Pola Negri – Star of Silent Cinema
small, Actress Pola Negri with her dog, 1927, photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, center, pola_negri_nac.jpg
She dances with real snakes, becomes a Georgian prince’s wife and, in her autumn years, rejects an offer from Spielberg himself. Charlie Chaplin adores her, Rudolf Valentino falls in love with her and Sarah Bernhardt considers her as her successor. She is dubbed the first vamp of Hollywood and the femme fatale of silent cinema.
Courtyard prima ballerina
The only Polish actress of international fame is born Apolonia Chałupiec in Lipno in the Kujawy region. Her mother is Polish, while her father is a Slovak with Roma origins. After Pola’s father is exiled to Siberia, the women settle in Warsaw. They move from a spacious house surrounded by fruit trees to a cramped room in an attic.
Pola’s dancing talent manifests itself for the first time when she performs stunts on a courtyard carpet hanger. Legend has it that her neighbours – opera choristers – spot the nimble girl in the yard. Not long after that, Pola’s mother signs her up to a ballet school in Warsaw, where, in 1908, she makes her début in Swan Lake.
The young prima ballerina’s career is disrupted by tuberculosis. The girl ends up in a highland sanatorium, spending three months in Zakopane. Devastated, she finds solace in the sad poetry of the Italian poetess Ada Negri. Her melancholic verses inspire Pola to take on a pseudonym under which she will be known to the whole world.
Slave of her senses
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Pola Negri in Mania. Mania: The Story of a Cigarette Girl, dir. Eugen Illés, 1918, photo source: Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
pola negri role filmowe 1_4906785.jpg
Pola does not succumb. While illness does not allow her to dance, her determination as an artist leads her to wish to remain in the spotlight. She polishes her acting technique and, just one year later, débuts at the Mały Theatre as Aniela in Aleksander Fredro’s Maidens’ Vows. The reviews are lukewarm, Pola lacks delivery. However, her next performance – in the pantomime Sumurun – is a great success. Pola, still an adolescent, suddenly becomes the Warsaw audience’s sweetheart. She gets noticed by Aleksander Hertz, the owner of Sfinks, the biggest Polish film studio of the time.
She débuts on the silver screen in 1914. The screenplay of Slave of her Senses directed by Jan Pawłowski, written especially for her, is based on her life story. Some years later, with a copy of this film in her hands, she will be detained by customs officers on a train from Warsaw to Berlin. Fate determines that lieutenant count Eugeniusz Dąmbski, whom she met at that time, will soon become her husband. Negri eagerly becomes a countess but their marriage does not last.
Despite her first successes in film, an artistically unsatiated Negri gives small but spectacular performances between cinema screenings. The artist twists and turns in an unusual dance with a snake which she borrows through… a newspaper ad.
On the high seas
After the outbreak of World War I and the overtaking of Warsaw by the Germans, Hertz’s films wind up on the German market. There, Negri is dubbed the ‘Polish Asta Nielsen’. She ends up in Berlin after being invited by one of the most prominent drama theatre directors of the 20th century who becomes entranced by her: Max Reinhardt. Pola plays the role of a dancer in the film adaptation of Sumurun. On the set, she meets Ernst Lubitsch. Their first joint films – The Eyes of the Mummy and Madame DuBarry – bring them both international fame.
At the age of 25 she crosses the Atlantic, invited to Hollywood by the head of Famous Players (now Paramount Pictures). At the port, she is greeted by an ecstatic Polish diaspora: her audience is here before she even arrives. In her next films, she plays a Gypsy in The Spanish Dancer, Catherine the Great in Forbidden Paradise and the lead female role in Hotel Imperial directed by Mauritz Stiller – Greta Garbo’s ‘discoverer’.
Negri competes with Gloria Swanson. The American actress snatches away the lead role in Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder is put off by Negri’s distinct foreign accent. The antipathy between the two is out in the open and takes on different forms: reportedly, on the set of Bella Donna, Swanson releases cats which Negri is terrified of.
Pola not only appeals to the tastes of cinemagoers but also wins hearts of many men. When Charlie Chaplin returns from his journey to Europe, he names one thing that fascinated him in the Old Continent: Pola Negri. However, it is Rudolf Valentino who becomes the love of her life and his premature death due to peritonitis is a great sorrow for her. In a dramatic gesture, Negri throws herself on her lover’s casket. The mourning does not last long, however: just a few months later, the actress marries a Georgian prince from the Mdivani family.
The emergence of sound in cinema turns out to be the end of the actress’ career in the United States. Her distinctive accent and low voice do not work well with the new productions. Negri returns to Europe. She performs in films but her star slowly fades. After the outbreak of World War II, she goes to the United States once again, but this time nobody is waiting for her at the port. In 1943, she stars in her penultimate film Hi Diddle Diddle. She disappears for 20 years, then stars once more in The Moon-Spinners, tacitly hoping to win an Oscar. She never receives the prize. In the 1970s, Steven Spielberg tries to involve her in his productions – unsuccessfully.
Negri stars in over 60 films in total and remains the first European actress to conquer Hollywood. She spends her final days in San Antonio, Texas.
Translated by: Patryk Grabowski