The other night we watched Sunset Blvd, the classic about the madness of Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent film star who believes that her public is still longing for her return. In the movie, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her young gigolo, Joe Gillis, watch as the butler (Erich von Stroheim) projects a silent film starring the young Norma. I was intrigued to learn that the silent was actually one of Gloria Swanson's earlier films, Queen Kelly.
Queen Kelly (1929) was the only time that Swanson worked with under von Stroheim's direction (and the last time they worked on a project together, until Sunset Blvd.) It was a fiasco: von Stroheim went far over budget, the plot emphatically did not conform to the strictures of the Hays code, and producer Swanson and her financial backing (including her then-lover, Joe Kennedy) pulled out. About seventy minutes of film had been shot, of a proposed five hours. The debacle effectively ended von Stroheim's directatorial career. As for Swanson, she made the transition to the talkies, but her star waned until her star turn in Sunset Blvd (1950).
Curious about this bit of cinematic history, Darwin and I bumped Queen Kelly up to the top of our Netflix queue. Gentle readers, this one's a corker. The story is sheer melodrama: playboy prince engaged to mad, lascivious queen. Playboy and convent orphan Kelly meet-cute when orphan's bloomers drop to her ankles. Playboy later sets convent on fire to kidnap orphan, whom he takes back to the palace and seduces. Jealous queen discovers the tryst (on the eve of their marriage, no less!) and horse-whips the humiliated girl through the palace. Girl throws herself off bridge.
At this point, Swanson tacked on an ending that involved the playboy prince committing suicide over the luminous body of the dead girl laid out before the altar in the convent. But this was not von Stroheim's ending, oh no! In his version, recreated with stills and extant footage, Kelly is rescued, goes to German East Africa to weep at the deadbed of her aunt, is coerced into marriage with a loathesome cripple, and inherits her aunt's brothel. Meanwhile the prince transfers to a military unit bound for Africa and again meets up with Kelly, who is now the shrewd owner of the quite prosperous bordello (apparently she took over managment of the joint in order to avoid living with the lech, who dies in a fight with the prince). The mad queen comes to some end, and playboy and orphan-turned-madam are married and crowned. Bizarre.
We watched all 101 minutes of this, after turning off the rather incongruous soundtrack. The whole shebang was worth it, however, for one of the extras on the DVD, an interview with Gloria Swanson in the late '50s or early '60s for what was apparently a television screening of Queen Kelly. It was absolutely delightful to watch the perfectly elegant and magnificently well-preserved Miss Swanson explain in her carefully modulated voice (I don't know why she didn't make it in talkies; I thought her voice was very pleasant and mellow -- not all all like Desmond's in Sunset Blvd) how it was that the movie was made and not made. Her use of euphemisms in describing the Hollywood of the '20s was masterful, as she gave a beautifully neutral drawing-room version of the scandals of the the day, why the Hays code was enacted and how it was enforced. Miss Swanson gently explained in a conversational tone how von Stroheim had run afoul of Will Hays.
"Now my aunt was supposed to the be owner of a... nightclub, of a... dance hall type of thing; that was the script that Mr. Hays had okayed," Miss Swanson said, and glanced about thoughtfully. "But by the time 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 America at any rate, I don't know if they still have them in the rest of the world, Europe or France perhaps."
Darwin and I collapsed in spasms of mirth.
In recounting how she had shot a shortened alternate ending for release in Europe after von Stroheim had died: "Now, wherever you are, Mr. von Stroheim (who knows?) it was a matter that was out of my hands because of censorship. Mr. Will Hays and he are both in the same place, I'm sure, and I think they ought to try and work this out, because now, in our movies and theaters -- in our streets and newspapers -- well, anything goes, and perhaps the "dance hall" wouldn't be an issue anymore."
Indeed, Miss Swanson, indeed.
Fortnightly Book, December 4
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