Cast & Crew
Erich Von Stroheim
William Von Brinken
In Kronberg, capital of Ruritania, the queen prepares to marry her cousin, Prince Wolfram, but during exercises with his squadron the prince sees Patricia Kelly, among some girls from an orphanage. Determined to meet her again, he has the convent set afire, kidnaps her, and takes her to his chateau. Queen Regina emerges in a fury and chases Patricia from the chateau with a lash. Her victim throws herself in the river and drowns, and the prince commits suicide by her coffin. (The foregoing description reflects the European release version; in Stroheim's version, Kelly's suicide fails, and she returns to the convent. A telegram arrives from her guardian aunt, who operates a brothel in German East Africa, and the aunt forces Patricia to marry Jan Vooyheid, a degenerate, drunken cripple, the wedding taking place with the aunt lying on her deathbed. In the unfinished scenario, Wolfram is transferred to Africa and meets Patricia following the death of her husband. The queen having been assassinated, Wolfram ascends the throne, and Patricia becomes Queen Kelly.)
Erich Von Stroheim
William Von Brinken
Joseph P. Kennedy
Erich Von Stroheim
Erich Von Stroheim
Swanson had once been the most glamorous star in the Hollywood constellation, but her popularity was on the wane, as fans turned their attention to the sultry Greta Garbo and a more contemporary brand of fast-living leading ladies, such as Clara Bow (It ). Rather than entrust her career to the studio heads, Swanson used her wealth and clout to start her own production company. In early 1928, she was seeking a film that would rekindle the public's interest in her... to show that, at the ripe age of 30, she was no less glamorous than when she appeared in Cecil B. DeMille's risqué dramas nine years earlier.
Her partner in this endeavor was Joseph Kennedy, a brash Irish-American who had built an American empire on Prohibition booze, and was keen to establish himself as a respectable businessman and public figure. His ambitions were ultimately realized when his son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was elected to the Presidency. The elder Kennedy's pursuit of legitimacy had led him into film production. For a while, he was the head of FBO Studios (Film Booking Offices of America), which specialized in low-budget westerns and other formulaic amusements. Although this provided him with some degree of respectability, it didn't exactly earn him the admiration of his peers. He needed to undertake a monumental project: a cinematic masterpiece that would rank among the greatest films ever made, showcase the talents of his secret Inamorata (Swanson), and demonstrate his strengths as a Hollywood producer.
Enter Erich von Stroheim. When he began his directing career in 1919, he immediately rocketed to the forefront of the cinema's most sophisticated directors. Consequent with his rise to renown was the circulation of rumors about his difficult personality. For eight years he had created some of Hollywood's most celebrated films, but had also fought well-publicized battles with the studio heads at Universal, Goldwyn and Paramount. Stroheim was, without question, a brilliant artist, but refused to conform to convention. Because he could not maintain control over the final cut of his work, his films Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924), The Wedding March (1928) all reached the screen in severely compromised forms. He was fast approaching the status of unemployable, when the opportunity to work with Swanson and Kennedy presented itself.
Because Stroheim was in the weakest bargaining position (one might call it "dire professional straits"), he agreed to Kennedy and Swanson's terms. As he later phrased it, he felt like he "had a goddamned sword hanging over [his] head." He waived creative control and agreed that he could be removed from the project if he ran over budget or schedule. Responding to warnings about Stroheim's difficult personality, Kennedy boasted to Swanson, "I can handle him." On May 9, 1928, they all signed. The budget was set at $800,000, a generous but not extravagant sum.
Stroheim was confident that this time, his bosses shared his ambitions, appreciated his vision, and would permit him the creative freedom to properly commit it to film. Kennedy and Swanson wanted a masterpiece. Stroheim delivered one in screenplay form. Entitled The Swamp, it was 735 scenes in length. Life Magazine's Robert E. Sherwood called it, "the best film story ever written." By October, 1928, Stroheim had conscientiously reduced it to 510 scenes, and shooting was scheduled to begin.
Set in the mythical Prussian kingdom of Cobourg-Nassau, Queen Kelly begins as the "Wild" Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron) returns to the palace of his betrothed -- Queen Regina V (Seena Owen) -- drunk-driving a carriage full of prostitutes. She punishes her reluctant fiancé by sending his brigade on horseback maneuvers in the countryside. While marching in the sun, they encounter a parade of schoolgirls on a walk from their nearby convent. Struck by the beauty of one particular girl, Wolfram begins to flirt with Kelly (Gloria Swanson). When she curtsies to the notoriously roguish prince, her undergarments slip down to her ankles. Kelly is deeply embarrassed, but Wolfram is utterly charmed by the sharp-tongued Irish lass.
The idea of a schoolgirl dropping her undies during a military procession may seem completely outrageous and unprecedented. Stroheim was actually borrowing it from the 1911 German stage farce Die Hose, by Carl Sternheim. The drawers-dropping continues, almost 100 years later. Comedian/actor/writer Steve Martin re-adapted the play in 2002 as The Underpants.
Later, during a resplendent dinner, Regina publicly announces a wedding date. Wolfram decides to indulge in one last fling and, with the assistance of his Stroheim-esque adjutant (Wilhelm von Brincken), he goes to the convent, lights a fire to create a panic, and kidnaps the enchanted schoolgirl (who has fainted in the excitement). Kelly wakes up in the Prince's chambers, where he has set out a dinner of champagne, oysters and other aphrodisiacs. The Queen interrupts the lovers, drives Kelly out with a whip and sentences Wolfram to prison. The dejected Kelly leaps from a bridge in a suicide attempt.
At this point, the locale changes to Africa. Kelly has survived the plunge into the river, and her only living relative, an aunt (Sylvia Ashton), has summoned the girl to Dar-es-Salaam to be at her deathbed. Kelly's aunt is the proprietress of a seedy brothel known as "Poto-Poto," and has promised the girl's hand in marriage in order to repay one of her creditors, the slimy Jan Vryheid (Tully Marshall). The wedding occurs, literally, over the aunt's dead body.
The story was meant to continue, with Kelly installed as the new Madame (nicknamed "Queen" by the hookers and sailors), and later being reunited with Prince Wolfram. However, the production was abruptly shut down.
Swanson claims that she pulled the plug on the film when she suddenly realized the "dance hall" that Kelly inherits is actually a brothel. "My aunt was supposed to be the owner of nightclub," Swanson recalled, years later, "By the time that Mr. von Stroheim got in there and felt a free hand...it wasn't exactly a dance hall. It was sort of one of those things that they long ago closed up in the United States... and you can imagine my consternation when I walked on the set and saw what was going on."
Either Swanson was shifting the blame for the film's collapse, or else she had not carefully read the screenplay. The script abounds with references to the type of commerce being conducted at "Poto-Poto." "In foreground is an unkempt and slatternly blonde, in a kimono," specifies the script in one scene, "unmistakably a lady of the horizontal profession."
The breaking point occurred on January 21, 1929. Swanson claims that it occurred when Stroheim authorized Tully Marshall to allow tobacco juice to drool from his mouth and land on Kelly's pale hand. There were no fights. She excused herself, "and I went to my bungalow and I called New York immediately and said, 'You'd better get out here but fast.'"
When the footage was reviewed by Kennedy's staff, red flags began to appear. "Story as screened [is] slovenly gross, often revolting," wrote production manager E.B. Derr in a telegram, "I have never been so shocked and revolted. It was in execrable taste."
Stroheim had controlled his often despotic personality and for the most part maintained a professional demeanor on the set. When one biographer regurgitated rumors about on-the-set squabbles, Stroheim politely chastised him, "The relations between Gloria and myself were before the picture, during the making and afterwards and still are the most intimate and friendly ones."
In an attempt to restore his good name, Stroheim had made compromises -- more than he had on any other production. He accepted a title change from The Swamp to Queen Kelly with no apparent complaint. And when the film was falling behind schedule, he re-conceptualized and rewrote the second half of the film. Instead of occurring in a swamp amidst a horrible storm, the climax would now occur in the "Poto-Poto" brothel, since sets were already constructed and no location work would be required. In order to keep the production alive, he signed away his claim to any of the film's earnings...for the token sum of one dollar. In return, he was given the story rights, which was later published in novelized form, as Poto-Poto. Released in France, it has never been published in the United States - or in English.
It was early 1928, and the silent era was quickly coming to a close. Warner Bros.'s The Jazz Singer opened on October 6, 1927, and while it did not exactly sound the death knell of silent movies, it set into motion a series of changes that drastically altered the marketplace. Stroheim and company immediately began to question the decision to produce a lavish spectacle at that point in time without sound. "I wish Queen Kelly could have been started all over again as a sound film," he said, but certainly sensed the impossibility of such a proposition. After the production had folded, some effort was made to convert the film to sound. A lengthy "Poto-Poto" scene was scripted specifically for audio. No record exists as to whether or not it was filmed.
Adolf Tandler was commissioned to compose a score for the film, and in 1931, Swanson shot a rather jumbled ending (shot by Gregg Toland, who would later photograph Orson Welles's Citizen Kane ) in an attempt to tie up the loose ends of the narrative. This version received a very limited release.
The film faded into obscurity, until a portion of it was integrated into Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950). When faded star Norma Desmond (Swanson) screens one of her classic films, it is a beautiful scene in which Kelly is sent to the chapel for prayer. Her face surrounded by glistening, dripping candles, the unrepentant Kelly prays not for forgiveness...but that she will encounter Wolfram again. The footage so impressed viewers that the film was unearthed and given a few museum play dates.
Queen Kelly finally received a proper theatrical release in 1985 when a restored edition was prepared by Dennis Doros for Kino International Corp. A fair amount of the controversial "Poto-Poto" footage had survived, but Swanson had chosen to leave it out of the 1931 release version. Doros reunited the African footage to the rest of the film, and bridged many of the gaps using still photos and script excerpts. It is this version that Turner Classic Movies will be screening, and remains the definitive version of this extraordinary (and extraordinarily jinxed) production.
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Producer: Joseph Kennedy, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Screenplay: Erich von Stroheim
Cinematography: Paul Ivano and Gordon Pollock
Production Design: Harold Miles
Music: Adolf Tandler
Cast: Gloria Swanson (Kitty Kelly), Walter Byron (Prince Wolfram), Seena Owen (Queen Regina V), Tully Marshall (Jan Vryheid), Sidney Bracey (Lackey), Wilhelm von Brincken (Adjutant), Sylvia Ashton (Kelly's Aunt).
by Bret Wood
After shooting only one third of the picture (4 hours), director Erich Von Stroheim was fired by producer-star Gloria Swanson. Two years later, additional footage was shot to complete the picture. Since Von Stroheim owned part of the property, he refused to grant releasing rights in the U.S. and elsewhere for this bastardized version. It was not exhibited in the U.S. until after Sunset Blvd. (1950), when it received minor theatrical release and a showing on television in 1966.
When Tully Marshall dribbled tobacco juice on Gloria Swanson's hand during the wedding sequence and explained that director Erich von Stroheim ordered him to do it, it was the final straw. She called Joseph P. Kennedy and demanded that von Stroheim be fired, and he was, effectively shutting down the production.
In 1931, Miss Swanson hired Gregg Toland to shoot some additional scenes for release in Europe in 1932. These consisted of Prince Wolfram seeing Kelly's drowned body and committing suicide himself. That scene (in the Force Video alternate version) is not in the 1985 Kino restored version, which continues on to African scenes.
Director Erich von Stroheim was removed from the film before the production was completed, and his 11-reel version was reduced to 8 by actress Gloria Swanson. Although the film was distributed in Europe, it was not released commercially in the United States. It was shown in a limited theatrical release in 1984.