By Tammy Stone
Pola Negri, one of the great silent screen sirens, had a trajectory that was in some ways much like that of her peers, and in some ways startlingly different. America had some of its most glorious years in cinema back in the first decades of the last century; it was a time when artistry and technology were coming together (first separately on the East and West coasts, and then as one major industry in Hollywood) in ways never possible before, and the result was a flourishing of fascinating storytelling and aesthetic innovation. But it’s also true that Europe had a burgeoning industry of its own, healthy and vibrant and equally well-resourced. Many of Hollywood’s filmmakers of the forties and fifties were European immigres, but lesser known are the actors that also migrated across waters to make their way in the entertainment. One such starlet was Pola Negri.
Born Barbara Apollina Chalupiec, Pola was born on January 2, 1897 in Lipno, Poland (or Janowa in 1894, depending on the source; often silent film starlets were a few years older than they let on publicly). When she was still a little girl, her father was arrested by Russians and sent to a prison in Siberia, and her comfortable lifestyle was severed; she moved with her mother to Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. It seems either she or her mother or both of them saw a future in entertainment, and it was ballet that first drew Pola’s attention. She was accepted into St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet after a grueling audition. She grew ill with tuberculosis, however, and was prevented from dancing; in ballet, a substantial time away from practice can effectively end a career. But Pola wasn’t down for the count; she soon moved onto to theatre, and by the age of seventeen, she was a star on the stages of Warsaw; among her bigger claims to fame was a run in the show “Sumurun.”
All things come to an end, and in the case of Europe, massive changes occurred around the time of the two world wars. When World War I erupted the theatrical world had drastically shifted focus or had otherwise become threadbare, and as a desperate measure, Pola visited the idea of the movies. Warsaw was not a thriving center for film, but Berlin was, so she moved there and began to act in earnest. Berlin was then home to Ernst Lubitsch, a visionary filmmaker then in the early years of his career. They began to make films together, and the films earned such success that they became one of the earliest dynamic duo actor/director collaborative efforts.
With her dark, sensuous looks, Pola’s specialty lay in playing roles that involved her being the glamorous, foreign-exotic, nubile type, yet also earthy and strong. Her first crossover film came with Madame DuBarry, which she made in 1919 – the powers that be in America saw it, loved it and bought it; they released the film as Passion in the United States. Audiences there ate it up and not one, but two stars were born. That year, she made several other films, including: Rausch (Intoxication), Die Frau am Scheidweg (the German version, which was a censored version of Kreuzigt sie!), Vendetta and Komtesse Dolly.
Pola also got married that year, to Count Eugene Dambski; they divorced in 1922. In 1920, interestingly, Pola made a film version of her popular play, Sumurun, as well as several other films. Her fame was rising, as was Ernst Lubitsch’s notoriety; both of them got contracts in Hollywood, and moved there in 1922. Pola began fairing well almost from the get go. Some films from these early Hollywood years include: The Last Payment (1922), Bella Donna, The Cheat, The Spanish Dancer (1923), Shadows of Paris, Men, Lily of the Dust and Forbidden Paradise (1924, the latter a well-known film directed by Lubitsch) and Easy of Suez, The Charmer, and A Woman of the World (1925).
While her films did well and her face was becoming one fans were growing to appreciate, there was a lot more about Pola Negri that made hers a household name. She was becoming quite the charming actress about town, sparking romances with many celebrities, most famously with
Charlie Chaplin, to whom she was briefly engaged, and
Rudolph Valentino, two of the eras great male leads. When Valentino died in 1926, Pola was devastated and put on such a performance of wreckage at the funeral that it actually started to sway the public against her. She married a year later; the marriage only lasted until 1931.
She continued to make films, but not at the frenetic pace of many of her peers. Highlights from 1926 until the end of the silent era are: The Crown of Lies and Good and Naughy (1926), Hotel Imperial and The Woman on Trial (1927), Three Sinners, Loves of an Actress and The Woman from Moscow (1928), and The Way of Lost Souls (1929). Once the sound era hit, however, there was little chance that someone with her thick accent could make it in the pictures any longer. In addition to that, the Hays Office Code, which was basically a form of censorship, came into effect: many of the qualities that made her a sex siren star in Europe and America were no longer filmable, and the essence of what made her a star was basically taken away.
Soon enough, Pola returned to Europe to make films, but it was slow going. After making a few films, she began to work for the massive German film company UFA, at the time under Nazi control; after it was determined that she had part-Jewish ancestry, she left Germany in 1938 and she returned to the United States without a penny to her name. She eventually became an American citizen and, after making one last film – 1964’s The Moon-Spinners – she retired. Pola Negri passed away on August 1, 1987 in San Antonio, Texas. She was 93. She had quite a life; an exotic in Europe and especially in America, she is also notorious for being Hitler’s favourite actress; they were even rumoured to have an affair before she fled for America the year before World War II began. She worked hard, loved often, and became immortalized as a key actress in the career of a legendary émigré filmmaker. Pola Negri is likely to keep audiences swooning for decades to come.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Pola Negri Pages:
Pola Pola Pola! - The Pola Negri Appreciation Site