Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Sensational Pola Negri
We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the flamboyant silent film actress: the lavishly-dressed temptress being chauffeured around Hollywood in gold-plated automobiles, stalking through the most exclusive parties, leaving a trail of ex-husbands in her wake. If there’s one actress who conforms the most closely to this image, it’s probably the “exotic” Polish-born Pola Negri. Savvy at keeping her name in the press, it was her acting skills and undeniable charisma that ultimately kept audiences coming to her films.
Her backstory was a publicist’s dream, being the sort that could be easily tweaked to emphasize either privilege or pluckiness at will. Believed to have been born in 1897 (exact dates have varied according to source), Barbara Apolonia Chalupec was raised in the town of Lipno, Poland. (Her screen name “Pola” was based on her middle name, and “Negri” came from an Italian poet.) She claimed her mother’s family were former aristocrats who had lost their fortune due to their support of Napoleon. When her father turned revolutionary, the Russians exiled him to Siberia and an impoverished Negri and her mother moved to Warsaw. (Later in life she would claim her mother was a “noblewoman” and her father a “Gypsy violinist,” or said that both parents were revolutionaries, or some variation of the above.)
Fortunately, Negri was a talented girl and was accepted into the Imperial Ballet Academy and then the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts. By 1912 she had made her stage debut in Polish theater, and in a few years she had gained enough popularity to move to Germany to work at Max Reinhardt’s prestigious Berlin theater. She first met future film collaborator Ernest Lubitsch in 1917 during Reinhardt’s production of Sumurun (1920). While Lubitsch wasn’t acting he was directing films, and this apparently piqued Negri’s interest in acting in moving pictures.
She initially appeared in six films for Saturn Films, then started working for Germany’s UFA studio. Her famed collaboration with Lubitsch began in 1918, when he created the big-budget Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy Ma) to showcase Negri’s fiery talents and striking beauty. This was followed by Carmen (1918) and then the influential Madame DuBarry (1919), released in the U.S. as Passion. Madame DuBarry was an international hit and a major boon for the German film industry, which had been largely shunned during World War I. It even threatened to knock Hollywood’s dominance in the film market down a peg or two.
But not for long–Hollywood soon invited both Lubitsch and Negri to make pictures in the U.S. Negri arrived in 1922 with much fanfare, making her one of the first major European stars to be “imported” to Hollywood. Her first features were Bella Donna, The Cheat (a remake of the 1915 classic starring Sessue Hayakawa), and The Spanish Dancer, all filmed in 1923. (Lubitsch, in the meantime, was busy making Mary Pickford’s Rosita.)
These were followed by a string of big-budget films like the acclaimed Forbidden Paradise (1924), her last collaboration with Lubitsch. Her talents were well-suited for Spanish dancer and seductive lover roles. She also starred in the cheekily self-aware A Woman of the World (1925), which toyed with her “exotic temptress” image.
The dramatic-looking diva, with her black hair, porcelain skin, and penchant for flashy red nail polish and expensive jewels, fascinated the public. She bought a swanky Beverly Hills mansion modeled after Mount Vernon and was chauffeured about in a cream-colored Rolls Royce or a limousine, depending on the occasion. When audiences weren’t flocking to her films they were hearing about her exploits in the press (although a supposed feud with fellow beauty queen Gloria Swanson was fabricated). She was described as “the eternal Carmen… passionate, elemental, primitive.”
Divorced from Count Eugeniusz Dąbski since 1922, any real or potential love affairs were fawned over in the tabloids – especially an early 1920s romance with Charlie Chaplin. Other lovers included Rod La Rocque and, most famously, Rudolph Valentino. Negri had met the great Latin Lover at a Marion Davies party in 1925, around the time Valentino was divorcing Natasha Rambova. The two had an affectionate, if somewhat tempestuous relationship, given Negri’s willingness to cause the occasional public scene.
When Valentino tragically passed away in 1926, Negri made headlines for her appearance at his funeral bier in New York City – and not in a positive way. Reporters were on hand to see her emotional arrival at Grand Central station, wearing expensive black widow’s weeds and a veil, with a nurse and publicist in tow. After fainting into the arms of her friends, she made her way to Valentino’s bier, where she prayed and wept copiously and then fainted again. Apparently she tried to have a $2000 flower arrangement draped on the coffin for the funeral, with white roses spelling out “POLA.” While some friends later claimed her histrionics were genuine, the public felt they were attention-seeking and in bad taste.
Negri’s reputation fell further 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 raise a family. But to her lasting grief, she had a miscarriage. The marriage to Mdivani, who turned out to be a heavy gambler, would only last a few more years. She would not remarry.
Negri would weather the transition to talkies well, but the material she was given tended to be subpar. She would return to Germany for a few years to make films for the old UFA studio, but returned to the U.S. when the Nazis took over. Largely retiring from the entertainment business in 1945, she would be approached by Billy Wilder for the title role in Sunset Boulevard in 1948. Despite her silent era image arguably being the closest to the fictional Norma Desmond, she turned it down. After the death of her mother in 1954, Negri moved to San Antonio where she quietly spent her remaining years.
Negri’s last film appearance – in full color – was the Disney mystery film The Moon-Spinners (1964). In 1970 she released an autobiography titled Memoirs of a Star. A devout Catholic in her later life, she also fundraised for Catholic charities. She would leave sizable portions of her estate to the Polish nuns of the Seraphic Order in San Antonio, as well as St. Mary’s University in Texas, which was also fortunate to receive her memorabilia from her glory days in Hollywood.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.
Outstanding article on Ms. Negri, Lea!
Why thank you, I appreciate it!
Wonderful article, Lea. You admirably balanced her publicity-seeking side with her genuine talent.
Thank you, that’s a great compliment!