Friday, August 30, 2013

Queen Kelly: Norma and Max's Wild Ride

Some stories are so perfectly symmetrical you just have to sit back in amazement and feel that the universe is truly some magical Rubiks Cube.

I am blessed to live in a location that affords me the opportunity to see silent films on the big screen with live accompaniment (usually by the there-are-no-words-to-describe-his-majesty Ben Model). This month’s offering: the fabled "Queen Kelly" starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Erich Von Stroheim.

Von Stroheim: Irving Thalberg accused him
of having a footage fetish
Here’s the story:

By 1928, director Erich Von Stroheim had worn out his welcome at MGM and was looking for work. Gloria Swanson had left Paramount and was producing her own films. She had one success with “Sadie Thomson,” and a miss with “The Loves of Sunya.” When Von Stroheim proposed a story of middle European royalty and romance, Swanson and her financial backer (and paramour) Joseph Kennedy, said “yes.” She knew the risks with the excessive Von Stroheim, but she also knew the rewards. Films like “The Merry Widow” and “Foolish Wives,” both big Von Stroheim hits, were similar to her story, known as "Queen Kelly." Swanson and Kennedy were confident they could control the director. Ah, hubris.

Swanson and Kennedy were no match
for the excesses of Von Stroheim
The Swanson/Von Stroheim collaboration resulted in an aborted and fascinating film. Welcome to Kronberg, a mythical middle European country ruled by the mad, sex-crazed booze and drug loving Queen Regina V. She is betrothed to playboy Prince Wolfram (conjuring any images with that name?). He has no interest in the nutty Queen, but she is just mad about the boy. As a punishment for his roving eye, she sends her man out on maneuvers. But Wolfram makes lemonade out of lemons and spots a lovely convent school girl out for a stroll with the rest of her class. Their eyes meet, her pants fall down and they fall in love. Wolfram goes to great lengths to extract little Kitty Kelly from the convent (almost burning it down), abducting her and ultimately spending the night with her in the Queen’s castle. 
Queen Regina V: nude and nutty as a fruit cake

The innocent Kitty Kelly is seduced by the dashing Wolfram
Our nutty Queen does not like this and runs poor Kitty out of the castle, whipping her until she flees out into the streets. Wolfram is thrown into prison and Kitty, once back with the nuns, learns that her aunt in German East Africa has sent for her.
Poor Kitty Kelly: Imagine the wedding night jitters?
It turns out Auntie runs a whore house (one particularly tubercular prostitute is named Cough drops)  and has promised her hand in marriage to the most disgusting old man you have ever seen. Kitty resists, but ultimately gives into the marriage and the union takes place over the Aunt's death bed. This is where the filming stopped. The story goes that Von Stroheim ordered Tully Marshall (the disgusting old man) to drool tobacco juice on Swanson's hand as he took it in matrimony. That was it for glorious Gloria and she had Kennedy can the director.
Queen Kelly: Queen of the Whore House
Swanson attempted to salvage the film, but the fates were not on her side. Not only did she have to contrive a suitable ending that would pass the censors, it was already 1929 and talking pictures had arrived. Eventually, Swanson was able to show a bastardized version of the film in Europe and South America (her ending had the virtuous Kitty ending it all rather than submit to a life of debauchery). It had a musical score and a song by Swanson was thrown in for good measure.
Salvaging the wreck: All talking, all singing, all sinning?
The film I saw was one that was restored by Kino International. Using stills and heavy text in-between to tell the story, it recreated Von Stroheim's original story: Kitty Kelly becomes a rich and powerful madam of her aunt's string of whore houses and she is known as Queen Kelly for her extravagant lifestyle. Wolfram does not marry the nutty queen, who dies, and eventually he brings his heart's desire, Queen Kelly, back to his kingdom.

Well, what can you say? Seena Owen, as the mad queen, is a knockout of rabid sex and screwball eyeballs. Walter Byron was a dashing prince and Tully Marshall as the disgusting groom is - well - disgusting. As for Swanson - oh what a delicious little minx she was! That nose! She is cute, funny, touching and sexy. 

Enter Billy Wilder with his script for "Sunset Boulevard." It is hard to believe that he ever wanted to cast anyone other than Swanson (allegedly, Wilder approached Pola Negri, Mae West and Norma Shearer before Swanson. Co-writer Charles Brackett said Swanson was always the first choice). As Norma Desmond, Swanson is now the mad (silent screen) queen, chasing the chosen lady love of her obsession out of her "castle." She, too, is mad about the boy (she even gives Joe Gillis a gold cigarette case with that little engraved message). But, at last Gloria, Kitty Kelly and Norma get their revenge: Von Stroheim is now the butler (Max) and she actually gets to shoot the faithless lover.
Von Stroheim once again in the driver's seat
A real treat is this scene, which is actually a scene from "Queen Kelly," starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Erich Von Stroheim.

Oh, the delicious irony. "Queen Kelly" is a hoot - beautifully shot, kinky (the Queen's palace is filled to the brim with statues and paintings of nude women, Kitty give a statue of Jesus a longing look and all other sorts of Von Stroheim depravity takes place) and it leaves us longing for more. "Sunset Boulevard" gives us a complete story in which "Queen Kelly" is just one of many subtexts. This is why "Sunset Boulevard" is my favorite film: besides being brilliant on the surface, it is filled with layers and layers of film history and brings together 2 legends formerly at odds and now linked together forever at last in a masterpiece.

For those that want to know more, here is Swanson talking about "Queen Kelly." Isn't she beautiful?

Gloria Swanson discusses Queen Kelly Part 1

Gloria Swanson discusses Queen Kelly Part 2


Inge Gregusch said...

Thanks for another funny, insightful post. This film is infamous but rarely seen.


You are so lucky to have silent film screenings near you! I wish I did too.
I really need to see Queen Kelly and get to know more about Stroheim's body of work. This sounds like a fascinating movie with an even greater backstage story. And it sounds like Sunset Boulevard was actually a Queen Kelly revenge.
And, definetely, Stroheim had a footage fetish. Loved the term.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

And what a great example of pre-code filmmaking the Von Stroheim version would have been, too! This was a fascinating post; I knew nothing about this Swanson oddity other than the SB clip.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Inge. Even though it is incomplete, it is beautifully filmed. And Gloria is just delicious. Oh what might have been!

FlickChick said...

I am luck, Le! And isn't that Thalberg line a great one?

FlickChick said...

Rick - I think Von would have single handedly been the cause for the code!!

Silver Screenings said...

Aha - this is delicious irony, indeed.

How great is that, to be able to see silents on the big screen? Like previous commenter, Le, I am a bit jealous.

Thanks for another wonderful post. I'm always excited when I see notification of a new "Person in the Dark" post in my email inbox. :)

FlickChick said...

Silver Screenings - you are too kind! And yes, I am extremely lucky. I don't take advantage of it enough, but am always glad I made the effort.

ClassicBecky said...

" Their eyes meet, her pants fall down..." I fell down laughing at that one. What a great article, Chick. One of your best and most fun. Wish I could have been there, but I almost felt as if I had been and actually saw the movie. Good stuff, girl!

FlickChick said...

Becky - I am always so thrilled when you stop by! I wish you could have been there, too - I know you would have had a swell time!