QUEEN KELLY (Erich von Stroheim, Richard Boleslawski, Edmund Goulding, Irving Thalberg, Sam Wood, 1929)

Erich von Stroheim’s last, partially lost film, Queen Kelly, begins in Ruritania, a recurrent fictional European country, where jaunty Prince Wolfram dumps Queen Regina V, to whom he is betrothed, for innocent orphan Kitty Kelly, and is tossed into prison as a result. Meanwhile, Kelly visits her dying aunt, who runs a brothel in colonial Africa, and is impressed into marrying a leering degenerate, whom she hopes to keep away from. When her aunt dies, “Queen Kelly” takes over the family business. When he is finally released from prison, Prince Wolfram sets out to find her. Apparently there are alternative endings afoot, at least one of which attempts to bring home a moral fable.
     The film was produced by its star, Gloria Swanson, who fired Stroheim because he refused to kowtow to her and her narcissistic diva ways. During the film’s interrupted shoot, Swanson began her longtime love affair with Joseph P. Kennedy, the married father of a future U.S. president.
     I know, of course, that different times hew to different ideas and ideals of beauty; but it is very hard for me to accept that anyone ever considered Swanson beautiful; she is grotesque, resembling a bug with an oversized head. Nor could she act, and indeed didn’t really try to act, choosing instead to posture and emote. Swanson is a ridiculous and fatuous presence throughout Queen Kelly, her vanity project. Indeed, I cannot recall Swanson’s ever having given a decent performance, not even in Sunset Boulevard (1950), where she didn’t have to, because director Billy Wilder used her brilliantly.
     Queen Kelly is easily Stroheim’s lamest, most anemic film. Perhaps the project’s multiplicity of directorial hands crowded out his genius. Perhaps Swanson’s ugly puss froze it.

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