A glamorous European countess meets small town America and it’s a novel experience for both. Tongues wag, the gentlemen preen and the town’s moral crusader finds himself unpleasantly in love. This is pretty much the most fun you can have at the movies and not be breaking the law.
Pretend for a moment that you are a motion picture producer of the 1920’s. You have secured the talents of a European leading lady who was made famous playing wildcat roles in sensual comedies and costume dramas. How can you tap into the exoticism and danger without causing the censors to clip the resulting picture to shreds?
You would make A Woman of the World.
Pola Negri came to Hollywood on the strength of her performances in Ernst Lubitsch’s films. Unfortunately for her, the feral roles that made her famous in Germany were impossible to slip by the censor boards in the United States. As a result, her American roles were rarely as good as her German ones.
A Woman of the World was an exception.
Pola plays the Countess Elnora Natatorini, an Italian sophisticate who has been jilted by her lover. It is especially unfortunate since she has just tattooed his family crest to her forearm.
The countess goes to the other side of the world to forget. In this case, the other side of the world is Maple Valley, a generic mid-west town.
News of the countess’s visit becomes a favorite topic of gossip in Maple Valley. The countess’s cousin – surely a very, very, very distant cousin – Sam Poore (Chester Conklin) and his wife Lou (Lucille Ward) rush to prepare for her visit.
Besides the countess, the other topic of interest in Maple Valley is the morality crusade led by Granger (Holmes Herbert), the zealous district attorney. He is against night clubs, drinking, women smoking, dancing and frivolity. In short, he wishes the twenties would not roar quite so loudly.
After a successful raid on a den of sin – a town dance – Granger spots the countess smoking in a taxicab. Granger mistakes her for an out-of-town floozy and orders her to leave. The countess explains that she has just come from Italy and Granger realizes that he has insulted the much-anticipated aristocratic guest. What’s more, he is taken with her. Surprisingly, the countess returns the inclination with interest.
I say, nineteen-twenties, could you keep it down a bit?
The countess causes a stir in Maple Valley with her outrageous wardrobe, nicotine habits and the tattoo. Granger should be appalled but instead he is falling in love with her. So is his younger assistant, Gareth (Charles Emmett Mack). The countess is flattered by Gareth but her feelings for him are maternal. Her heart is set on stuffy Granger.
Before long, though, a few glimpses of Gareth and the countess together on (for her) innocent walks send Granger into a jealous rage. The old reformer comes out and he vows publicly to drive both the countess and Gareth out of town.
The countess decides to take matters into her own hands and, armed with a horsewhip, she sets out to beat some sense into her persecutor.
The justly famous finale, with the Countess thwacking Granger bloody followed by him sweeping her up in a passionate clutch (yes, really), is hardly subtle or realistic but it’s the perfect climax to a signature twenties creation. Filmmakers of the era stretched escapism to its limit and there is no better example than A Woman of the World.
Small town America was a favorite target for ridicule in the 1920’s and all the stereotypes are present to poke fun at: the front porch gossip mongers in their rocking chairs, the awkward attempts at sophistication, the morality crusaders.
Pola Negri’s own wild image is also gently sent up. Pola is clearly in on the joke and she is dazzling as the bad girl who is not so bad after all. She teases her older, stuffy suitor with infectious glee. Holmes Herbert is a bit prim compared to his leading lady but this actually works quite well in the context of the film. After all, he is supposed to be the tediously proper crusader of Maple Valley.
Of all the possible acting teams of the 20’s, Pola Negri and Chester Conklin is not a combination that springs immediately to mind. Conklin, a Sennett veteran complete with walrus mustache, is surprisingly good as the countess’s gauche but good-hearted cousin. I can never resist a Sennett comedian.
A Woman of the World in an extravagant confection filled with pure wackiness and I mean that in the best way possible.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The good people at Grapevine Video have a DVD release for A Woman of the World. The disc also includes the Monte Banks comedy short The Golfing Bug. A version has also been released by Classic Video Streams but I find their offerings to be expensive and of poor quality. Stick with Grapevine.