One of the most audacious in jokes in the history of American movies occurs in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard when Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) shows Joe Gillis (William Holden) a silent film being projected by her onetime director-husband and now butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). But the film they are watching, as few viewers then or now would realize, is Queen Kelly, a 1929 production starring Swanson and actually directed by von Stroheim. The director was, of course, never Swanson's paramour any more than Swanson was a real life Norma Desmond. But this movie was the last to be released with von Stroheim's name on the credits as director. He made a sound film for Fox, released as Hello Sister, but the only copy I have seen listed no director, and it would appear that some thankless studio drudges shot additional scenes after the studio trashed most of von Stroheim's work.
Von Stroheim's career might well have been invented by another offspring of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Kafka. Born in Vienna, the son of a Jewish hat manufacturer, he emigrated to the United States as a young man and passed himself off in Hollywood as the scion of an Austrian aristocratic family. Although he is often remembered today as the director of Greed, an adaptation of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, which he photographed mainly on location in San Francisco and Death Valley, von Stroheim remained as much a spiritual inhabitant of Central Europe as did another quite different émigré director-Ernst Lubitsch. There the similarity ended. Both directors benefited from a Hollywood vogue for vehicles with a pre-World War I setting, but where Lubitsch looked back to the vanished glory of Wilhelmine Germany in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1926), von Stroheim delighted in stripping away the pomp and circumstance of alt Wien, figuratively and literally, in Merry-Go-Round and The Wedding March.
Von Stroheim had a basic scenario that he recycled from Merry-Go-Round to Wedding March by way of The Merry Widow, one in which a titled debauchee falls in love with a commoner. In Queen Kelly, he used this device once more, but pumped it up to the max. In this movie, the depraved nobleman is Prince "Wild" Wolfram (Walter Byron) and the girl the orphan Patricia Kelly (Gloria Swanson), who has been raised in a Catholic convent. Not content to merely reproduce the Hapsburg Empire inside a Hollywood studio, von Stroheim this time invented a Central European monarchy of his own, Kronberg, ruled by the sadistic, lascivious Queen Regina V (Seena Owen). When Regina finds Kelly in Wolfram's apartments, she whips the girl out of the palace and sends Wolfram, her own fiancé, to prison.
At this point, von Stroheim sends his heroine to hell-to a brothel in German East Africa presided over by a dying aunt who forces the girl to marry a real monster of lust, the wealthy, crippled planter Jan Vreyhed (Tully Marshall). (Only a part of this sequence was shot before Swanson called a halt to the shooting, and the remainder of the film as made available here has been reconstructed from photos and script materials by Denis Doros.) Like Alfred Hitchcock's imaginative universe, von Stroheim's is a bestiary: its inhabitants are either vicious, cunning predators or their prey. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, G.W.F. Hegel wrote of a "spiritual animal kingdom," but von Stroheim may have gone a step farther in depicting a spiritual food chain ruled at the top by characters like Regina or Jan, lording it over the meek of the earth.
Great art sometimes thrives off the obsessions of the artist, an effect that seems more conspicuous in the cinema than elsewhere. Although the names of Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Bresson all come to mind, von Stroheim probably went farther in this direction than any comparable figure in movie history. According to an anecdote Richard Koszarski repeats in his audio commentary, when Irving Thalberg complained about the numerous rushes devoted to documenting Baron Sadowa's collection of shoes in The Merry Widow, von Stroheim haughtily explained the Baron was a foot fetishist. "You're a footage fetishist!" Thalberg supposedly retorted. Whether the quip be authentic or not, there is more than a grain of truth in it. Wasn't there a grandiosely self-destructive artistic passion in planning a movie that would have run some five hours, as Queen Kelly would have had it been completed according to von Stroheim's intensions?
Quite apart from the virtual impossibility of a film of that length being produced by a Hollywood studio and exhibited in commercial theaters-as von Stroheim well knew-the real question is much more: who could have endured watching it? The African scenes in Queen Kelly are among the most oppressive I have ever viewed in a movie. Even if the action did culminate in Kelly's being reunited with Prince Wolfram, returning to Kronberg, and then ascending the throne, who could have swallowed such a denouement after suffering through what had preceded it? At the end of such a metaphorical journey through the desert, might we not have found ourselves confronting an infernal panorama like that which McTeague faces at the end of Greed? Had not Von Stroheim doomed his characters to perish in a Death Valley of celluloid?
Queen Kelly is a damaged but imposing monument to the art of the film. Kino Video has done itself proud-and done us all a great favor-in producing this DVD. In addition to Koszarski's informative commentary, the disk includes two endings-Swanson's and the reconstructed one-as well as scenes from Merry-Go-Round, audio interviews with various people, among them Billy Wilder, a 1952 TV appearance by von Stroheim, and, not least of all, a TV appearance by Swanson in which she discusses the making of Queen Kelly.