The Story Behind "Queen Kelly"

The story behind Queen Kelly is a good one. I must have posted this before, but here goes, again.

Erich von Stroheim had just gotten thrown out of the studio (by MGM, I believe) for his extravagance and fondness for perversion above and beyond what seemed in good taste to the bosses. (Audiences generally ate it up, so it obviously wasn't that far outside of what they considered good taste.) Meanwhile, Gloria Swanson had left her studio (Paramount, I believe) to make films independently. Her lover, at the time, was Joseph Kennedy, JFK's dad. In addition to making money off bootlegging, Kennedy spent part of the late twenties and early thirties dabbling in movie making. He even owned a small studio, for a while. At any rate, he agreed to bankroll a major film for Swanson, who was a very big star at that time.

Swanson knew all about von Stroheim, but wanted him anyway, since the film she wanted to make fit well into von Stroheim's specialty, stories of passion among European aristocrats. Von Stroheim, otherwise out of work, agreed. As was his wont, he rewrote a lot of the script, introducing elements like an African brothel that the fallen heroine ends up in. And he started shooting.

Shooting went pretty much as usual for a von Stroheim film - over budget, over schedule, with lots of sex thrown in that wasn't necessarily in the script. Swanson and Kennedy began to be disturbed. Stroheim, perhaps unwisely as it turns out, shot largely in sequence. He filmed the early part of the film, in which the young girl from the convent is seduced by the handsome cavalry officer, only to have the Queen, the officer's sadistic lover, break up their romance and throw her out of the country. Then he moved on to the next act, which took place in the seedy African brothel, run by a relative of the heroine. There, while her loving but invalid relative isn't watching, a disgusting man tries to seduce her again. By this time, Swanson was close to fed up. The last straw supposedly occurred when von Stroheim directed the actor playing the nasty seducer to dribble tobacco juice on Swanson's hand as he kissed it. Swanson stormed off the set, complained one last time to Kennedy, and had von Stroheim sacked.

Rather than have someone else complete the film, Swanson and Kennedy had it edited from existing footage. Basically, they cut the African sequence entirely, and tacked a happy ending on to the middle European material. The film bombed, von Stroheim's directing career was over, and Swanson shortly faded from view until Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim continued acting, for a while, in increasingly worse films. In a typical bit of Billy Wilder irony, Wilder cast von Stroheim as Swanson's obsessive director-turned-husband-turned-butler in Sunset Boulevard. One can but guess how von Stroheim felt about the scenes in which he passionately talked about how great a star and talent Norma Desmond once was.

In the early 80's, I believe, a film historian tracked down the footage for Queen Kelly and restored it to as close as possible to the form von Stroheim intended. A fair amount of the African footage still existed, though it had to be supplemented by stills. Also, as one might have guessed, the restored version ends rather abruptly. Still, it's well worth seeing for what survived.

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Last modified: Fri Sep 16 1994