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Queen Kelly
IMDB Rating: 7.9/10 from PASSED votes
Release: 01 Jan 1929 /

Queen Kelly

Genre: Drama
Director: Erich von Stroheim, Richard Boleslawski, Edmund Goulding, Irving Thalberg, Sam Wood,
Stars:
Synopsis: A convent girl is abducted and seduced by a prince before being sent off to a brothel in East Africa.

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Critic Reviews


I'd imagine that most people who would come to this page to read a review of Erich Von Stroheim's unfinished epic Queen Kelly already know something about it, but nonetheless it seems a little historical context is necessary before attempting to critique the fragment that remains. This was a deeply troubled project, memorably described by leading lady Gloria Swanson as a child that refused to be born. Set in a fictitious 'Middle European' kingdom, the first portion of Von Stroheim's screenplay tells a fairy tale-like story of an innocent convent girl, Patricia Kelly, who becomes involved with a wastrel Prince-- who, unbeknownst to her, is already betrothed to the Queen. At first the Prince wants only to toy with Kelly, but in the course of their one evening together he sincerely falls in love with her. Unfortunately, the mad Queen Regina learns of the affair and literally flogs Kelly out of the palace. Kelly attempts suicide, but is rescued and abruptly sent to German East Africa, where her dying aunt runs a brothel. She is forced to marry a syphilitic plantation owner and eventually winds up successfully running the brothel herself, under the ironic moniker "Queen Kelly."

As originally scripted this film might have run as long as five hours, so the portion available today represents barely one-third of the intended opus. The project marked the sole collaboration between writer/director Von Stroheim, star/producer Swanson, and co-producer Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the political dynasty (who was also Swanson's lover at the time). Plans for this silent epic were launched at the end of 1927, but by the time shooting began in fall of 1928 the talkie revolution was sweeping Hollywood, and this would prove to be perhaps the biggest single factor that doomed the project to limbo. Three months into the filming Von Stroheim was fired, and for the next few years Swanson attempted to finish the movie in various ways, finally releasing a truncated version in Europe in 1932. In the 1960s about twenty minutes' worth of footage from the sequence set in Africa was discovered, and this material was reunited with the earlier portion in a restored version completed in 1985.

Given this history it seems almost unfair to critique what remains of Queen Kelly at all, but the restoration presents a rough idea of what the movie might have amounted to in its longer form. This is a fascinating fragment with both positive and negative aspects.

On the positive side, the film is beautiful to look at; Paul Ivano's gleaming cinematography ranks with the best work of the era. Practically every shot boasts features of striking interest, and the production design teems with the sort of character-revealing detail for which Von Stroheim was known. Befitting the unreal atmosphere, Seena Owen and Tully Marshall offer highly stylized character turns as Queen Regina and plantation owner Jan Vryheid. Owen's Mad Queen is unforgettable, lounging about the palace nude (while toting a strategically positioned white cat!), surrounded by erotic art and brandishing a riding crop. Marshall's scenes are limited to a few minutes in the recovered 'Africa' footage, but he etches a vivid portrait of creepy decadence.

On the debit side, however, is the central and insurmountable problem that Gloria Swanson was miscast in the title role: she simply isn't credible as the innocent convent girl the story demands. Kelly is supposed to be a sheltered girl who has never tasted champagne. Swanson was 31 years old when this film was made and, frankly, looked older. Even in films she made in her early 20s she comes off as a tough cookie who could handle anything, but here, alongside the actual girls who are supposed to be her contemporaries, Gloria looks like she should be playing the Mother Superior. Von Stroheim's leading lady from The Wedding March, 21 year-old Fay Wray, would have been perfect as Kelly, but once producer Swanson cast herself in the role the project was inherently flawed.

Another problem is that most of this material was edited together only after Von Stroheim had been fired and the production shut down, when Swanson was attempting to assemble a marketable feature-length movie out of the opening 'Middle Europe' section. Originally these scenes had been intended to serve as little more than a prologue to the Africa story, but since it was the only portion completed the editors were forced to extend what they had to pad the running time. There is much lingering over details and too many prolonged reaction shots, especially in the scenes between Kelly and the Prince. It's said that when Erich Von Stroheim saw this version of the film in later years he complained that the pace was far too slow, and so it appears today: sumptuously photographed but draggy, despite the occasional high points.

In sum, while I would call this film a must for silent movie buffs, I don't believe the average viewer would find much to enjoy in Queen Kelly. This is one of those legendary disasters with a "backstory" rather more interesting than what we see on screen. In that light I can especially recommend watching the recent DVD release with film scholar Richard Koszarski's commentary accompanying the visuals, to help make sense of it all.

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