A young woman’s wild ways lead her to leave hearth and home and pursue a career as a cabaret dancer. One of the earliest extant Polish films known to exist and Pola Negri’s earliest complete surviving screen appearance, The Polish Dancer has a lot of historical value. Will that value translate into entertainment?
Do the Polish have polish?
Before she hit stardom in Germany and Hollywood, Pola Negri made films in her native Poland. Two world wars, one Cold War and an Iron Curtain do not create the best environment for film preservation and most of her Polish work has crumbled away.
The Polish Dancer (titled Bestia when it was first released in 1917) managed to survive because its distribution rights were purchased and it was released in the United States to capitalize on Negri’s fame. As a result, the film survived as the only known complete example of her work in Poland.
This film represents a double opportunity. We get to see early Polish film and the country’s first international star at the same time. Let’s take a look.
Pola (Pola Negri) is a willful teenager, the only child of poor parents. Her wild activities include waterside picnics and having a boyfriend. After she quarrels with her stern father about her outrageous consumption of sandwiches al fresco, Pola runs away from home. Now what?
It turns out that Pola has a knack for dancing and she soon gets a job at a cabaret where she wows with her sexy performances. She catches the eye of Alexi (Witold Kuncewicz), a married man with a taste for the night life. He hides his true marital status from Pola and eventually asks his wife for a divorce. She grants it and immediately catches the Movie Disease (“she’s dying of a broken heart!”) and begins to fade away.
Pola discovers that her paramour is a family man and dumps him. He rushes back to his wife but it’s too late. Pola gets shot by the ex-boyfriend who had been her partner in eating those scandalous sandwiches. Curtain. We are informed that we just saw a story of tragic passion.
As you can probably tell from my brief recap, the main problem with The Polish Dancer is that it has no idea what it is trying to say and whose story it is trying to tell. The protagonist seems to be Pola but then the focus shifts over to Alexi and his family. We are given lingering shots of Alexi pondering his fate and his wife covered in woe. Pola disappears from the screen for large chunks of the film for no reason other than to continue the focus on Alexi and company.
Films have shifted protagonists halfway but it must be done with care and awareness that changing horses midstream comes with a certain amount of risk. In short, you can either end up with High and Low or you can end up with The Phantom Menace. The Polish Dancer definitely falls on the Phantom Menace end of the scale.
Messaging is another problem for this film. What is it trying to say? It’s not a condemnation of juvenile delinquency as Pola is wild but shown to be an overall good egg. It could be seen as a condemnation of adultery but Alexi really isn’t the one who is punished. He’s given the old heave-ho by Pola and then runs sniveling back to his wife but she is dead. It seems to me that the wife is the one who got the short end of the stick here, yes?
The end title card states that this movie ends in tragedy for all the lovers. No, it ends in tragedy for the women. The men seem to be doing pretty well. Alexi will probably return to tom-catting around once he is over his requisite period of mourning and Pola’s murder apparently gets off scot-free. Yay?
When viewing films that were made under difficult circumstances, I find myself in a pickle. Do I let them off the hook due to the challenge of even making the picture in the first place? For example, films made by independent African-American studios, Yiddish-language productions and films made in war-torn regions did not enjoy the comparative advantages of, say, Famous Players-Lasky or MGM.
In 1917, Poland had been partitioned for over a century, was being occupied by Germany and was on the cusp of regaining its independence in the aftermath of the First World War. So I think we can safely say that establishing a Polish film industry was not without its challenges.
In cases like this, I tend to take an apples-to-apples approach. How does The Polish Dancer measure up to earlier films of wealthier nations and to the lower budget independent productions?
Unfortunately, the comparison is not flattering. Lack of polished camera work, sophisticated editing or a shortage of close-ups can be forgiven, filed under “i” for inexperience. However, The Polish Dancer has deep narrative issues that are more difficult to overlook. Film may have been a relatively new art in Poland but this level of scenario carelessness cannot be ignored.
There is good news in this rather gloomy review. Pola is fabulous. Early in her career, you can already see her charisma and the wildly flirtatious nature that her fans know and love. The camera adores her and follows her even when she is shot in the middle of a crowd.
Negri needs all the help she can get as her character can be reasonably described as shallow, a puppet who goes wherever the plot dictates. She swings between being a sweet, naïve girl and a sly seductress. There is nothing wrong with a character being a pile of contradictions but these contradictions have to remain true to the overall core of the character. There’s a difference between planning these character traits and making things up as you go along.
The Polish Dancer ultimately fails because it is a collection of incidents without a coherent theme holding them together. What doesn’t fail is Pola Negri’s appearance. Denied any closeups and saddled with an inconsistent character, her star wattage still manages to shine through. This is a film for students of Polish film history and fans of Pola Negri. More casual viewers are advised to meet Pola in Sumurun, Barbed Wire or The Wildcat.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
The Polish Dancer was released on DVD as part of Pola Negri: Iconic Collection. The film is accompanied by an excellent piano score by Rick DeJonge, which does much to improve the viewing experience.