Directed by Erich von Stroheim, Edmund Goulding, Richard Boleslawski, Sam Wood, Gloria Swanson, Irving Thalberg, written by Stroheim and Marion Ainslee, produced by Stroheim, Swanson and Joseph P. Kennedy
I had the pleasure of viewing Queen Kelly on the big screen, which is the bare minimum requirement for capturing this, and any other silent artworks, in the way they were intended to be (and originally were) consumed. The (partly) Erich von Stroheim film, the production history alone of which has reached mythical status in Hollywood lore, is not completely extant in its current state, but the crisp Library of Congress print is a stunning concession – yet the recreation of missing scenes with mere film stills and title cards is tantalising. It is the kind of film that has been written about again and again within the context of its troubled production history, something I will not attempt to rehash.
A John Gilbert-esque Prince Wolfram, played by Walter Byron, is betrothed to Queen Regina V of Kronberg, played by the electric Seena Owen. The characterisation of the elite is a display of grotesque decadence. The Queen punishes the Prince for partying with other girls, sending him on manoeuvres. He comes across a nunnery, with one particularly entrancing young woman catching his eye. They engage in a rebellious flirtation, and she is in turn punished for her behaviour by her superiors. There is clearly an elemental, animal chemistry between the two. Wolfram kidnaps the young nun Kitty Kelly that night, played by none other than the inimitable screen giant Gloria Swanson, a woman whose personality is palpable, on and off-screen.
There are incredibly sexual undertones throughout the film; Kitty removes her bloomers in rebellion to the Prince’s taunts at their first interaction, and the sado-masochistic whipping she endures at the hands of Queen Regina when she is discovered in the palace is more than suggestive. Anyone with preconceptions of the era of silent film being somewhat snooty of frigid would have those incorrect notions completely swept away when viewing even the first few minutes of Queen Kelly. One of the losses at the hands of early film censorship is the loss of the scenes that were set in a brothel, now only extant in film stills.
Seena Owen’s Queen Regina V should hold a place in the ranks of the most iconic movie villainesses. She is positively wicked; a sharp, yet somewhat ethereal figure of cold rococo extravagance, surrounding herself with small pets, accessories to her own image. Unhinged and violent, yet untouchably glamorous, she burns white hot on the screen, her face framed by her helmet-like finger waves of peroxide and a halo of feathery fur. Another costume fits her inside a vampiric frock, with a high structured collar and devilish sleeves. She is a mash of contradictions. Beautiful and frightening, it is evident in her erratic eyes that she is capable of anything – embodying the contradiction of femininity itself. Queen Regina should have been the archetypal film villain for all who followed to model themselves upon. Owen’s performance was acted so beautifully, with such gusto, that I was instantly shocked that it isn’t more iconic now, like Snow White’s stepmother is – and that it could have ever even occurred in the first place. She is singular; a beautiful monster.
One of the most entrancing scenes in Queen Kelly is the heartfelt prayer she delivers in an ethereal chapel – surrounded by candles, lit in the most exquisite light, the pointy-faced mortal angel asks meekly of her God to “cast out this wicked dream which has seized my heart!” It is no wonder that it was this very scene that was chosen, of all the moments in Gloria Swanson’s impressive repertoire, to be included in Sunset Boulevard in Norma’s home cinema. It is a reflective and self-referential moment; Erich von Stroheim projects from the upper room, and Gloria watches herself, and we watch her, enchanted with both her incarnations. She was at her most beautiful, her most dream-like, her most haunting and elemental here. Her wicked dream has seized all our hearts. In this moment, it’s almost as if the entire art form of silent film was but a dream.
Sunset Boulevard, 1950
Tragedy befalls Kelly. Kelly marries a man she does not love, a leering, limping, creepy older man, to appease an old woman’s death bed wish. He licks his jagged teeth at her, now a solemn, defeated woman. She weeps, faints. The matriarch dies seconds after the unhappy couple’s wedding vows. However, in her epilogue, Kelly finds a power she never had in her previous life of faith. She refuses to live with the grotesque suitor, and takes on the role of Madam in the decadent brothel. She becomes “Queen Kelly”, a fallen woman, one who has risen to become the master of her environment. From this point, the final plot differs from version to version. The most widely circulated ending sees Kelly and the Prince marry, the kingdom finally rid of Queen Regina. The final title card reads a powerful proclamation of identity. “Majesty – me foot! Just plain Queen Kelly”.