Intended as his great masterpiece, Erich von Stroheim’s last silent film, Queen Kelly (1929), is perhaps the most famous example of an unfinished work in cinematic history. The great director enjoyed mocking the opulent and decadent lifestyles of the aristocracy.
The film is set in the fictional European city of Kronberg and it tells the story of the Prince Regent, Wolfram (played by Walter Byron), who is engaged to be married to Queen Regina V (played in a mesmerizing performance by Seena Owen). Supreme ruler, Regina’s word is law and he is a mere plaything for her pleasure. The wild, but wimpish, Wolfram strikes up a flirtation with the saucy, tempestuous convent-girl Patricia Kelly, played by the legendary actress, Gloria Swanson. Enthralled by her beauty, the prince kidnaps Kelly from the convent, takes her to his room and professes his love for her.
Von Stroheim stages the primal conflict between the two Women in such a lavish operatic style that it's almost impossible not to get caught up in the underlying emotions. The possessive Queen is determined to have the prince all to herself, whether or not he loves her. In a breathtaking sequence, when the Queen has caught Kelly and her betrothed in bed together, she banishes her rival from the palace, whipping her unmercifully, as the Queen’s amused male courtiers laugh at the spectacle. Regina then puts Wolfram into prison for not wanting to marry her.
The film fell afoul of budget issues due to Production Code censorship, an unhappy Swanson and, most damagingly, the advent of motion picture sound.