Gloria Swanson is most remembered for her performance in Sunset Blvd where she played an aging silent film actress trying to make a comeback. That film was great and she was great in it, but I think that she should join the ranks of people like Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish as being one of the best silent film actresses of all time. I am of course basing it on this one performance I have seen in a film that was not even completed which you may find to be a little preemptive. However her performance in this film is so great that even if she stank in every other film that she has been in, I would still make the same assertion. I highly doubt she does stink, though.
In order to talk about this film, I must talk about two people. The first one is Gloria Swanson who was known as very controlling of her own image and she was also very wealthy and liked to finance her own films. She signed on to become producer of this film and selected the director for which she had been wanting to work with for a long time. His name was Erich Von Stroheim. This name should sound familiar if you have watched Sunset Blvd. He plays the butler that turns out to be Gloria’s ex-husband and the director of silent pictures. In one scene when they watch a scene from a silent, it is in fact Queen Kelly that they are watching. Erich Von Stroheim had directed and starred in several films before making this film (Greed, Foolish Wives) that have cemented his reputation as a hard to work with but genius filmmaker. They began production on what Von Stroheim envisioned to be a five-hour epic. About three months into shooting and only having shot one-third of the film, but being insanely over budget, Gloria decided to fire Von Stroheim. Thus only one-third of the film was shot and the rest has been plotted out by pictures and script notes.
The first half of the film before the Prince is forced go into solitary confinement was one of the best silent films I have seen. The performance of the Prince being this dilettante who is forced into engagement with the Queen but hates her with a passion, I thought was delightfully over the top. There is nothing subtle in the characters’ dislike for his situation, so why should the performance be subtle? I also liked when the Prince met Kelly for the first time on the side of the road. They have this back and forth that I found charming and didn’t ever need words to express it. I also liked how he decides to kidnap her and they have a dinner together that involves them joking around with each other. There is no better word for it than other than charming.
After the Prince is sent to prison for refusing to give this young woman up in order to marry the queen, the film becomes muddled. This is due to the script not being fully realized and shot of course, but it makes for a hard to understand later half. She gets a not saying that her only living relative is dying in an African country. She goes to her and is forced to marry an old man (I didn’t catch the real reason why other than the old man wanted the aunt’s money and it was the only way to get) and then becomes madam of a whorehouse. The Prince finds her again after his Queen has died and whisks her off to marry her. However she takes the name of her madam hood, Queen Kelly.
Gloria Swanson shines in her role as a meek, yet brazen orphan. She holds her own against this Prince that the whole country is in love with. She jokes with him without ever using anything outlandish. She uses gestures that are subtle and inviting. She also emote from her face and gives me the feeling that I wasn’t watching a silent film. I knew what she was going through when she was forced to marry that gross older man at her aunt’s bedside. I knew she loved the Prince not because he was rich, but because he was intriguing.
From the production and publicity stills and the notes that are splashed on the screen in this Kino version, I wish they had finished it. If they had, it would have been one of the best silent films ever made. As the picture stands, it is a lesson in egotism. Don’t enter with the ego the size of Texas if you are trying to work with someone else whose ego is the same size if not bigger. I love this history of this film along with the film itself and it is worth watching for that alone. Oh and also to see one of the best female silent actresses act.