Saturday, March 30, 2013

Erich von Stroheim | Queen Kelly

the swamp
By Douglas Messerli

Erich von Stroheim (screenplay), Marion Ainslee (titles), Erich von Stroheim and other uncredited individuals (director) Queen Kelly / 1929

I am sitting at my computer on an overcast and cold day in Los Angeles, perhaps the perfect weather in which to write about the tragic career of the Austrian-American director, Erich von Stroheim—with a particular focus on the film which might be described as ending his directorial career, Queen Kelly.
     Actually, there is no film titled Queen Kelly—at least as directed by von Stroheim. The work he had finished was never released in the US, and what was shown in Europe was only the first part with actress Gloria Swanson's mindless tacked-on ending. The original film was planned to be five hours long!

    Clearly, von Stroheim may have been mad to even attempt such a project. He had certainly failed grandly on other occasions. His 1919 film The Devil's Pass has been lost. He was fired by Irving Thalberg while attempting to film Merry-Go-Round; and his greatest project, Greed, based on the Frank Norris novel McTeague—originally 10 hours in length!—was finally cut down to two and a half hours, the remaining footage destroyed by a janitor. To this day it remains one of the greatest losses of Hollywood cinema.
     What delusions, accordingly, to attempt such a project with a new producer, Kennedy patriarch Joseph, who was having an affair with the leading lady,  Swanson. Swanson had just filmed Sadie Thompson, based on the Somerset Maugham story, "Rain," about a prostitute who is gradually forced to abandon her career in Pago Pago to return as a reformed woman in San Francisco. It is clear that, from Stroheim's description of his new project, which he called The Swamp, that she thought it similar in subject and location to her previous film.
     Von Stroheim, moreover, was not a reasonable man in any sense of that word. He was described as tyrannical on the set, demanding retake after retake, swallowing up time and money with his meticulous attempts to turn American cinema into a serious art. His project was clearly doomed from the start.
      Queen Kelly, by conception, is a film in two parts, mirror images of each other, as the heroine, Kitty Kelly (Swanson), a young convent girl caught up with the romantic image of Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron), soon to marry the brutally insane Queen Regina V (Seena Owen), actually meets her hero one day while walking with fellow students. Unfortunately, her under-drawers fall at the very moment he passes, and angered by his comments, she takes them off and hurls them at him—already a kind a scandalous act that may not have passed the Hays board. The Prince, however, is so charmed that he is determined the very same night (although he is to be married the morning after) to visit the young girl in her convent. He and his friend easily find their way into the convent, but have no concept of how, among so many rooms, to find the girl. By lighting tapers that create large plumes of smoke, and breaking in the fire alarm, the girls come to him, as he scoops up his prize.
      Back in the castle, he offers her platters of elegant food (she has been denied supper for her actions of the morning) and, most disastrously for an innocent young girl, champagne. Before long she almost passed out on the couch, the Prince hovering over her, she enraptured (a suitable word in her childish thinking) by his attentions. The Queen, however, is on the prowl, peeping through the Prince's windows where she sees the couple. Entering his suite, she demands that he remain in his room like a bad school boy as she sends the young girl, dressed only in her nightshirt, into the hall. After attending to her consort, she stops Kelly, beating her with a whip and sending her off into the night.
     Kelly, overwrought by the beating and fearing to return to the convent, jumps from a nearby parapet into the river, saved by an observant guard.
     So ends what might be described as Part I, the story of a romantic but dissolute Prince who falls in love with an innocent child.
     Yet, it was only the starting point of von Stroheim's quite shocking tale. When returned to the convent, Kitty receives news that her aunt (Florence Gibson), who has paid for her convent education, is dying and wishes her niece to visit her where she lives in German East Africa in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The very ridiculousness of the location is perhaps what makes the rest of his project so fascinating. Clearly Hollywood had become enchanted with exotic locations.
     From the one scene that we have of that world, we discover that the aunt heads a brothel, and is determined to marry her niece to the horrific Jan Vryheld (Tuly Marshall), a crippled monster who cannot contain his tongue-smacking leers after being introduced to the beautiful young girl. Dressed in mosquito netting and wreath stolen from a smashed wall hanging, the girl is led to the African priest who officiates, in Latin, the wedding vows over the aunt's death bed. It has to be the most perverse wedding ever conceived. Nothing can quite match Swanson's horror, as the nasty, crutch-swinging Vryheld licks his chops as he moves in on her, crunching her makeshift veil under the stomp of his crutches, a bit of tobacco juice dripping from his mouth on her pale white hand. Despite her horror, Kitty agrees to the union, upon which her aunt breathes her last.
     There are no other scenes intact, only stills, costume shots. The tobacco juice disgusted Swanson, who asked Vryheld about it, he reporting that von Stroheim had ordered it up. So appalled, if we are to believe reports, was Swanson about the whole enterprise, that she quickly called Kennedy, who immediately closed down the production. $800,000 had already been expended.
      We have no other completed scenes, only stills, but we can fill in much of the story. Fending off Vryheld, Kitty takes over the brothel, intermingling with the cook and prostitutes, as she becomes quite clearly a powerful if somewhat frightening figure who they jokingly dub, Queen Kelly—everything, in short, that she was not in the first part. There are clearly numerous adventures to be faced before she once again encounters the handsome Prince, who, after the death of Regina, has been asked to return to the castle and rule the country.
      Swanson and Kennedy used others to create new scenarios, ultimately tacking on a final death of the repentant girl. The film was a failure wherever it was seen. It truly had become a kind of "swamp."
     There is something almost gothic about this series of events, particularly when we watch Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, where Swanson plays a slightly crazed former silent film actor, cared for by von Stroheim, who serves and protects her up until the instant of her mad descent, as he pretends to film her grand return to cinema. Together the two even watch a scene from Queen Kelly. How von Stroheim endured that role is almost incomprehensible. Perhaps he just needed the money and was willing to accept it even playing across a woman who had stolen nearly everything, 22 years earlier, from him. After all, her career ended soon after his! He may have simply loved the aging actress, just as he, playing her former husband, did in the movie. Certainly, the very irony of his (and her) performance must be seen as the greatest nose-thumbing in the entire history of Hollywood filmmaking. That alone may have been enough!

Los Angeles, November 18, 2011
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (November 2011).

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