Pola Negri (1897-1987)
Country of birth: Poland
Birth name: Apolonia Chalupiec
The basics: Raised in poverty, Pola Negri was a trained ballerina whose dancing career was ended by tuberculosis. Negri tried her hand at acting, made her film debut in 1914 and was soon making popular films in Germany with director Ernst Lubitsch. Hollywood took notice of Negri’s talent as a temptress and tragedienne. She made her American debut in 1923’s Bella Donna, a lost film. Negri retired from the screen with the coming of sound but made several comebacks.
You probably saw her in: Eyes of the Mummy, Madame DuBarry, Hotel Imperial
Silent style: Specialized in earthy, feral women in her German films. Many of Negri’s American films have been lost but they tended to be tragedies, melodramas and the occasional comedy. She was equally famous for her romances with Charlie Chaplin, Rod La Rocque and Rudolph Valentino, as well as her studio-invented feud with Gloria Swanson. But don’t let all of the personal stuff make you forget that Pola was a gifted and versatile actress.
Sound transition: Pola Negri was accused of hijacking Valentino’s funeral for publicity and her popularity took a hit. Negri lost her contract with Paramount during the sound transition and, other than one partial-talkie, did not make another movie until 1932. Her Polish accent was seen as an obstacle to her continued American stardom. She began making films again in Europe but the start of WWII sent her fleeing back to America. She made the 1942 comedy Hi-Diddle-Diddle and did not appear on screen again until 1964, when she took a supporting role in the Disney film The Moon-Spinners.
What other people said:
“To my imperative yet imperially darling Polita, whom I love more than life itself.”
Rudolph Valentino, written on a photograph
Pola Negri remains fairly controversial even now. The did-they-or-didn’t-they question lingers over almost all of her relationships, real and rumored. Of course, I have a feeling that Pola wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
If you gotta know more:
Memoirs of a Star by Pola Negri (autobiography)
Pola Negri Legenda Hollywood by Mariusz Kotowski (biography in Polish)
Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider (contains information on Pola Negri)
If you can see her in only one thing: Pola Negri is often judged harshly by people who have never even seen her act. (I know. I was one of them.) She deserves the best introduction possible. I was torn between A Woman of the World and Barbed Wire. In the end, though, her sassy send-up of her temptress image won out. Watch A Woman of the World. (Here’s the review)