If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out an Oscar in the category of "What Were They Thinking?" 1929's hands-down winner would have been Queen Kelly. In fact, this production was so misconceived and ill-executed, the Academy would have had to retire the award immediately afterwards, for everything that followed would have been mere anticlimax.
Queen Kelly's director—at least to start with—was Erich von Stroheim, and as soon as you see the name Erich von Stroheim attached to a project, you know there's going to be more drama going on behind the camera than ever appears in front of it. Gene Siskel, the late film critic for the Chicago Tribune, often said his criterion for judging a movie was whether it was more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch. It's a hard question to answer in this case: from all reports, the director and his stars were too busy fighting to eat any meal together.
Ostensibly, Queen Kelly is the story of a young prince (Walter Byron), who on the eve of his wedding to the mad Queen Regina (Katie nominee Seena Owen), meets a naive young schoolgirl (Gloria Swanson) and falls hopelessly in love. When the queen discovers the prince's betrayal, she takes her revenge including, in von Stroheim's original vision, exiling the schoolgirl to work in an East African brothel. (The movie took its title from this last twist—the schoolgirl, named Kitty Kelly, was to have eventually become the brothel's madam, it's "queen," so to speak.)
It's really the story, though, of unchecked egos and terrible decision making, leading ultimately to an unfinished, virtually-unseen movie that has developed an undeserved reputation as one of Erich von Stroheim's lost masterpieces.
As the mo- tivating force behind this project, star Gloria Swanson deserves a lion's share of the blame for its failure. She convinced her married lover, Joseph P. Kennedy, to bankroll the movie, picked the overmatched Walter Byron as her co-star, and then cast herself in the title role. Swanson was thirty at the time and is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous as the naive teenage girl living in a convent school.
Worse, she chose von Stroheim to write and direct the movie, and then gave him part ownership of the film and control of the final cut of any U.S. release. Given that von Stroheim had a well-known penchant pouring extravagant amounts of money into uncommercial nine hour movies, perhaps Swanson should have known what she was letting herself in for.
This doesn't even address the fact that they were making a silent movie well over a year after the release of The Jazz Singer.
Without a finished script in hand, principal photography began on November 1, 1928, and it became clear to Swanson on day one that von Stroheim was making up the movie as he went along. In fact, she predicted after the first day's shooting that the movie would never be finished. How right she was.
If my in- formation is correct, the first scene von Stroheim shot was the initial meeting between the prince and the schoolgirl, and let me tell you, this was no ordinary "meet cute"—while hiking with school friends, Swanson's underpants fall off as the prince rides past on horseback, and naturally, he snatches them up and gives free rein to what must have been movie history's first panty sniffing fetish. Wow! And von Stroheim got more and more out there. In addition to the panty sniffing, he gives us arson as a conversational gambit, a whip-wielding queen, and, of course, the promise of a second act brothel setting and a minimum four-hour running time.
This inability to rein in any impulse—legend has it that the prostitutes who accompany the prince in an early scene were played by real prostitutes, recruited from the best brothel in Hollywood—was typical of von Stroheim, and Swanson realistically had no choice but to fire him, which she did at the end of January 1929. The film was only half finished.
Two years later, Swanson hired cinematographer Gregg Toland to shoot a truncated ending to the film and although von Stroheim's contract barred Swanson from showing this version in the United States, it was released in Europe in November 1932. A partially restored version of the unfinished film was finally released in the United States in 1985.
Like many movies of that time that no one had actually seen, it's reputation grew until it was regarded as von Stroheim's lost masterpiece, on par with the "butchered" nine-hour version of Greed. When it finally surfaced, it proved not to be quite what people had convinced themselves it was.
Auteur theorists love von Stroheim for the mad passion of his vision, but to be honest, the guy was probably nuts. He was certainly an egomaniac and I think the notion he was a genius derailed by the crass concerns of the studios is essentially a false one. He made pretty pictures, but he wasn't a sharp thinker—he was one of those guys (like a law clerk I knew, way back when) who if you asked him the time, would build you a clock.
Judging from what survives, the end product, here and elsewhere, didn't justify von Stroheim's means.
Trivia: To stand in as an example of the kind of silent movies Norma Desmond made, Billy Wilder used a scene from Queen Kelly (Swanson praying among an array of flickering candles) in his classic Sunset Boulevard.