Chapter 1: Re-introducing the Greatest Film Star You’ve Never Heard Of
Pola Negri—and that couldn’t be the name of anyone but a great silent film star— was the most exotic and enigmatic movie star of the 1920’s and 30’s. A woman of “otherworldly” and “untranslatable” beauty, she had hair “the color of night” or “black as a raven’s wing,” skin that was flawless and “white as fine porcelain,” and “a sensuous mouth painted blood red.” Her large blue-green-gray eyes—no one was ever exactly sure of their color— could flash the blackest thunderclouds or beckon a thousand desires that sent shivers up the spines of the strongest of men. Playwright and author Michael Arlen called her the kind of woman who in ancient times “could wreck empires and bring them to their knees.”
She was born for the movies. Her life reads like a movie plot. She lived a childhood of poverty in her native Poland, survived a world war and married a Count—all before her twenty-second birthday. She became a star of the stage in Berlin—and then a star in moving pictures. People who saw her in her groundbreaking turns in films like Passion and Gypsy Blood felt like “they had been hit by an electrical storm.” By 1920, she was regarded as the leading tragedienne of the silent cinema. Signed by Famous Players-Lasky to make moving pictures in America, she stormed Hollywood in 1922 as one of the most talked and written-about movie stars of her time.
Critics loved her. They used words like “colorful,” “vital” and “volcanic” to describe her performances. She was lauded for her “emotional depth” and her “real characterizations” in her movies. She threw herself into her roles with abandon, demonstrating a frankness and fearlessness not seen in other actresses of the 1920’s. Writers raved about her passion and her emotional intensity. Pola always got good reviews—even when the picture itself wasn’t quite up to her dramatic capabilities.
More importantly, Pola Negri defined the concept of “movie star” as we use the term today. The press hungrily devoured every photograph she granted or interview she gave them. They called her The Negri or La Negri or Pola The Terrible—to gossip columnists she was “The Queen of Tragedy”—to Paramount she was “The Empress of Emotionalism” and to the movie magazines she was “The Wildcat,” “The Tigress” or that indomitable “tiger-woman.” Love her or hate her, she made for good copy, to say the least. She was colorful, intelligent, and European—an opinionated foreigner—and mysterious—with a colorful and dramatic past that publicity literally invented for her. Everything she said or did was a headline—her colorful quotes and “fits of temperament” made her legendary—even if what they wrote about her wasn’t always true. She was one of Famous Players-Lasky’s biggest stars, a top-level talent on par with Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford in terms of popularity; earning $7,500-a-week under her studio contract; and living the extravagant life of a silent movie queen draped in glittering jewelry, residing in a Beverly Hills mansion with dozens of rooms, and riding around in extravagant limousines with liveried chauffeurs and her pet Russian wolfhounds. Yet this fabled figure—this “creature of flame and desire” as one writer put it—a woman who was once one of the most famous and wealthiest movie stars in the world, is virtually unknown today–undone in the end by everything that made her a star in the first place.
It’s understandable if you haven’t heard of her. She isn’t anywhere as well-known as Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, or Greta Garbo–and most of the time she merely rates a passing mention in most film history books. Only a handful of her silent films have survived. From 1923 to 1928, Miss Negri starred in twenty full-length features for the Famous Players-Lasky, nee Paramount Pictures studio. Sadly, thirteen of these films are lost forever and two are in incomplete versions. Most of what has been written about her dwells on her romances and her fabled “temperament”—recycled “facts” distilled from old publicity stories that were never true to begin with. Modern reviewers mock and ridicule her, describing her acting as “grand-eloquent” and “over-the-top” without ever having seen one of her pictures.
Beyond the shopworn myths and erroneous conclusions is a true movie icon awaiting re- discovery. Delve into the dust of silent film history and you’ll readily come to understand and appreciate Pola Negri’s place in the pantheon of great stars of the first era of film. Here is an actress of dazzling personality, magnetic charm, and great dramatic power and passion. This is the tale of a fascinating and formidable woman that once commanded the attention of the entire world.
Most of Pola’s biographers skim over the details that they don’t care to write about, simplifying the life of a complex and enigmatic woman—a paradox. Harry Carr wrote of her in Motion Picture Magazine, “Pola is cruel, condescending, humble, contrite, generous, sweetly reasonable, gracious with a charm that would disarm an ogre, disagreeable, ungracious, winning, forbidding.” Even in the millions of photographs taken of her during her movie career she possesses the odd quality of never looking like the same person twice.
The details of her life are shrouded in contradictions and questions marks, often dangling precariously between slight exaggeration and outright falsehood. Was Pola Negri an intimate member of Tsar Nicholas I’s inner circle before the revolution? Did she tour Europe as a concert violinist? No—but she never said she didn’t either. In fact, she told endless variations of her own life story and lied if it made her more interesting or if it regarded something she didn’t want to discuss. The one true fact about her is that her press coverage–loud, brash and over-the-top– created the persona of someone called “Pola Negri” and, I would argue, that persona became her. For these reasons, her tale is a witch’s brew distilled of equal parts impossible-to-corroborate gossip and studio publicity; exaggerations and fabrications; and enduring speculation to this day about everything from her real full name and date of birth to her sexuality.
The old stories about her are enshrined in Hollywood lore. Did she really parade down Hollywood Boulevard with a pet tiger on a leash? No. Did she and Gloria Swanson have a cat fight involving real cats? Sort of. Was she a spy? No, but J. Edgar Hoover suspected so. Did she inspire a fashion vogue for painted fingernails and toenails and popularize the turban? Yes. Did she throw herself on Valentino’s coffin and faint repeatedly at his funeral solely for the benefit of photographers? No..Lord, no. Was she Adolph Hitler’s mistress? No. Did her “heavy” Polish accent end her movie career when talkies came along? No, no, no. Was she bisexual or lesbian or straight? Maybe.
The unfortunate result of all of the errors, misconceptions and exaggerations about her, repeated over and over in the one hundred years since she made her very first moving picture, has been to obscure the real Pola Negri, reducing her from flesh-and-blood to a caricature, to little more than a temper-tantrum throwing diva and a publicity-seeking opportunist. She deserves a full portrait and that’s what this book aims to do.
All best intentions aside, Miss Negri is not an easy figure to write about. She was not “just a regular person” or “the girl-next-door.” She was temperamental, stubborn, pretentious, haughty, and highly-opinionated—far more than what a woman of her time was allowed to or supposed to be. She made terrible and foolish decisions regarding her film career and the men in her life and they cost her dearly in the end. She cared little about the shifting tides of public opinion and despite studio efforts to temper her individuality for American consumption, she saw no reason to be sympathetic or loved by the public on anything other than her own terms. If you didn’t like her—that was just too bad for you.
Her attitudes on everything from movie stardom to matters of the heart marked her as a woman far ahead of her time. Self-assured and independent, she wasn’t what the very conservative public of her time thought she should be—sweet, pretty, and demure. The movie-going public never seemed to get that she could only be what she could be. Nothing more. They were shocked when she lived out her romantic relationships with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino squarely in the public eye without much of an interest in what anybody else thought or wanted to think about it. When she loved, she did so openly with all of the thunder and lightning of passion. When she grieved, it was like an open wound on display for the whole world to see.
Pola was a modern and sophisticated woman with a European sensibility free of the puritan mores of small-town America; an intellectual at a time that intelligent women were frowned upon; and a serious artiste who believed passionately in her own “art.” Her acclaimed acting raised the bar for every movie star in Hollywood and, just as significantly, she changed the cultural landscape as well. She was a trailblazer. Her continental fashion style forged the way for the liberated flapper and she was one of the first actresses to unabashedly depict sexuality on the picture screen without any display of self-consciousness or remorse. She was also the first foreign star to succeed in an era of extreme xenophobia. Without Pola Negri there never would have been a Garbo or Dietrich to follow.
Today, Pola Negri remains a vital part of the conversation whenever silent pictures are seriously discussed. As such, a new detailed re-telling of her life and movie career would seem appropriate; if, for no other reason, than to finally strip away, like old varnish, the many myths and inaccuracies about her and return her to her rightful place as one of the greatest stars of the silent screen.