Thursday, August 18, 2011

Queen Kelly

Kuningatar Kelly / Drottningen Kelly. US 1929. Unreleased at the time in the US, released in Europe in 1931. PC: Gloria Productions / United Artists. P: Joseph Kennedy. D+SC: Erich von Stroheim based on his story “The Swamp”. Titles: Marian Ainslee. DP: Gordon Pollock, Paul Ivano. M (1931): Adolf Tandler. AD: Harold Miles. Cost: Max Rée. ED: Viola Lawrence. Cast: Gloria Swanson (Patricia "Kitty" Kelly), Walter Byron (Prince Wolfram von Hohenberg Falsenstein), Seena Owen (Queen Regina V), Lucille Van Lent (the prince's chambermaid), Wilson Benge (the prince's valet), Sidney Bracey (the prince's lackey), Wilhelm von Brincken (the prince's adjutant), [Florence Gibson n.c.] (Kelly's aunt), Tully Marshall (Jan Bloehm Vryheid), Madge Hunt (Mother Superior), Mme. Sul Te Wan (Kali), Ray Daggett (Coughdrops). Reconstruction US © 1985 Kino International / Dennis Doros. 101 min. The Nordfilm 1987 release print with Finnish / Swedish intertitles by Mikko Lyytikäinen / Eirik Udd, no English intertitles. Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (The Stars of the Summer), 18 Aug 2011.

After the opening at The Amos Anderson Art Museum there was still time to catch the last part of Queen Kelly, Erich von Stroheim's last substantial work as a director.

My first encounter with Queen Kelly was with the 1931 release version which ends with the suicide by drowning of Patricia Kelly after a horse-whipping by the sadistic, deranged, jealous Queen. Then in 1985 Kino International released this reconstruction of Erich von Stroheim's original version with its African section: Kelly is rescued from the dark waters by a policeman back to the nunnery, where she receives a telegraph from her aunt in Dar-Es-Salaam who asks her to come to her deathbed at once. In Africa Kelly finds out that she is becoming the inheritor of the popular Poto-Poto brothel, but first, at the aunt's deathbed, she has to marry the degenerate plantation owner Vryheid.

This lurid story repeats obsessions from Stroheim's previous films such as his version of The Merry Widow and The Wedding March. The subject is over the top, grotesque, and delirious. It is full of excess, Pre-Code frenzy, and Victorian dualism in the extreme. But the realization is sober and lucid. My favourite moment is the one where Patricia Kelly examines the plantation owner Vryheid, and we see a revealing montage of close-ups of his pistol, cigars, liquor bottle, et cetera. Like his predecessor in Stroheim's oeuvre, Baron Sadoja, also played by Tully Marshall, the crippled Vryheid suffers from locomotor ataxia, the sign of his being in the final stages of syphilis. Vryheid is Stroheim's blackly comical counterpart to Joseph Conrad's Mistah Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness.

Depravity would be boring without the contrast of the sacred in the world of the nunnery and the dignity personified by the black priest who gives the last rites to the dying aunt and weds simultaneously Kelly and Vryheid in holy matrimony in a double sacred ritual.

The weak link of the movie is Walter Byron's matter-of-fact performance as the prince. John Gilbert and Erich von Stroheim, himself, were able convey the change of the male protagonist from a roué to a true lover with a shattering intensity, but Walter Byron seems indifferent.

I love Adolf Tandler's melodramatic music which carries and tells the story determinedly and passionately with means of its own. It is a good example of the film music of the late, high silent era. It is one of my three favourite Stroheim scores: 1) The Wedding March (the original Zamecnik-de Francesco sound-on-disc score), 2) The Merry Widow (the Maud Nelissen score based on Lehar), and 3) Queen Kelly by Adolf Tandler.

The visual quality of the print is largely ok, with variable quality in the shots, perhaps with a generally slightly duped look, and sometimes signs of nitrate / water damage in the sources. After Kelly's suicide attempt the movie is largely reconstructed via stills, but the music carries the emotion magnificently. I'm grateful for Kino International for this reconstruction. Unfortunately the Finnish distributor removed the English titles and replaced them with Finnish / Swedish titles only.

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