domineering woman (cigars in an ashtray). Statues of naked figures and paintings of nude women decorate her bedroom and the rest of the palace.

Next the film introduces Prince Wolfram. This is where Stroheim’s sexual double standards become immediately obvious. Wolfram is shown returning from a night on the town with a bevy of women. He is young and handsome, probably a few years younger than the Queen (in fact Byron was five years younger than Owen). He is carefree, endearing, playful, and at worst, irresponsible. He is not unlike the lead in a Lubitsch comedy (3). But this is no comedy, and the sympathetic attitude afforded the Prince belies the dark tone of the film, and also the actions of the Prince himself. In the course of events Wolfram will kidnap the virginal Kelly (portrayed by an obviously post-juvenile Swanson who relies on a wide-eyed wonderment to appear young – in fact she was thirty, two years older than Byron) from her convent, steal her into Regina’s palace on the eve of his wedding, and will ultimately attempt to seduce her. This is outrageously immoral behaviour (even compared to Lubitsch). Stroheim would perhaps like the seduction to be interpreted as a moment of moral conversion for Wolfram, in which love conquers all but, in the sexually aggressive world portrayed in Stroheim’s film, Wolfram may simply view the virginal Kitty as another sexual challenge. This conjugal moment is interrupted by the Queen who informs the incredulous Kitty that Prince Wolfram is to marry tomorrow and then, grabbing a whip from Wolfram’s bedroom wall (!), strikes Kitty repeatedly, forcing her out of the palace as the royal guard watches and laughs.

The message in all this is far from subtle, but these aspects are mirrored and amplified in the African sequences. Here the relationship between Regina and Wolfram is mirrored by Jan Vooyheid (an insanely baroque performance from Tully Marshall, trumping his performance in The Merry Widow) and Kitty’s loveless, contemptuous marriage. As with Regina’s introduction at the beginning of the film, Stroheim uses a series of vignettes to summarise Jan’s attributes. Jan (Kitty’s benefactor) can also be seen as the degenerate extrapolation of an unredeemed Wolfram; old, ugly, and crippled by syphilis, he is a violent, disrespectful, gambling, whoring drunk.

Pressures from the popular success of sound features had begun to make their presence felt on Stroheim’s set, leading to the decision to complete the film quickly. A version with sonorised segments and added songs (similar to The Jazz Singer) was contemplated but was considered unfeasible (a musical intertitle in the existing film hints at this sound possibility). In order to achieve a rapid conclusion to the filming, Stroheim agreed to delete the final third of his film (set on Vooyheid’s estate) and to truncate the storyline. However, this didn’t placate Swanson who hated the African scenes. She found them too squalid and felt uneasy about their sordid character. Tensions were high while Stroheim filmed Jan/Kitty’s wedding. At one point during the filming, Tully Marshall, under Stroheim’s instructions, drooled on Swanson’s hand. She had not anticipated this and her reaction was immediate. She walked off the set, and rang Joseph P. Kennedy (who had been absent from the shooting of the African scenes while spending a family holiday in Florida) who immediately sacked Stroheim. An announcement was made to the press that the star and producers of the film had agreed that silent film was now unmarketable.

Stroheim’s directing career was now in tatters, while Swanson quickly starred in a sound programmer, The Trespasser (1929). Although one of her greatest successes, its success was tempered by Swanson’s discovery that Kennedy had not been an investor in the production of Queen Kelly, but had simply loaned Swanson the capital. She was personally and completely liable for the financial disaster of the film. In an endeavour to recoup some of her money, Swanson attempted to finish the film. As Swanson hated the African scenes these were jettisoned and later sold as stock footage. She engaged several filmmakers (including Edmund Goulding, Irving Thalberg, Sam Wood, and Richard Boleslawski) to write a variety of scripts using the existing footage (the possibilities including an operetta and a synchronised [dubbed] sound version). The solution eventually decided on for Swanson’s version was to end the film with Kitty’s suicide. To achieve this, Swanson employed Viola Lawrence (a sometime editor for Stroheim) to organise the hours of footage, with some minor additional material being shot to bridge the ensuing plot gaps. This was the version released in Europe in 1932. Stroheim blocked its screening in The United States, effectively vetoing its release until the success of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. in 1950.

In Wilder’s film, Stroheim plays the butler of Swanson’s forgotten silent film star. The two stars had never expressed any hostility towards each other over the failure of Queen Kelly, and Stroheim made many recommendations to Wilder during the making of the film, including having his character write all of Norma Desmond’s fan mail, and, more importantly, to use footage from Queen Kelly as an excerpt from one of Desmond’s great silent films. It was this astonishing footage that rekindled interest in the film. Variety ran a front-page review, and this led to a belated release of Swanson’s version in 1957 (the year of Stroheim’s death).

It was widely believed that all of the African sequences had been destroyed but rumours of their existence still persisted. In 1963, Henri Langlois found two reels of footage that were then added to the Swanson footage in 1985 by Kino International, using Stroheim’s script as a point of reference. This formed a relatively complete version that unfortunately lacked two key scenes from towards the end of the film – Kitty’s second attempted suicide, immediately following her wedding to Jan, and her introduction to the employees of the brothel as the new madam. These, and other minor plot inconsistencies are explained by intertitles and the stills that survived.

Whether the complete Queen Kelly as envisaged by Stroheim would have been his great masterpiece is difficult to ascertain. Certainly the extremely melodramatic nature of the material may have alienated audiences, let alone its darkly cynical view of the world and human nature. It seems unlikely that the proposed happy ending would have negated the preceding three (or five hours) of miserabilism, but this is purely conjecture. All of Stroheim’s films, no matter how mutilated or infuriating they may be, are extraordinary works of a gigantean talent whose cinematic vision was many decades ahead of its time. Watch Queen Kelly and be amazed.


  1. While viewing footage from The Merry Widow, of an old baron (Tully Marshall) fondling the heroine’s dainty shoes, Irving Thalberg confused, apocryphally asked what was happening. “He has a foot fetish”, Stroheim helpfully explained. “You have a footage fetish”, Thalberg retorted. It has been estimated that Queen Kelly may have been up to five-and-a-half hours in length if completed as anticipated. However, judging by the extant footage, and the fact that the European sequences constituted about a third of the film, it is conceivable that the film could have been a more manageable three to three-and-a-half hours in length.
  2. In the opening sequence of Queen Kelly, Prince Wolfram appears in the company of a group of women after a long night out. Prostitutes from a notorious Hollywood brothel portrayed these women. Meanwhile, during the banquet scene the guests drank real champagne and ate real caviar off real gold plates, even though these characters and actions are barely visible in the film.
  3. Lubitsch’s films are the comic inverse of Stroheim’s dramas/tragedies. Both directors are of Germanic origin. Their films are often set in similar locales – Paris, Vienna, and mythical middle European principalities – and are sexually very explicit, containing sexually aggressive male and female characters. Both directors made versions of The Merry Widow (Lubitsch in 1934). However, where Stroheim portrays the aristocracy as degenerate, Lubitsch views them as loveably eccentric. However, in both cases, these aristocrats are the final gasp of a vanishing world.

About The Author

Michael Koller is the executive programmer for The Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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