Hollywood's First Femme Fatale
Publication Year: 2014
Pola Negri (1897--1987) rose from an impoverished childhood in Warsaw, Poland, to become one of early Hollywood's greatest stars. After tuberculosis ended her career as a ballerina in 1912, she turned to acting and worked under legendary directors Max Reinhardt and Ernst Lubitsch in Germany. Negri preceded Lubitsch to Hollywood, where she quickly became a fan favorite thanks to her beauty, talent, and diva personality. Known for her alluring sexuality and biting artistic edge, she starred in more than sixty films and defined the image of the cinematic femme fatale.
Author Mariusz Kotowski brings the screen siren's story to English-speaking audiences for the first time in this fascinating biography. At the height of her fame, Negri often portrayed exotic and mysterious temptresses, headlining in such successes as The Spanish Dancer (1923) and Forbidden Paradise (1924), before returning to Europe in the 1930s. The devastating effects of World War II soon drove her back to the United States, where she starred in Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and pursued her vaudeville career before retiring from the entertainment industry.
Kotowski also illuminates Negri's dramatic personal life, detailing her numerous love affairs -- including her engagement to Charlie Chaplin and her romance with Rudolph Valentino -- as well as her multiple marriages. This long-overdue biography not only paints a detailed portrait of one classic Hollywood's most intriguing stars and the film industry's original Jezebel, but also explores the link between Hollywood and European cinema during the interwar years.
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
Series: Screen Classics
Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication
When Mariusz Kotowski approached me in 2006 about showing his documentary, Pola Negri: Life Is a Dream in Cinema, at the Museum of Modern Art, I was well aware (as a film historian) of Negri’s place as one of the major stars of the silent period. I came to be surprised, however, by the fact that she seemed to have been forgotten by so many people. This made the showing of Mariusz’s film and a small Negri retrospective seem all the more urgent. The...
When I was growing up in Poland, Pola Negri was a household name. My mother introduced me to her at a very young age, even though we were not able to see any of her films. At the time, during the 1960s and 1970s, Polish people did not have access to American films, which is where Negri really made her name, and none of her German works were available ...
1. Early Years in Poland
In her final film, The Moon-Spinners (1964), Pola Negri utters a line that screenwriter Michael Dybne wrote just for her. Playing a mysterious, world-weary jewel thief, Negri says, “I have survived two wars, four revolutions, and five marriages.” Other than the exaggerated number of husbands (she was married twice, once to a count and once to a prince), the...
2. The Move to Berlin
Born Maximilian Goldmann in Baden near Vienna in 1873, Max Reinhardt had a commanding presence. Forthright but gentle, he was a man who knew how to put on a show. As a young actor, he played mainly depressing character roles, to the delight of the critics, but these roles didn’t satisfy him. Reinhardt wanted to work on more uplifting, exuberant projects that would also be more lucrative....
3. With Lubitsch in Germany
The silent era was, of course, the beginning of the invention of a new language—the language of film. Everything had to be made from nothing, and many mistakes were made before standards were established. “The extraordinary thing about those early days of films was that we all invented ourselves as we went along,” Negri said afterward. “There were no guidelines.”1...
4. Postwar Berlin
At first, Pola Negri did little socializing in Berlin. Friends offered her invitations, but she declined; books were her main entertainment. Her friend Paola Loebel, a Jewish intellectual, and her social circle did their utmost to urge Negri to go out, and they finally succeeded. Loebel and her friends took Negri to play tennis during the day and to local hot spots after dark. The social whirl offered relief from the slow tedium of her marriage to...
5. Switzerland to Paris to New York
Negri now headed to St. Moritz for the Swiss opening of Madame Du Barry. She traveled with Lena, her maid, and Paola Loebel, who gave Negri English lessons and functioned as her secretary. Negri now found that she had to study constantly, whether it was scripts or languages. She had learned German in Berlin, and her relationship with Petronius helped...
6. Coming to Hollywood
Pola Negri stepped off the Majestic at Ellis Island wearing a small black hat and a white satin dress trimmed with fur, according to news reports, and was instantly barraged by reporters and photographers. The already established actress Mabel Normand was also on the voyage from Europe, returning from a vacation, yet the press almost ignored her arrival as they...
7. Paramount Pictures, 1922
The film industry was breaking new ground and setting new standards daily. The silent era gave birth to the feature film, the narrative film, and the studio system. It also generated stardom, fandom, fan magazines, and the press that drove it all. The use of long shots and close-ups continued to evolve in Europe as well as the United States, but, thanks to D. W. Griffith,...
8. Engagement to Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin was set on romancing Pola Negri from the day he met her. In his book My Trip Abroad, written in 1921, he elaborated on her extraordinary beauty: “Pola Negri is really beautiful. She is Polish and true to the type: beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth, and wonderful coloring. It is such a pity such coloring does not register on the screen. She is the center...
9. Gloria Swanson
When Pola Negri arrived at Paramount in 1922, Gloria Swanson was the biggest female star on the lot. Reporters were smacking their lips at the possibility of a rivalry between the two famous women. When the press didn’t get what they hoped for, they fabricated plots and dialogue. The public loved to read about the alleged rivalry between Swanson and Negri....
10. Paramount Pictures, 1923-1924
With her first two American films and a broken Hollywood engagement behind her, Pola Negri rededicated herself to her career and told the studio she wanted to act in a different type of role. In a 1923 Movie Weekly article, “What America Has Done for Pola Negri,” she was blunt about her opinion of Bella Donna: “I didn’t like Bella Donna myself. My imagination of the role was so different! But I allowed myself to be persuaded. They said to...
11. Forbidden Paradise
Ernst Lubitsch enjoyed living in Hollywood, but he had yet to find his directorial stride. Since Mary Pickford imported him from Europe to make the disappointing Rosita, he had worked for Paramount, United Artists, and Warner Bros. without really finding a niche. None of his films had been particularly profitable—which was what the studios cared most...
12. Becoming a Star
With the demand for movies growing greater and greater during the Roaring Twenties, Famous Players–Lasky, now known as Paramount, built a bigger, better-equipped studio, with offices fit for its growing success. Pola Negri, as one of its top actresses, was given lots of incentive to stay. After Gloria Swanson left the studio to make her own films, Negri’s salary ...
13. Finding Valentino
As Pola grew more certain of her audience, a new man appeared on the horizon. Fate seemed to play a hand in that romantic development. Valentino biographer Emily Leider explains: “Valentino apparently saw Madame Du Barry before Pola Negri came to this country and supposedly he wrote her a fan letter right after he saw it at a private screening. He described himself as a worm worshipping at the foot of a great star....
14. Losing Valentino
The year 1926 found the lovers in peak form. They dined in front of an open fireplace and drank wine, and Rudy Valentino whispered loving words in French, their mutual language. Valentino had imagination and a great deal of style. Sometimes he was a charming and gallant gentleman, and sometimes, just to spice things up, he would act rough. Negri and Valentino created a world of beauty together—their own intimate universe....
15. Paramount Pictures, 1927
When Max Reinhardt came to Los Angeles after his successful new production of The Miracle, Pola Negri had become everything he knew she would, proving that he had an eye for spotting talent. Negri arranged a private screening of Hotel Imperial, and he was very impressed. “I would give half my life if I could produce and direct a picture like that one,” Reinhardt...
16. Princess Mdivani
Back in happier days, Negri and Valentino had attended the wedding of David Mdivani and Mae Murray. Mdivani’s brother, Serge, had a Latin look to him, while David was more Nordic-looking. Cheerful and full of energy, they both liked visiting Negri’s house in Santa Monica for a swim in the ocean. They had a tradition of visiting her every Sunday....
17. Working in Europe
Feeling suspended in a void after her separation from Serge, Negri went sightseeing in London, but she wasn’t drawn to the shops. She spent time at the museums instead. She tried not to think about men at all and decided she wanted to give her heart a rest. When she read in the papers that Serge had a girlfriend, an opera singer, Negri was relieved to think her marriage might finally be over....
18. First Talkie
When Negri returned to Hollywood, there was plenty of buzz about her comeback, but she still lacked a contract; nothing was signed with RKO. She took a gamble and won. RKO had promised they would give her three pictures if the screen tests went well. Once they saw them, they signed her for three years—a real victory for Negri.1 She was once again front-page...
19. Return to UFA
Universal wanted to put Negri under contract and do a film in Berlin with UFA, one of its affiliate studios, but Negri had no interest in returning to Germany. Among other things, she remembered Einstein’s descriptions of Hitler as a menace. The head of Universal begged Negri to read the script for Mazurka before she gave him a definite answer. Author A. A. Lewis describes the film’s background:...
20. Escape from Germany
UFA sent word for Negri to return to Berlin, but she had resolved that the
Third Reich would not make any more money off of her. She also knew
that any new story lines would contain blatant pro-German propaganda.
Negri advised the Polish consul in Nice of her situation and was told to stay put and wait for his instructions. When she told UFA that she was...
21. Life with Margaret West
Pola Negri was in debt, with no income, when she accidentally ran into the retired radio hostess Margaret West. The women quickly became the best of friends, having met briefly years before. Margaret was the first person to bring country and western music to network radio. She was wealthy with family money. Her family had been prominent in Texas and...
22. Final Days
The Moon-Spinners made a big splash and could have revived Negri’s career, but she didn’t want to do any more movies. She simply didn’t have to work that hard anymore. When she went to London for the premiere, she was well received by the media and felt appreciated among the fans. She decided it was the best moment to withdraw from professional life and...
When I moved to America in 1998, I was surprised to find that Pola Negri had all but slipped into obscurity. The modern-day film buff would be astonished to discover the plethora of press attention to Negri during her lifetime. She was every bit a paparazzo’s dream and was followed everywhere she went. Her face decorated magazine covers in more than a dozen countries....
Filmography, Discography, and Stage Works