When Pola Negri arrived in the United States in 1922 after a spectacular career in German cinema, the Polish star was the first European actress to be signed to a contract by a major Hollywood studio. Already famous for the films she made with director Ernst Lubitsch, she was glamorous, exotic, the very epitome of a vamp. But as movie audiences soon found out, Negri’s range went far beyond the temptress stereotype. Before Garbo and Dietrich, there was Negri.
Negri’s third Hollywood film, The Spanish Dancer, is not only enormously entertaining, it allows Negri to be more than a one-dimensional seductress. “Negri comes back and is again the Negri that electrified the world in Passion,” according to the San Antonio Express. The film is a lavishly produced swashbuckler set in 17th century Spain. Negri plays dancer Maritana, who falls in love with a dashing but impecunious nobleman and must fight off the advances of the lecherous King Philip IV. Although Maritana’s titled lover, played by Antonio Moreno, swaggers grandly, Negri is at the center of the action. She dances, romances, tells fortunes, jumps on and off horses, and suffers gallantly, displaying her charm, her range, and her dancer’s grace. Her acting is subtle, soulfully expressive yet understated. Interviewed in a 2006 documentary about Negri, film historian Jeanine Basinger noted: “She has great physical control and she has eloquence to her body. She can do that thing that silent film stars needed to do, which is act from the head to the toe, use the entire body as an instrument of expression.”
That physical eloquence was a talent that Negri developed early. Born Apolonia Chalupec in 1897 in a part of Poland then ruled by Russia, Negri claimed her mother was from impoverished nobility and that her father was a Polish nationalist who spent years in Siberian prison. He never returned to his family and Pola’s mother struggled to provide for her daughter, who was accepted into the Russian Imperial Ballet school but had to abandon dance because of illness. After she recovered she studied acting, and, by the time World War I began, she was an established theater actress in Warsaw. That same year, she appeared in her first feature film, Niewolnica Zmyslów (1914).
A starring role in the Warsaw stage production of Max Reinhardt’s Arabian Nights tale Sumurun led to an offer to appear in the theater impresario’s revival of the play in Berlin in 1917, and soon Negri became a star on the German stage as well. She also was married briefly to the Polish count Eugene Dambski. Even though the marriage didn’t last, the title did—Negri continued to call herself Countess Dambski even after she went to America. A professional partnership formed during the Berlin run of Sumurun proved more lasting and more satisfying.
Ernst Lubitsch, who played a hunchback jester in Sumurun the play, also wrote and directed films. He got Negri a contract with Ufa (Universum-Film AG), Germany’s largest and most important film studio, and starred her in his first major feature, The Eyes of the Mummy (1918), a lurid melodrama costarring Emil Jannings. It was a huge hit and, over the next several years, Lubitsch and Negri collaborated on several more big-budget successes that were released in the U.S. A New York Times review of the film version of Sumurun (1920) noted, “Pola Negri, a Polish-German [sic] actress, is one of the few real players of the screen who can make a character live and be something other than an actress playing a part.” Two years later, she left for America.
Hollywood had never seen anyone like Pola Negri. She had a flair for publicity, flinging herself into affairs with Charles Chaplin and the star she claimed was the great love of her life, Rudolph Valentino. Negri emphasized her dramatic beauty with a dramatic wardrobe, wearing mostly black or white, wrapping herself in furs, dripping with enormous jewels. She started fashion trends such as red-painted toenails, turbans, and high Cossack boots. Her car was a white Rolls-Royce upholstered in white velvet with ivory door handles, accessorized with a chauffeur in white livery. She could sometimes be seen walking her two white Russian wolfhounds or her pet tiger along Sunset Boulevard. Fan magazines described Negri as a “magnificent wildcat” and an “exotic sorceress.”
All these shenanigans brought out the audiences for Negri’s first two American films, Bella Donna (1923) and The Cheat (1923), both routine melodramas. The Spanish Dancer was a better showcase for Negri’s versatility. The project had been intended for the studio’s top male star, Rudolph Valentino, who was to play the cash-strapped nobleman. But he and the studio were mired in a contract dispute, so the screenplay was reworked to focus on the gypsy dancer instead. Negri wanted Lubitsch to direct, but Mary Pickford had already imported him for Rosita (1923), which used the same source material as The Spanish Dancer. Both films were in production around the same time, the latter with Herbert Brenon directing and sumptuously photographed by the great James Wong Howe. In her memoir, Negri describes Brenon as “a good, but not inspired director … a volatile and fastidious man who insisted that things be done his way.” Negri was already gaining a reputation as temperamental, and Brenon’s autocratic ways were difficult for her to accept. “I could not help seeing certain scenes as Lubitsch would have directed them. This resulted in many flare-ups that often held up work for an entire day,” she admitted.
According to Negri, her film won the Spanish Dancer vs. Rosita face-off. The San Francisco Chronicle gushingly agreed: “Tasteful magnificence, artistic extravagance, splendid lavishness—The Spanish Dancer is a glorious picture.” The New York World critic noted, “There seems to be more of the dash of the old European Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer than in any cinema she has made since Hollywood got a hold of her.” Negri and Lubitsch finally reunited for Forbidden Paradise (1924), her best American film.
Negri’s private life continued to make headlines. Many thought that her extravagant show of grief over Valentino’s death was just another publicity stunt. If true, the publicity backfired. Her box-office appeal faltered, and, when she married a fortune-hunting Georgian prince, her popularity sank even lower. When her contract ended in 1928, she retired to her chateau in France, returning to America to make her first talking film, A Woman Commands (1932). But her flamboyant screen persona was out of style in Depression-era America. Returning to Germany, she became a star all over again. There were rumors, which Negri adamantly denied, that she had become Hitler’s mistress. She made films there until the outbreak of World War II and returned to the U.S. in 1941, where she lived out of the public eye until her death in 1987.
Negri fans had one last glimpse of her in the Disney adventure The Moonspinners (1964). Negri plays a jewel thief who lives on a yacht and keeps a cheetah for a pet. She makes the most of her brief appearance, every inch the glamorous icon who has “lived through two wars, four revolutions, and five marriages,” in the words of her character. At the press conference for the film, she entered with the cheetah on a leash. It was a fitting swan song for one of the silent era’s most dazzling stars.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Donald Sosin