Queen for a Day, and More
Queen Kelly, a most intriguing one-third of a film, and even in this surviving truncated version, is actually two movies and some small change. After studio infighting, it was to have been the pinnacle for Erich von Stroheim, its tempestuous Orson Wellesian director-writer, but proved the Waterloo that forced him back to acting as America’s favorite stiff monocled Prussian (and one ironic turn as his employer-star’s factotum chauffeur).
The son of a Jewish hatter -- the “von” was his own pompous addition -- von Stroheim had been Hollywood’s homme terrible known for detailed character studies that were long -- his works were severely cut, by others -- and so costly that profit margins were slim and wags dubbed him “$troheim.”
Gloria Swanson starred and, with help from lover Joseph P. Kennedy, produced the silent but, talkies taking center stage, grew exasperated with the director’s meticulousness and the sexual taboo turn of the tale. Having sunk six hundred thousand 1929 dollars into the project, she fired him ten weeks into a scheduled forty and spent an additional third of that re-editing and cutting the intended five hours (thirty reels) and slapping on a makeshift ending of mostly title-cards. He in turn repudiated the film, which showed abroad but was denied U.S. distribution by United Artists.
Fifty-six years later Dennis Doros restored what could be salvaged combined with stills and an overuse of printed titles (lip-reading and unsubtle stagey facial expressions render most of them unnecessary distraction).
The director’s first three films had turned on sexual triangles and transgressions, 1925 magnum opus Greed was branded “a vile epic of the sewer,” and pre-Code censorship questions swirled, so it is surprising that thrice-married Swanson should have been shocked. And that, while still a dark beauty at thirty, she had herself cast as orphan convent girl Patricia Kelly with her feisty temperament the only inheritance from a “wandering Irish artist father.”
Kronberg looks like a mittel-Europa Ruritania with touring motor cars and fire-alarm boxes. Last of her line, Queen Regina V (Seena Owen) lives for pleasure and has her lascivious jealous hooks into unwilling playboy Prince “Wild” Wolfram (Walter Bryon), jokingly “Knight of the Royal Bed.” His fall-down drunken antics with local ladies of suspect virtue get her to hurry up their nuptials and order him out on full-dress military drill to sober (and wise) up. He engages in flirtatious pleasantries with nuns and orphans out for a constitutional and winds up with Kelly’s knickers when they slide down around her ankles.
The smitten heartthrob and a colleague (Wilhelm von Brincken) kidnap her (in a convenient swoon) by arranging a fake fire in the convent. While he wines and dines the coquettishly demure orphan, barefoot Regina enters his boudoir wearing nothing but a fur-trimmed robe and a beribboned cat in her décolletage.
Two-thirds of the surviving whole, this risqué first part-prologue ends with the queen horsewhipping the ashamed Kelly down hallways and stairs and out the door, to leering smiles from mustachioed palace guards.
The orphan is rescued from a watery suicide to find a telegram awaiting her at the convent. Her father’s sister, Mrs. Donovan (Sylvia Ashton and Florence Gibson, both uncredited), is gravely ill in German East Africa and sends money for her niece’s steamer passage. In an amazing turn-around out of left field, auntie runs a bordello, “the bestest place there is” in Dar es Salaam.
In a weird scenario of dissoluteness, the woman is greeted by two sassy prostitutes, the native one named Coughdrops (Rae Daggett). These ladies array her in Miss Havisham bridal finery to be wed at her dying relative’s last request. His face lit from below, the groom is Jan Vryheid (Tully Marshall), a wicked caricature of the European colonialist in a baggy white suit with a bottle of rum in the pocket, crippled and hobbling on two crutches. Black acolytes hold crosses at the deathbed while a native priest (to which Catholic pater familias Joe Kennedy strenuously objected) morphs into the imprisoned Prince Wolfram intoning Latin in a celebration of death and a perverse and (titles say) not-to-be-consummated marriage.
Its two reels not rediscovered until 1965, this last filmed section could have come from Buñuel, but alas the real and reel story ends here, the two disparate parts hastily glued together in a barrage of printed summary, e.g., chaste Kelly is henceforward notorious madam “Kitty.” Legend has it that unseen reels still mould in studio vaults. If so, it would be fascinating to know what this mutilated film, perhaps beyond rehabilitation, might have become. A detailed costume romance with erotic tones and a surrealistic decadent dream yoked by a printed all’s-well-that-ends-well -- another copy has an alternate, unhappy resolution -- it is a compelling curiosity deserving recognition beyond trivia value as the Sunset Boulevard clip projected by Swanson’s faded Norma Desmond.
(Released by Kino Internatiional; not rated by MPAA.)