Silence is golden: Silent Superstars – The sensational Pola Negri
We all know the stereotype of the flamboyant silent film actress: the elaborately dressed seductress who is chauffeured around Hollywood in gilded cars, trudging through the most exclusive parties, leaving a trail of ex-husbands in her wake. If there’s one actress who most closely fits this image, it’s probably the “exotic” Polish-born Pola Negri. Adept at keeping her name in the press, it was her acting skills and undeniable charisma that ultimately drew audiences to her films.
Her backstory was a publicist’s dream and could easily be adapted to emphasize either privilege or bravery at will. Barbara Apolonia Chalupec was probably born in 1897 (exact dates vary by source) and grew up in the town of Lipno, Poland. (Her stage name “Pola” was based on her middle name, and “Negri” came from an Italian poet.) She claimed that her mother’s family were former aristocrats who lost their fortunes because of their support of Napoleon. When her father became a revolutionary, the Russians exiled him to Siberia and an impoverished Negri and her mother moved to Warsaw. (She later claimed her mother was a “noblewoman” and her father a “gypsy violinist,” or she said both parents were revolutionaries, or some variation of the above.)
Fortunately, Negri was a talented girl and was admitted to the Imperial Ballet Academy and then to the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts. By 1912 she had made her stage debut in the Polish theater and within a few years she had gained enough popularity to move to Germany to work at Max Reinhardt’s prestigious Berlin theater. She met her later film partner Ernest Lubitsch in 1917 during Reinhardt’s production of Sumurun (1920). While Lubitsch wasn’t exactly acting, he was making films, which apparently sparked Negri’s interest in acting in motion pictures.
She first starred in six films for Saturn Films and then began working for the German UFA studio. Her famous collaboration with Lubitsch began in 1918 when he created the big budget The eyes of the mummy Ma (The eyes of the mummy Ma) to showcase Negri’s fiery talent and stunning beauty. It followed carmen (1918) and then the influential Madame DuBarry (1919), published in the US as Dedication. Madame DuBarry was an international hit and a major boon to the German film industry, which had been largely shunned during World War I. It even threatened to weaken Hollywood’s dominance of the film market once or twice.
But not for long – Hollywood soon invited both Lubitsch and Negri to take pictures in the United States. Arriving to great fanfare in 1922, Negri was one of the first major European stars to be “imported” to Hollywood. Their first features were Bella Donna, Fraud (a remake of the 1915 classic starring Sessue Hayakawa) and The Spanish Dancerall filmed in 1923. (Lubitsch meanwhile was busy making Mary Pickfords Rosita.)
A string of high-priced films like the acclaimed one followed Forbidden Paradise (1924), her last collaboration with Lubitsch. Her talents lent themselves well to roles as a Spanish dancer and seductive lover. She also starred in the film Cheeky Confidence A woman of the world (1925), who toyed with her image as an “exotic seductress.”
The dramatic-looking diva captivated audiences with her black hair, porcelain skin, and penchant for flashy red nail polish and expensive jewelry. She bought a swanky Beverly Hills mansion modeled after Mount Vernon and was chauffeured in a cream-colored Rolls Royce or limousine, depending on the occasion. When audiences weren’t flocking to her films, they heard about her exploits in the press (despite an alleged feud with beauty queen Gloria Swanson being fabricated). She has been described as “the eternal Carmen… passionate, elemental, primitive”.
Since he had been divorced from Count Eugeniusz Dąbski since 1922, all real or potential love affairs were invoked in the tabloids – notably an early 1920s romance with Charlie Chaplin. Other lovers were Rod La Rocque and especially Rudolph Valentino. Negri had met the great Latin lover at a party given by Marion Davies in 1925, around the time Valentino was divorcing Natasha Rambova. The two had a loving if somewhat tempestuous relationship, as Negri was willing to make the occasional public scene.
When Valentino tragically passed away in 1926, Negri made headlines for her performance on his funeral bier in New York City — but not in a good way. Reporters were on hand to follow her emotional arrival at the Grand Central train station. She wore expensive black widow’s clothes and a veil, with a nurse and a publicist in tow. After passing out in the arms of her friends, she made her way to Valentino’s bier, where she prayed and cried profusely, then fainted again. Apparently, she tried to have a $2,000 flower arrangement of white roses and the words “POLA” draped on the coffin for the funeral. While some friends later claimed her theatrical acts were genuine, the public found them attention-grabbing and distasteful.
Negri’s reputation continued to sour when she married “Prince” Serge Mdivani, of Georgian descent, less than a year after Valentino’s death. In 1928, Negri discovered she was pregnant and considered retiring from the screen to start a family. But to her great sorrow she experienced a miscarriage. The marriage to Mdivani, who turned out to be a strong player, was to last only a few more years. She would not marry again.
Negri would handle the transition to talkie just fine, but the material she was given tended to be subpar. She returned to Germany for a few years to make films for the old UFA studio, but returned to the US after the Nazis came to power. After largely retiring from entertainment in 1945, she was approached by Billy Wilder for the title role in The Movie Twilight Boulevard in 1948. Though her silent-era image is arguably the closest thing to the fictional Norma Desmond, she turned it down. After her mother’s death in 1954, Negri moved to San Antonio, where she spent her remaining years in peace.
Negri’s last film appearance – in color – was the Disney crime film The moon spinners (1964). In 1970 she published an autobiography entitled memories of a star In later life she was a devout Catholic and also raised funds for Catholic charities. She left large parts of her estate to the Polish nuns of the Seraphic Order in San Antonio and to St. Mary’s University in Texas, which was also fortunate to receive her memorabilia from her Hollywood glory days.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Here you can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles.
Lea Stans is a Minnesota-born and raised actress with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely credits to Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion on her website Silent-ology, she is also a columnist for Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.