Director: Erich Von Stroheim
In February of this year Erich Von Slmlieim's 1929 masterpiece was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in a version which, for the first time, approximated the director's original intention. Planned as another in a long series of costume dramas for Gloria Swanson, the film begins in a mythical kingdom ruled by a mad Queen Regina, who is jealously in love with Prince Wolfram. He however develops a passion for Patricia "Kitty" Kelly, a youngster he abducts from a Catholic orphanage. When Regina discovers the illicit affair she drives the girl from the castle. Distraught on learning of the Prince's upcoming marriage, Kitty attempts suicide by diving into a swirling river. Rescued by a palace guard, Kitty is brought hack to the convent, where she learns that her guardian aunt is dying and has sent for her. Arriving in German East Africa to be at her aunt's deathbed, she finds her guardian to be the owner of a brothel that has fallen upon hard times. The aunt forces her to marry a decrepit plantation owner who will be able to finance the business and save it from bankruptcy. The wedding is performed next to the aunt's deathbed while the old woman receives the last rites.
Stroheim's screenplay originally envisioned a second part with the film finally coming full circle - Kitty would truly have become Queen Kelly, replacing Regina on her throne, with Wolfram as her King. Had this version been completed it would have run close to five hours.
This was Von Strobeim's eighth picture, and was produced by Swanson under the auspices of financier Joseph P. Kennedy (who goes uncredited) for distributor United Artists. But the film was in production less than three months (from November 1st 1928 to January 21st 1929) when Swanson, fed up with the director's excesses, told Kennedy to shut down production after an expenditure of $800,000. Seemingly endless retakes, fears of censorship and the coming of sound all seem to have contributed to the decision.
In 1931, anxious to recoup some of the sizeable investment. Swanson had Von Stroheim's longtime editor and script girl. Viola Lawrence, render a version of Queen Kelly from the footage shot two years prior. Surprisingly faithful to the original Script after the numerous variations Swanson had contemplated, two new scenes were, however, added and the film ended with Kitty Kelly's now successful suicide attempt. A score for the film was composed by Adolph Tandler and this sound version was minimally released to a few European theatres in the early '30s. Swanson would later show this version in several museums and theatres when she made personal appearances.
In 1963, two edited reels of the African sequence were rediscovered but never exhibited. Nineteen years later Kino International would purchase the rights from the Swanson estate and begin the painstaking job of restoring the film as close as possible to Von Stroheim's original plans.
Swanson's print material was in remarkable condition, perhaps the finest preserved film from the silent era. The film's astonishing compositions, texture and shadings proved Von Stroheim's genius and suggest that Queen Kelly may well have been the director's greatest achievement.
A second major discovery, made during the restoration of the print, was a nitrate soundtrack to the original 1931 release. Before Von Stroheim was fired he had typed notes on the various sound effects he thought would be needed and these Tandler followed to the letter three years later.
With these rediscovered materials, plus two hitherto unknown scenes discovered m two reels of outtakes (which, with the use of stills, help bridge the gap between the European and African sequences), and meticulously cared for production records and original scripts from the Swanson archive at the University of Texas, Dennis Doros of Kino has completed an exemplary reconstruction.
To our knowledge, this is the first time Queen Kelly has been seen here in any version.
- Trevor Bergroth