“I am a woman of the world, not the world’s woman,” states “Elnora Natatorini,” as played by Pola Negri in the 1925 A Woman of the World. She has just found the man she adores holding another woman in his arms. Despite her diamond earrings, her stylish bobbed hair, her lengthy fur train, her chestful of orchids, and, most significantly, her lover’s family crest tattooed on her forearm, she has lost in the game of love. What to do, what to do? Since she’s Pola Negri, she’s not just going to stand around. She announces she’ll journey “to the other side of the world.” It’s a familiar silent film female crisis, setting the audience up for a tale of tragedy and degradation. However, A Woman of the World is directed by the witty Malcolm St. Clair and stars the versatile and often unpredictable Negri. There will be some suffering, some hurt feelings, some misunderstandings, and even a savage whipping, but mostly there will be audience delight and surprise, starting with “the other side of the world,” which turns out to be Maple Valley, Iowa, instead of an exotic retreat in the Himalayas.
When Negri steps off the train in Maple Valley (“127 miles to Des Moines, 210 miles to Davenport”) to visit a bumpkin cousin (Chester Conklin), it’s the perfect setup for a culture clash to end all culture clashes. Negri swishes into her relative’s ordinary existence waving her black onyx cigarette holder around, and it’s as if the circus has come to town and the panther is loose in the living room. She lolls in a hammock in chiffon and satin shoes, scandalizes a stiff prig who wants to run her out of town (Holbert Holmes), and never hesitates to flash her tattoo. She fends off a young would-be suitor (“Remember me as half lover and half mother”), survives the “The Water Works Bazaar” at which she’s the main attraction (“Talk to a real countess, 25¢”), and finally marries the prig (but only after publicly horse-whipping him).
Pola Negri carries all this off with grace and nonchalance. She was an actress who could—and did—do everything on-screen in a believable manner. Today she’s often thought of mainly as a graduate of the Norma Desmond school of movie stardom. Negri herself helped promote this myth because she understood that colorful behavior would enhance and prolong her time in the limelight. She played movie star twenty-four hours a day. She drove around Hollywood in a chauffeured white Rolls Royce upholstered in velvet, sitting in the back under a white fur rug, flanked by two white Russian wolfhounds. She painted her toenails fire engine red, scattered orchid petals on her dressing room floor, kept a pet tiger on a leash, conducted a pseudo-feud with Gloria Swanson, and enjoyed hot love affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. These outrageous shenanigans made really good copy, but Negri backed them up with talent and hard work.
Pola Negri was born in the late 1890s (dates vary) in Poland. She studied ballet, appeared on stage, and began making movies around 1914, migrating to Germany in 1917 where she rose to the top in both film and theater. In Berlin she formed a strong professional relationship with the great director Ernst Lubitsch, and their work together in movies such as Carmen (1918), Madame Dubarry (1919), and Sumurun (1921) inevitably brought them to Hollywood’s attention. They arrived in America in 1922. Negri was an immediate success, presenting the image of a woman who possessed a strong sexuality and felt no need to hide it or curb it. She could enact fearless portrayals of erotic passion on-screen, but she could also be humorous, light, and playful—the qualities that had attracted Lubitsch. Her range is on display in A Woman of the World, where her skills are beautifully directed by Malcolm St. Clair, often described as “another Lubitsch.” (The comparison is not incorrect, just incomplete.)
St. Clair’s name is not as well known as it should be. A sophisticated, fashionable man with a distinct cinematic style of his own, he was responsible for many excellent silent comedies, such as The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926), Breakfast at Sunrise (1927), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). He began his career as a Keystone Kop and then became a gag writer for Mack Sennett. He codirected shorts with Buster Keaton (The Goat, 1921; The Blacksmith, 1922) and steered dog star Rin Tin Tin vehicles (Find Your Man, Lighthouse by the Sea, both from 1924). The hallmark of St. Clair’s style was his remarkable ability to clarify action and emotion without reliance on titles. He did not use multiple cameras, believing effective performances were obtained by using only one. St. Clair said: “A film actor, unlike a stage actor, must have something to play to. On the stage he has the audience. In the movies, it is the camera. How can you poke five or six cameras into a set … and expect an actor to give a smooth performance?”
The St. Clair philosophy of camera and performance is well illustrated in A Woman of the World. In 1925 he already understood how important it was to build a strong alliance between the viewing audience and a character such as the “tattooed countess.” Since the film is all about Negri’s star power, St. Clair showcases her gift of interior acting, in which she allows an array of clearly, but subtly defined emotions to play across her expressive face. (A radiant beauty, wide-eyed and broad-cheeked, Negri had one of the great faces of silent cinema and she knew how to use it. She’s a completely commanding movie presence.) St. Clair holds on Negri’s close-ups, giving her all the time she needs, letting her create an unspoken “dialogue” with her viewers. In one scene Chester Conklin stands in front of her. To display his familial solidarity he starts taking off his clothes to bare his own hidden tattoos. Using only one camera, St. Clair shows Negri’s response in medium close-ups. She looks stunned, and then unexpectedly amused. In spite of herself, she starts a low laugh, a sort of “I can’t believe this man is doing this” response. She tries to stop, but the laugh builds. She finally lets it erupt full force. She throws back her head and roars, a raucous out-and-out guffaw. She has moved from a detached and elegant sophistication to an involved and girlish participation in an example of the effective St. Clair/Negri cinematic chemistry.
A Woman of the World (based on a popular 1924 novel by Carl Van Vechten, A Tattooed Countess) at first seems to be working an old-fashioned idea of how rubes narrow-mindedly reject a woman just because she has a tattoo. (The original novel was not really a comedy.) However, St. Clair and Negri know how to find the humanity and the humor in the situation, giving the film a modern vibe. Ultimately, two women bond together to resolve the bad behavior of men, as Iowa and the Riviera learn to tolerate one another, with a little whipping to speed the process.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Donald Sosin