Pola Negri

Pola Negri: Hollywood's First Femme Fatale

Mariusz Kotowski
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vkkpf
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Pola Negri
    Book Description:

    Pola Negri (1897--1987) rose from an impoverished childhood in Warsaw, Poland, to become one of early Hollywood's greatest stars. After tuberculosis ended her career as a ballerina in 1912, she turned to acting and worked under legendary directors Max Reinhardt and Ernst Lubitsch in Germany. Negri preceded Lubitsch to Hollywood, where she quickly became a fan favorite thanks to her beauty, talent, and diva personality. Known for her alluring sexuality and biting artistic edge, she starred in more than sixty films and defined the image of the cinematic femme fatale.

    Author Mariusz Kotowski brings the screen siren's story to English-speaking audiences for the first time in this fascinating biography. At the height of her fame, Negri often portrayed exotic and mysterious temptresses, headlining in such successes as The Spanish Dancer (1923) and Forbidden Paradise (1924), before returning to Europe in the 1930s. The devastating effects of World War II soon drove her back to the United States, where she starred in Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and pursued her vaudeville career before retiring from the entertainment industry.

    Kotowski also illuminates Negri's dramatic personal life, detailing her numerous love affairs -- including her engagement to Charlie Chaplin and her romance with Rudolph Valentino -- as well as her multiple marriages. This long-overdue biography not only paints a detailed portrait of one classic Hollywood's most intriguing stars and the film industry's original Jezebel, but also explores the link between Hollywood and European cinema during the interwar years.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4490-0
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Charles Silver

    When Mariusz Kotowski approached me in 2006 about showing his documentary,Pola Negri: Life Is a Dream in Cinema,at the Museum of Modern Art, I was well aware (as a film historian) of Negri’s place as one of the major stars of the silent period. I came to be surprised, however, by the fact that she seemed to have been forgotten by so many people. This made the showing of Mariusz’s film and a small Negri retrospective seem all the more urgent. The story Mariusz tells in his film and in this biography is so full of twists and...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    When I was growing up in Poland, Pola Negri was a household name. My mother introduced me to her at a very young age, even though we were not able to see any of her films. At the time, during the 1960s and 1970s, Polish people did not have access to American films, which is where Negri really made her name, and none of her German works were available either. She was a countrywoman who had made good in the magical, faraway land called Hollywood. How did she do it?

    Books about Hollywood stars were banned in postwar Poland, where...

  5. 1 Early Years in Poland
    (pp. 5-16)

    In her final film,The Moon-Spinners(1964), Pola Negri utters a line that screenwriter Michael Dybne wrote just for her. Playing a mysterious, world-weary jewel thief, Negri says, “I have survived two wars, four revolutions, and five marriages.” Other than the exaggerated number of husbands (she was married twice, once to a count and once to a prince), the line is pretty much true—and makes an excellent introduction to the tumultuous life of Pola Negri.

    Pola was born into a changing Europe and a new century. As peasants moved off the farms to the factories, the cities grew gray,...

  6. 2 The Move to Berlin
    (pp. 17-22)

    Born Maximilian Goldmann in Baden near Vienna in 1873, Max Reinhardt had a commanding presence. Forthright but gentle, he was a man who knew how to put on a show. As a young actor, he played mainly depressing character roles, to the delight of the critics, but these roles didn’t satisfy him. Reinhardt wanted to work on more uplifting, exuberant projects that would also be more lucrative.

    Reinhardt was a protégé of Otto Brahm, director of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The productions there leaned heavily on naturalism, a school of thought that tended toward “doom and gloom,” shunning God...

  7. 3 With Lubitsch in Germany
    (pp. 23-36)

    The silent era was, of course, the beginning of the invention of a new language—the language of film. Everything had to be made from nothing, and many mistakes were made before standards were established. “The extraordinary thing about those early days of films was that we all invented ourselves as we went along,” Negri said afterward. “There were no guidelines.”¹

    Just as the director needed new equipment to accommodate his ever-growing vision of light and motion, the actors needed to adjust the skills of their craft to these visions. The use of the close-up, for example, forced performers to...

  8. 4 Postwar Berlin
    (pp. 37-46)

    At first, Pola Negri did little socializing in Berlin. Friends offered her invitations, but she declined; books were her main entertainment. Her friend Paola Loebel, a Jewish intellectual, and her social circle did their utmost to urge Negri to go out, and they finally succeeded. Loebel and her friends took Negri to play tennis during the day and to local hot spots after dark. The social whirl offered relief from the slow tedium of her marriage to Count Dombski. Negri adored the dances coming over from America and the freedoms they embodied. America was young and in love with itself,...

  9. 5 Switzerland to Paris to New York
    (pp. 47-52)

    Negri now headed to St. Moritz for the Swiss opening ofMadame Du Barry.She traveled with Lena, her maid, and Paola Loebel, who gave Negri English lessons and functioned as her secretary. Negri now found that she had to study constantly, whether it was scripts or languages. She had learned German in Berlin, and her relationship with Petronius helped with that. Negri was still lonely for her lover, but there was no remedy like a wide-open future. She was on her way to the country where she knew she would achieve her dreams. Her first stop was St. Moritz,...

  10. 6 Coming to Hollywood
    (pp. 53-62)

    Pola Negri stepped off theMajesticat Ellis Island wearing a small black hat and a white satin dress trimmed with fur, according to news reports, and was instantly barraged by reporters and photographers. The already established actress Mabel Normand was also on the voyage from Europe, returning from a vacation, yet the press almost ignored her arrival as they swarmed around the exotic beauty from Poland. Reporters bombarded her with questions, and nobody waited his turn. Negri was used to more structured interviews, and all the pushing and shoving made her panic. “In my confusion I momentarily forgot every...

  11. 7 Paramount Pictures, 1922
    (pp. 63-68)

    The film industry was breaking new ground and setting new standards daily. The silent era gave birth to the feature film, the narrative film, and the studio system. It also generated stardom, fandom, fan magazines, and the press that drove it all. The use of long shots and close-ups continued to evolve in Europe as well as the United States, but, thanks to D. W. Griffith, America was beginning to lead the way artistically and technically. With its studio lots and sound stages, Hollywood could save money by producing feature films very quickly.

    Controlled lighting was the critical component of...

  12. 8 Engagement to Chaplin
    (pp. 69-82)

    Charlie Chaplin was set on romancing Pola Negri from the day he met her. In his bookMy Trip Abroad,written in 1921, he elaborated on her extraordinary beauty: “Pola Negri is really beautiful. She is Polish and true to the type: beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth, and wonderful coloring. It is such a pity such coloring does not register on the screen. She is the center of attraction here, what a voice she has! Her mouth speaks so prettily the German language. Her voice has a soft, mellow quality with charming inflections. When offered a drink, she clinks...

  13. 9 Gloria Swanson
    (pp. 83-88)

    When Pola Negri arrived at Paramount in 1922, Gloria Swanson was the biggest female star on the lot. Reporters were smacking their lips at the possibility of a rivalry between the two famous women. When the press didn’t get what they hoped for, they fabricated plots and dialogue. The public loved to read about the alleged rivalry between Swanson and Negri.

    Both stars were under contract at Paramount at the same time, so it was not surprising that each considered herself the number one star. That alone was a good setup for a feud. According to what was written about...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 10 Paramount Pictures, 1923–1924
    (pp. 89-98)

    With her first two American films and a broken Hollywood engagement behind her, Pola Negri rededicated herself to her career and told the studio she wanted to act in a different type of role. In a 1923Movie Weeklyarticle, “What America Has Done for Pola Negri,” she was blunt about her opinion ofBella Donna:“I didn’t likeBella Donnamyself. My imagination of the role was so different! But I allowed myself to be persuaded. They said to me, ‘Ah, but American audiences are different! You will not succeed unless you adapt yourself to our ways.’ But you...

  16. 11 Forbidden Paradise
    (pp. 99-104)

    Ernst Lubitsch enjoyed living in Hollywood, but he had yet to find his directorial stride. Since Mary Pickford imported him from Europe to make the disappointingRosita,he had worked for Paramount, United Artists, and Warner Bros. without really finding a niche. None of his films had been particularly profitable—which was what the studios cared most about—and his latest film for Warner Bros.,The Marriage Circle,hadn’t gotten much of a reception. Negri and Lubitsch now lived next door to each other in Beverly Hills, and they became part of each other’s everyday lives. Seeing his Hollywood prospects...

  17. 12 Becoming a Star
    (pp. 105-118)

    With the demand for movies growing greater and greater during the Roaring Twenties, Famous Players–Lasky, now known as Paramount, built a bigger, better-equipped studio, with offices fit for its growing success. Pola Negri, as one of its top actresses, was given lots of incentive to stay. After Gloria Swanson left the studio to make her own films, Negri’s salary was increased to $7,500 a week for the first year of her contract, $8,500 for the second, and $10,000 a week for the third. Negri’s new contract also guaranteed her a European vacation. Before she left, Paramount threw a lavish...

  18. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  19. 13 Finding Valentino
    (pp. 119-128)

    As Pola grew more certain of her audience, a new man appeared on the horizon. Fate seemed to play a hand in that romantic development. Valentino biographer Emily Leider explains: “Valentino apparently sawMadame Du Barrybefore Pola Negri came to this country and supposedly he wrote her a fan letter right after he saw it at a private screening. He described himself as a worm worshipping at the foot of a great star. Valentino had a tendency to describe himself in abject terms, so I’m not surprised that he would take that approach to Pola Negri, and I think...

  20. 14 Losing Valentino
    (pp. 129-148)

    The year 1926 found the lovers in peak form. They dined in front of an open fireplace and drank wine, and Rudy Valentino whispered loving words in French, their mutual language. Valentino had imagination and a great deal of style. Sometimes he was a charming and gallant gentleman, and sometimes, just to spice things up, he would act rough. Negri and Valentino created a world of beauty together—their own intimate universe. They stayed in bed whenever they could. Their love was pure togetherness, and neither of them wanted to break the trance. Former Paramount producer A. C. Lyles comments...

  21. 15 Paramount Pictures, 1927
    (pp. 149-154)

    When Max Reinhardt came to Los Angeles after his successful new production ofThe Miracle,Pola Negri had become everything he knew she would, proving that he had an eye for spotting talent. Negri arranged a private screening ofHotel Imperial,and he was very impressed. “I would give half my life if I could produce and direct a picture like that one,” Reinhardt told Mauritz Stiller. That was a huge compliment for the director ofHotel Imperial,and it meant the world to him.

    Stiller passed all the honors to Negri for working under “unendurable agony” and completing the...

  22. 16 Princess Mdivani
    (pp. 155-160)

    Back in happier days, Negri and Valentino had attended the wedding of David Mdivani and Mae Murray. Mdivani’s brother, Serge, had a Latin look to him, while David was more Nordic-looking. Cheerful and full of energy, they both liked visiting Negri’s house in Santa Monica for a swim in the ocean. They had a tradition of visiting her every Sunday.

    When Mae Murray came back from her tour, David Mdivani stopped visiting Negri, but Serge continued to visit alone. Negri viewed him as a happy man with a touch of mystique, and they became friends who brightened each other’s day....

  23. 17 Working in Europe
    (pp. 161-166)

    Feeling suspended in a void after her separation from Serge, Negri went sightseeing in London, but she wasn’t drawn to the shops. She spent time at the museums instead. She tried not to think about men at all and decided she wanted to give her heart a rest. When she read in the papers that Serge had a girlfriend, an opera singer, Negri was relieved to think her marriage might finally be over.

    One night Florence de Pena, a London socialite and hostess, assigned Negri a dinner partner who turned out to be a handsome navy commander and pilot named...

  24. 18 First Talkie
    (pp. 167-172)

    When Negri returned to Hollywood, there was plenty of buzz about her comeback, but she still lacked a contract; nothing was signed with RKO. She took a gamble and won. RKO had promised they would give her three pictures if the screen tests went well. Once they saw them, they signed her for three years—a real victory for Negri.¹ She was once again front-page news, especially after announcing that the studio had granted her the right to choose her own screenplay—a rarity in the industry—and that she would be presenting a new personality. Critical of her earlier...

  25. 19 Return to UFA
    (pp. 173-182)

    Universal wanted to put Negri under contract and do a film in Berlin with UFA, one of its affiliate studios, but Negri had no interest in returning to Germany. Among other things, she remembered Einstein’s descriptions of Hitler as a menace. The head of Universal begged Negri to read the script forMazurkabefore she gave him a definite answer. Author A. A. Lewis describes the film’s background:

    Mazurkawas reallyMadame Xunder a different name, but the director was the great director at UFA at the time, Willi Forst. The head of Universal, Carl Laemmle, was handling the...

  26. 20 Escape from Germany
    (pp. 183-186)

    UFA sent word for Negri to return to Berlin, but she had resolved that the Third Reich would not make any more money off of her. She also knew that any new story lines would contain blatant pro-German propaganda.

    Negri advised the Polish consul in Nice of her situation and was told to stay put and wait for his instructions. When she told UFA that she was physically ill and could not withstand the strains of production, it sent a representative to check up on her story in person. Negri was prepared with falsified evidence: a doctor’s certificate stating that...

  27. 21 Life with Margaret West
    (pp. 187-194)

    Pola Negri was in debt, with no income, when she accidentally ran into the retired radio hostess Margaret West. The women quickly became the best of friends, having met briefly years before. Margaret was the first person to bring country and western music to network radio. She was wealthy with family money. Her family had been prominent in Texas and had a forty-thousand-acre ranch. Margaret was childless and married to a man she soon divorced. According to A. A. Lewis, “Margaret rescued her. Truly rescued her.” Negri’s close friend and confidant George Schönbrunn said: “I think Margaret, like Dietrich, slept...

  28. 22 Final Days
    (pp. 195-200)

    The Moon-Spinnersmade a big splash and could have revived Negri’s career, but she didn’t want to do any more movies. She simply didn’t have to work that hard anymore. When she went to London for the premiere, she was well received by the media and felt appreciated among the fans. She decided it was the best moment to withdraw from professional life and leave on a high note. William Hall from the LondonEvening Newsreported:

    It was in its fantastic, colossal, unbelievable way, a moment of utter glory—the descent of Miss Pola Negri upon her doting public...

  29. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 201-202)
  30. Chronology
    (pp. 203-212)
  31. Filmography, Discography, and Stage Works
    (pp. 213-220)
  32. Notes
    (pp. 221-228)
  33. Bibliography
    (pp. 229-234)
  34. Index
    (pp. 235-244)
  35. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-246)