Sunset Boulevard is a movie you can easily appreciate if you don’t know anything about the silent film era. But if you do know about the silent film era, it’s chock full of little in-jokes that really add to the whole experience. The most famous example would be the scene where Norma Desmond has some friends over to play cards and her friends are played by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. Then there’s this scene:
In the beginning of Gloria Swanson’s career, she played a stenographer in His New Job with Charlie Chaplin and worked at Keystone with Mack Sennett. All the pictures in Norma Desmond’s house really are all Gloria Swanson’s own publicity photos. Norma Desmond reached the height of her career working with Cecil B. DeMille, so did Gloria Swanson. DeMille even calls Norma Desmond “Young Fella,” his nickname for Gloria Swanson. And then there’s the one that I think is the best, and most subtle, in-joke in the movie. I’m sure you know the scene where Norma has Max, played by Erich von Stroheim, play one of her movies for her and Joe to watch. The movie they’re watching is actually Queen Kelly, an unfinished film that was to star Gloria Swanson and was directed by Erich von Stroheim.
In Queen Kelly, Gloria Swanson plays Kitty Kelly, a young convent student. One day while out with others from the convent, they pass by Prince Wolfram, who has been sent out on maneuvers as a punishment by his fiancée, the Queen, for cavorting with other women. Unfortunately for Kelly, some of her undergarments fall down and Prince Wolfram notices and teases her about it. Furious, Kelly takes them off and throws them at the Prince and, of course, scandalizes the entire convent. Of course, Kelly is mortified and is punished when she gets back to the convent. But the Prince is fascinated by her beauty and at his bachelor party, the Prince and a friend decide to go to the convent to kidnap Kelly and take her back to his place. Hint number 1 that the Prince is just a bit stalker-ish. But then, they decide the best way to go about kidnapping her is to set a fire in the convent, pull the fire alarm, and in all the chaos, grab Kelly and leave. When they get back to his place, Prince Wolfram tells Kelly how he feels about her and they have dinner. After a little alcohol, Kelly says she’s feeling warm and Wolfram tells her that she’s overdressed. Most people would have started walking home a while ago, but Kelly seems to like this and stays until morning.
Unfortunately, the morning comes and the Queen finds Kelly with her fiance and literally whips her out of the house and sentences the Prince to solitary confinement. That Queen doesn’t mess around! On the way back to the convent, Kelly jumps off a bridge, but is saved and brought back to the convent where she finds out her aunt in German East Africa is dying and must go to see her. Her aunt is the madam of a brothel and when Kelly arrives there, she’s greeted by people so creepy they make Prince Wolfram seem perfectly normal by comparison. One of those people is a creepy guy named Jan, who Kelly is forced to marry. The best way I can describe Jan is that he kinda reminds me of Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Now, here’s where things start to fall apart. Von Stroheim’s vision for the rest of the film involved Kelly refusing to live with Jan and taking over her aunt’s brothel after she dies. Jan dies in a fight and Prince Wolfram travels to Africa and promises to marry her. After the Queen is assassinated, they return home and become King and Queen. But Gloria Swanson didn’t like the idea of a brothel being involved, she thought it was supposed to be a dance hall. Since Gloria was a producer, she thought the movie would be butchered by censorship and fired von Stroheim after having shot only a third of the movie. In 1931, Gloria hired Gregg Toland to shoot some additional scenes in an attempt to have some sort of conclusion and have it released in Europe. In the Swanson ending, all the stuff about Africa is gone and Gloria’s character commits suicide and her body is visited by Prince Wolfram, who then kills himself in despair. But because Erich von Stroheim was also a producer and owned part of the rights to Queen Kelly, he refused to let Swanson’s version be released in the United States. American audiences never saw Queen Kelly at all until it was briefly featured in Sunset Boulevard in 1950. After the success of Sunset Boulevard, Queen Kelly did have a minor theatrical release and was aired on television in 1966.
I enjoyed getting to see what there is of Queen Kelly, I wish I could have seen more of it. Even though it is quite melodramatic, I really would have liked to see how it would have played out with Erich von Stroheim directing it. But mostly, I just feel bad for poor Kelly. She’s basically stuck with her choice of a stalker prince who has all the suave womanizing skills of a frat boy or the guy who reminds me of Torgo. Neither one really seems like a winner to me, but I’d say the prince would make the better choice.
Queen Kelly is available on DVD from Kino International and they really did a great job on the DVD, it’s very much worth buying. The movie itself looks nice, but it also comes with lots of extra features. There’s a commentary, nearly 20 minutes of outtakes, picture gallery, production documents, and an excerpt from the screenplay. A restored ending is seen in the actual movie, which consists of intertitles and still frames. The Swanson ending is available in the bonus features. There are even clips of the movie Merry-Go-Round, which is another movie that Erich von Stroheim was fired from during production. But best of all, there’s a taped introduction from Gloria Swanson that was recorded when Queen Kelly was aired on television in 1966. She talks in great detail about the production of the movie, but it’s extremely interesting just to see Gloria Swanson as herself. She isn’t working that ultra-expressive face of hers like she did in her silent films and when she talks, she doesn’t sound like Norma Desmond. It just fascinates me to watch all this stuff and wonder about what might have been.