FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT POLA NEGRI
Pola Negri is an actress whose recent memory has been shrouded by mystery, misunderstanding, and—to be frank—poor research. There are numerous misconceptions about Pola that derive from the simple fact that someone didn’t take the time to do their homework before they wrote about her. The questions listed here are the ones that come up the most when Pola Negri is discussed; I hope these answers will help set the record straight and uncover the talented actress that lies behind the soap opera.
—Was Pola a silent film vamp?
—What is the best Pola Negri picture to see first?
—Was Pola a good actress?
—What is Pola’s birth date?
—Was Pola a German Expressionist actress?
—Who came to America first, Ernst Lubitsch or Pola Negri?
—Didn’t Pola and Gloria Swanson hate each other? Isn’t there a story about them having a cat fight with real cats?
—Did Pola really love Charlie Chaplin?
—Did Pola really love Rudolph Valentino?
—Did talkies kill Pola’s career?
—Was Pola a Nazi sympathist?
—Didn’t Pola have an affair with Hitler?
—What is the story about Pola Negri being offered the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard?
—Wasn’t Pola Negri a lesbian (or at least bisexual)?
—How much of Memoirs of a Star (Pola’s autobiography) can you actually believe?
—Where can I buy Pola’s films?
A blatantly non-vampy Pola in the Malcom St. Clair comedy Good and Naughty (1926).
Q: Was Pola a silent film vamp?
A: Generally speaking, no. The best response to that is: “Pola is not a vamp, she just looks like one.” The myth about Pola being a vamp seems to stem from her sultry, exotic Cleopatra looks rather than from her films. Now she did play a few vampy roles, Carmen (aka Gypsy Blood) (1918) being the one that everyone thinks of, and Sappho (1921) and Bella Donna (1923) being a couple of others. But Pola was generally a tragedienne, or, in essence, an actress who suffers great perils and dies at the end of the film. But in addition to being a great drama queen, Pola could perform almost any role she was given, as we will discuss further in a little bit.
Now if you want to see a real silent screen vamp, I recommend Nita Naldi, who played her vamp roles to the hilt throughout the 1920’s and was about as serpentine a vamp as you’ll see on the silent screen.
Q: What is the best Pola Negri picture to see first?
A: In 2002, Pola’s final silent picture, the 1929 British film The Woman He Scorned, was released on DVD; it is definitely the first picture of Pola’s to see. Read my article about this incredible picture that appeared in the May 2003 issue of Classic Images magazine for more detailed information. My other favorite silent picture of Pola’s is Die Bergkatze (1921); it is a Monty Python-like German Expressionist comedy, if you can believe that. Pola is just hilarious in this picture and feisty as hell! Yet another good one is Sappho (1921),
As for the talkie pictures, Mazurka (1935) is probably Pola’s masterpiece. It’s a real tearjerker, although if you don’t know German it helps to watch Confession (1937), the American remake, first, so you can follow the film. Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) is loaded with almost as many hilarious and quotable quips as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and just refuses to let you catch your breath! In addition to a tighter-than-tight script and loads of underhanded Code-era sex jokes, it is all around a rather unusual film for its time, featuring amongst other things June Havoc (Gypsy Rose Lee’s little sister) singing and swaying alongside a music video featuring herself singing and swaying (this is in 1943, folks!), and a Tannhauser sing-along led by Pola the Wagnerian soprano in her apartment which sends Wagner and his family (portrayed in animation on the wallpaper) running away to escape the noise.
Q: Was Pola a good actress?
A: Yes! Over and over again, Pola’s acting is praised to the hilt in the contemporary reviews of her filmsregardless of the quality of the picture she was acting in, and there is a reason why! To quote myself, “Pola would…convincingly
become about any role she was given, be it vamp, socialite, courtesan, mother, bride, dancer, singer, feisty teenage girl, or even comedienne,
often in the course of the same picture. She would play princess and street prostitute with the same believable intensity.” You almost have to see this in action to really believe it. In my case, it didn’t hit me that Pola was running circles around me until a good way into my study of her movies.
Now at the same time I will admit that, early on, Pola did tend to overact. But this type of dramatization was very typical of the German theatre where she “came of age” as an actress underneath Max Reinhardt. Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt, other veterans of the Reinhardt troupe, were also inclined to overact, Emil Jannings especially so. But this intensity of action works well in its place, as you know if you’ve ever seen The Last Command (1928) or The Student of Prague (1926). The same can be said of Pola Negri. As the silent era progressed, Pola, like many other actors and actresses, learned more and more how to understate her performance. Finally, by the time Pola got to Mazurka in 1935, her acting was incredibly understated and just grips you with its realism.
Q: What is Pola’s birth date?
A: . Pola’s Polish birth certificate (which would have been lifted from a Russian birth certificate) states a date of January 3, 1897. Pola claimed to have been born on “the last day of the century,” that is, December 31, 1899, and her birthday was always celebrated on December 31st, but thanks to the discovery of this birth certificate, we finally have the real date.
Q: Was Pola a German Expressionist actress?
A: Generally speaking, no, although she did appear in at least one Expressionist picture. Pola was generally considered a tragic dramatic actress and a costume film actress during her early German period.
This question comes from a basic misunderstanding of what a German Expressionist picture is. Pandora’s Box (1928) and The Blue Angel (1930), for example, are not Expressionist pictures, as many mistakenly believe. The German Expressionist picture is an extension of the Expressionist art movement of the day, which sought to portray through art the impressions of the outside world as they occur inside man. The result is that Expressionism presents a distorted exaggeration of its subject matter. We find, for example, odd-shaped doors, staircases that climb and twist in impossible ways, bent streetlamps, and people who move in a stilted, stylized manner, with long, dark shadows every which way and chiaroscuro galore. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) was the first of these pictures, and most of the truly Expressionist pictures (e.g. The Golem , Destiny , Die Strasse , Variety ) came out soon thereafter in the early and mid-1920’s. The Expressionist film phenomenon was subsequently, like so many other culture phenomena before and after it, quickly absorbed into pop culture, first becoming a watered-down influence and then disappearing altogether.
Most of the German films directed by Ernst Lubitsch were not Expressionist pictures, but rather comedies and/or costume films, that is, large-scale pictures that feature the players decked out in period dress. Carmen, Sumurun and Madame DuBarry were all films of the latter type.
However, there is one known exception to this. Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Bergkatze (1921) is a true German Expressionist picture (although also a parody of the genre), and features Pola not only as an Expressionist actress, but also as a comedienne. But this is the exception, not the rule.
Q: Who came to America first, Ernst Lubitsch or Pola Negri?
A: Lubitsch came first, arriving in America on Christmas Eve of 1921 to direct Mary Pickford’s film Rosita (1923), a beautifully-composed, European-style costume film—and an excellent picture, regardless of what America’s Sweetheart would have you to believe. Pola came next on September 12, 1922, having just signed a contract with Paramount.
Q: Didn’t Pola and Gloria Swanson hate each other? Isn’t there a story about them having a cat fight with real cats?
A: Actually they were friends. Occasionally the one would invite the other to a dinner party at the other’s house, whichwas customary at the time. If they did start avoiding each other (which apparently they did later on), it was to avoid further provoking
the fabricated publicity that was flying about concerning their so-called “rivalry”. This ongoing bit of publicity whoredom
stemmed from the fact that big-name drama queen Pola had just moved from Germany onto the Paramount lot, where Gloria was already the
reigning dramatic star. The plot thickened, and the two stars were along for the ride whether they liked it or not.
The cats story came about this way: it was common fanzine knowledge that Pola was superstitious about cats (she confirmed her
dislke of cats in her final interview, by the way). So someone in the publicity mills got the idea to let a whole bunch of cats loose on the set of Pola’s movie Bella Donna. Pola was scared to death and crying, and wouldn’t come out of the dressing room for fear of the cats. This story quickly degenerated; soon it was Gloria Swanson who masterminded the cat stunt and then it turned into a story where the two had opposing cats mauling each other. Both Gloria and Pola were appalled when they heard about the inhumane things they were doing in the fanzines. Both stars and even Charlie Chaplin mentioned in their respective autobiographies how ridiculous the publicity on the imaginary rivalry got to be, Chaplin describing it with the words “ad nauseum”.
Q: Did Pola really love Charlie Chaplin?
A: Not really, although she did, only briefly, allow herself to be manipulated off her feet by Chaplin, but not without some deep-down
and quickly-corrected reservations. Charlie Chaplin’s manipulative and abusive personality is well documented—the same patterns persist in each of the surviving memoirs by three of his lovers (Lita Grey, Georgia Hale, and May Reeves). Chaplin frequently acted out a fantasy of finding a fresh, naïve, inexperienced little girl and gently initiating her into womanhood, which is to this day not an uncommon fantasy amongst men. Pola’s personality was that of a proud, strong-willed, independent fireball on the outside, with a sensitive, melancholy little girl who wanted someone to put her trust in on the inside. Chaplin recognized that and saw the tough exterior as an extra challenge to get to the little girl inside. Pola said that Chaplin’s often childlike personality (which gives so much charm to the Little Tramp character) appealed to her protective motherly instincts, which is very typical and understandable. However, Pola was too strong-willed a personality to be pushed around by Chaplin’s polygamy and his tendencies to heartlessly dispose of or ignore people he might become vulnerable to. Pola was nobody’s victim, and therefore that relationship was doomed to fail, which it quickly did.
Q: Did Pola really love Rudolph Valentino?
A: Absolutely! In every picture or home movie I have ever seen of Pola and Rudy together, Pola’s countenance is like that of a
little girl in a candy store. Pola was clearly infatuated with her Rudy, and because Rudy died before the “honeymoon” (so to speak)
was over, Pola continued to have a vision of Rudy as the perfect man—something she never completely got over. I’ve been told by a
gentleman who knew Pola personally that much later in her life she said privately that she didn’t really like Rudy at the time and that she
thought that he was “common”, but this was after she had adopted a somewhat revisionist view of her own role as a film star. And
these statements don’t explain the surviving scrapbook she kept of her star days in Hollywood that has a healthy portion of it dedicated to
Rudy, one of the items being a typed transcript of an interview conducted in 1978 (nine years before her death) where she again speaks briefly about how much Rudy meant to her.
Q: Did talkies kill Pola’s career?
A: No. The short answer to this is that a series of misfortunes during that period wounded Pola’s career, not the talkies themselves. If talkies were the culprit, then why did her song “Paradise” become such a big hit and go on to become a minor standard?
The long answer goes like this. The backlash from the big scene Pola made at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral in 1926, followed by her rebound marriage to Prince Serge Mdivani, did hurt her box office draw and her fan mail stateside for a time during the end of the silent period (although internationally her pictures continued to do well). But people were starting to forget about that hulabaloo by the time her last Paramount pictures were released in 1928, and therefore they did OK at the box office, even though they weren’t blockbusters. Pola voluntarily chose not to renew her contract with Paramount and to retire from films because she was, at the time, an expectant mother and wanted to devote her life to raising a family. It was after Pola miscarried and in her depression turned to alcoholism that her mother suggested she get back into films, which she did with the British silent The Woman He Scorned (1929).
It was here that things became a rollercoaster ride for Pola. In 1932 RKO signed Pola to a contract; A Woman Commands as to be her first picture. This picture was a resounding dud, and both the critics and the public recognized this. However, the critics praised Pola’s performance, often mentioning that her voice had the same smoky appeal as Greta Garbo’s. And the song “Paradise”, which Pola performed in the film, became a tremendous hit, regardless of the poor quality of the film. After A Woman Commands bombed, Pola became very sick from appendicitis and had to have her appendix removed. While she was ill, RKO decided to dissolve her contract, so Pola received an offer to tour the vaudeville circuit performing an act based around the “Paradise” song. The vaudeville tour was well received and quite successful. She was then scheduled to perform onstage in a touring theatre production called A Trip to Pressburg. Immediately after the curtain fell on the play’s stop at PIttsburg, PA, Pola collapsed and went to the hospital again. Because of the nature of her illness, the company had to continue the tour without her.
After this, German actor/director Willi Forst contacted Pola, offering her a role in a German film he was directing called Mazurka, which she accepted, signing a contract with Germany’s UFA Studios when she did. Mazurka ended up being the highest-grossing Nazi film up to that time, as well as the highest-grossing Nazi film ever outside the German borders. But ironically, this film’s success wounded Pola’s chances for a comeback in America. First of all, UFA realized they had a hot property on their hands and refused to allow Pola out of her contract. Then, when Warner Brothers saw the picture, they bought up all the American rights to the film, locked the picture away, and remade it scene-for-scene with Kay Francis in the leading role under the name Confession (1937). Because of that, very few people in America got to see Mazurka, and very few probably ever will—it was the Blue Angel that never was. After that, Pola ended up stalling out of her UFA contract because of her refusal to tolerate Nazi propaganda in her pictures.
Q: Was Pola a Nazi sympathist?
A: No. Although Pola was under contract to UFA during the Nazi period and was one of Hitler’s favorite actresses, Pola was not pro-Nazi. In fact, UFA was trying to inject propaganda into her pictures, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with it because she wanted her films to be universal in their appeal. Pola and the Ministry of Propaganda ended up going head to head over the matter, Pola using her clout as Nazi Germany’s top box office draw outside of the German homeland and the Ministry of Propaganda using their power to veto the scripts she chose. This continued for a few years with a few pictures like Die Fromme Lüge and Die Nacht der Entscheidung (both 1938) slipping through, until in late 1938 Pola decided to let it rest and retired to her home in France, before the Nazi invasion of France and a lack of income drove her out of France and back into the United States.
Q: Didn’t Pola have an affair with Hitler?
A: No. This rumor started in 1937 when Pola disclosed to her mother that she was involved with someone in Germany. She reportedly told her mother, “I can say no more other than that he is a very, very famous person”. Now about two years prior, Pola was in the news because she was banned from acting in German pictures, as Goebbels wanted to make sure that Pola had no Jewish ancestry. The very day after this was announced, Hitler personally overturned the ban, which also made the news. An American fan magazine decided to take some liberties with the truth and put two and two together, claiming that Pola was having an affair with Hitler. A French magazine called Pour Vous picked up this story and published it in France, where Pola found out about it. Pola was furious and sued the magazine for libel. She won the case and was awarded 10,000 francs in damage.
Q: What is the story about Pola Negri being offered the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard?
A: According to Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, in 1948, Billy Wilder approached Pola Negri about the possibility of her appearing as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Mary Pickford, Mae West, and Mae Murray had already turned down the role. When Pola received the script, she felt that the script was not yet ready for production. They also had Montgomery Clift chosen for the lead role of Joe Gillis at the time, and Pola felt that he was not a good choice for this role. With these two concerns in mind, she politely refused the offer to appear in the film. After they had revised the script, they hired William Holden for the lead role in place of Montgomery Clift and hired Gloria Swanson in the lead role of Norma Desmond, and the rest is history.
Nearly thirty years later, Wilder revisited the Sunset Boulevard theme with the film Fedora (1978), which again featured William Holden in the male lead. Although Pola does not appear in the movie, the title character of Fedora is based on Pola Negri. The character is Polish, and her history of triumphs as a silent movie actress as related in the film pulls largely from Pola’s real-life story.
Q: Wasn’t Pola Negri a lesbian (or at least bisexual)?
A: The record says “No”. This rumor is completely based on the existence of Pola’s long-time friendship with Margaret West. Margaret West was an oil heiress and vaudeville performer who ended up becoming Pola’s best friend and roommate. People who desperately
want to create a broad history for homosexuality have looked at this and jumped to conclusions without examining the facts. First, if
Pola was a practicing lesbian or bisexual, we would have a pattern of rumored or real lesbian relationships over the years, but we have no
such pattern, even though she had plenty of opportunities to get involved in homosexual activity in post-World War I Berlin. But
what we do have is a pattern of passionate love for men, including a string of relationships and affairs too long to go into
here. Not to mention that there was another woman involved in Pola’s affairs, and that woman was Pola’s mother, who was a staunch
Victorian lady and Polish Catholic, and by virtue of her religious beliefs alone would never have tolerated lesbian activity from her
daughter (keep in mind that Pola was a mama’s girl and strongly craved her mother’s approval). Pola inherited her mother’s strong
religious beliefs and was as devout a Catholic as her mother, especially later on. Atop that, she was an active Republican and supporter
of Ronald Regan, which, along with her ties to her religion, should say something about her overall mindset, especially in her middle-aged and twilight years.
And finally, Pola herself has the following to say about her alleged “lesbian” relationship with Margaret West in her memoir: “It is difficult for some of the so-called sophisticates to understand the there had not been until then, nor would there ever be in the future, the slightest tinge of the sexual to what [Margaret and I] shared together.” (Memoirs of a Star, p. 412-413)
Front cover of the dust jacket of Pola Negri’s autobiography Memoirs of a Star (1970).
Q: How much of Memoirs of a Star (Pola’s autobiography) can you actually believe?
A: Film historian William K. Everson reviewed Memoirs of a Star in The New York Times when it came out. His thesis on the book was that it “is true in essence if not in details.” And that essentially runs true when you read it today. Pola did not set out to lie about her career
in Memoirs; in fact, she says in the book a couple of times that her goal was to set forth “the truth” about what happened to her. But there are a number of things that don’t add up, such as the obvious lying about her age, the fact that she refers to The Eyes of the Mummy as her first German picture when we know it was really her eighth, and, as Everson points out, the fact that she flatly ignores a number of her films such as A Woman of the World, which we know to be an excellent picture.
Memoirs of a Star is essentially a book that captures the mood of the time and her emotions and memories, even though age and time may have dulled her memory and/or ruled it somewhat selective. She was also trying to tell a story, and sacrificed some factual detail for that. So if you read it with this in mind, it’s a worthwhile piece of literature. But there has yet to be released an English-language Pola biography that works as a reliable and comprehensive reference book on Pola’s life.
Q: Where can I buy Pola’s films?
A: Here’s a list:
Amazon.com has Pola’s last two pictures, Hi Diddle Diddle and The Moon-Spinners. They also sell the budget-priced Alpha Video copy of The Eyes of the Mummy; Grapevine’s copies of Gypsy Blood and Hotel Imperial; and Kino’s releases of Die Bergkatze (aka The Wildcat) and Sumurun (aka One Arabian Night).
Grapevine Video has been supplying the world with Pola Negri pictures for a number of years now. Although all of their VHS Pola titles are out of print, they have wonderful DVD editions of The Eyes of the Mummy, Passion, Gypsy Blood, A Woman of the World, Hotel Imperial, The Woman He Scorned, and Hi Diddle Diddle.
Sunrise Silents is contending with Grapevine as the best specialty supplier of silent movies, and currently offer beautifully-packaged DVD’s of Gypsy Blood and One Arabian Night. They also offer CD-ROM’s of silent movie fanzines, most notably the April 1925 Motion Picture magazine with Pola Negri on the cover, which contains a feature article “The Mystery of Pola Negri” by Harry Carr, and a review of Pola’s
then-current movie East of Suez.
Reel Classic DVD has a nice transfer of The Spanish Dancer.
CLARABOW.COM’s “films for sale” page: In addition to having a huge collection of Clara Bow films (including most of her talkies), The Ultimate Clara Site also has a small but impressive collection of rare (and I do mean rare) Pola titles like Mazurka, Barbed Wire, Die Bergkatze, and an English-subtitled and French-subtitled version of The Woman He Scorned. Wow!