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Queen Kelly
The Complete Screenplay
by Erich von Stroheim

Edited by Bret Wood

 

BOOK REVIEW

Queen Kelly: The Complete Screenplay by Erich von Stroheim
Edited by Bret Wood

Scarecrow Press : Lanham, Maryland : 2002
ISBN 0-8108-4392-7 (978-0-8108-4392-9) : 413 pages : trade paperback : $55.00

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
Erich von Stroheim is inextricably associated with the image of the interrupted auteur. He is known to those familar with the silent era of motion pictures as the artiste rampant; misunderstood, abused by studio executives, wildly out of control in his quest for cinematic perfection.

When Stroheim, already in disfavor with Universal, MGM and Paramount, was approached in early 1928 by Gloria Swanson and Joseph Kennedy (her financier) to write and direct Swanson’s next film project, Stroheim must have felt that he had been given another chance to redeem himself creatively. Aware that his excesses were a major reason for his extravagant reputation, Stroheim set about writing a scenario that encompassed his usual themes and scope, but now included many cost-saving process shots and concessions to financial responsibility.

The Swamp, as the first draft was called, was completed by September 1928. In it, a young innocent is first corrupted by a debauching German prince, then further so when she is sent packing to darkest Africa. In October 1928, further concessions were made to trim more than 20 percent of the intended shots, and on 1 November 1928, shooting began on the film that was to become Queen Kelly (1929).

While conscious of his intention to stick to the film’s budget, Stroheim’s pursuit of fanatical realism in minute and gritty detail soon put the production well behind schedule and over budget. Late in January 1929, Swanson put a stop to it all, with more than half the $800,000 budget expended and more than half of the shooting script left to film (most of it being the second half of the story).

Late in 1929, attempts were made to cobble together enough story, through film editing and rewritten intertitles, to resemble a film complete enough for release, which would give Swanson an opportunity to recoup some of the project’s thousands that were spent. Some additional footage for a revised ending was directed and shot by Gregg Toland, but the results were considered unsuccessful and the cannibalized film was only released in Europe. The film was again edited and released with a synchronized music track in 1931.

Bret Wood has assembled a volume that contains Erich von Stroheim’s original shooting scenario for Queen Kelly. And while there are interesting little changes between the script and the released film that we are familiar with, the eye-opener comes for the reader when the story reaches Africa and Kelly’s descent. We finally get a chance to witness von Stroheim’s intended juxtaposed and parallel themes that show how little separates the debauchery of both the low and privileged classes, similar to the parallel themes of the intended full-length version of Greed (1924). We come to understand that von Stroheim may have seemed to be wildly out-of-control but was, instead perhaps, only fanatical in his pursuit of his vision of cinema realistique. Erich von Stroheim may come to be known as the 20th century’s most tragic film director; an auteur interrupted by pragmatically short-sighted studio executives. A man never allowed to realize his complete artistic vision.

Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim worked together again many years later, both acting in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Oddly enough, when former silent-film star Norma Desmond views a film from her career, it is a scene from Queen Kelly that she watches — indicating a wry in-joke perpetrated by Wilder, Swanson and Stroheim.

Ultimately, this book is a required acquisition for fans of von Stroheim, one that is on the same level of importance as Herman Weinberg’s volumes on von Stroheim films.

 
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