Where am I in all this?

Michael Newton

  • Pola Negri: Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale by Mariusz Kotowski
    Kentucky, 322 pp, £29.95, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 8131 4488 7

In Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the curtain rises on Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on the night of the premiere of The Royal Rascal (‘The Biggest Picture of 1927’). The crowd outside jostles and gawks at Monumental Pictures’ galaxy of stars. First to arrive, to cheers and wolf whistles, is Zelda Zanders, ‘darling of the flapper set’, an all-American feisty redhead. Then a limousine pulls up and ‘that exotic star’ Olga Mara sweeps out, accompanied by her latest husband, the Baron de la Bonnet de la Toulon. Olga walks up the red carpet with a sternly decadent stare, her dress a simulacrum of starlight on a spider’s web. At a party after the screening, the boss of Monumental unveils the first talkie to the assembled guests. ‘It’s vulgar,’ the haughty Olga intones, as one would expect of a European inclined to see in cinema the possibilities of High Art.

Pola Negri

The name suggests that Olga Mara is meant to stand in for Theda Bara. Bara was (despite the claim in Mariusz Kotowski’s subtitle) Hollywood’s original femme fatale, or, as they used to say, ‘vamp’. But she was merely a counterfeited version of European – and Egyptian – mystery and sophistication: she was actually Theodosia Goodman, a first-generation American from Ohio. By 1927 she was yesterday’s woman, the public having got bored with her heavy-lidded intensities.

It’s more likely that Olga Mara was meant to invoke Pola Negri, who, if not Hollywood’s first femme fatale, was certainly its greatest, and one of the key figures of silent movies. Negri’s history was absurdly eventful: ‘My life,’ she said, ‘truly has been a drama of great scenes.’ It was touched by tsarist oppression, the German invasion of Warsaw in 1915 and the November Revolution in Berlin (there were shots and explosions outside the cinema during the premiere of Carmen); she grew up in poverty, made a fortune, and then lost most of it in the Wall Street crash; she had a career in Poland, then Berlin, then Hollywood, then (after a period in Britain and France) back in Germany; she married twice, and divorced twice too; she was Charlie Chaplin’s lover, and Rudolph Valentino’s; two of the men she loved died suddenly and tragically young; her lovers were gamblers, crooners, actors, aviators; her two husbands were aristocrats; she was by turns one of America’s most adored stars and a hate figure; Ronald Reagan invited her to his inauguration; she was Hitler’s favourite actress.

Negri called her autobiography Memoirs of a Star and meant it. ‘Pola Negri is a star and she intends to play that role as long as she lives,’ an interviewer wrote in 1970. We know what that means now, but the early ‘movie stars’ had to define themselves from film to film, appearance to appearance, improvising the performance as they went along. It’s clear from Negri’s own words that her models were the divas of opera and theatre, or the great dancers of ballet: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse et al (silent movies are much closer to ballet and grand theatre than they are to Breaking Bad). Both Bernhardt and Duse offered the young Negri the same melancholy advice: one could choose perfection of the life or perfection of the work, but to have the two was impossible; above all, she must expect to be unhappy in love. The very word ‘star’ summons up images of remoteness, of loneliness. In the valedictory foreword to her Memoirs, Negri projects a strangely dislocated version of herself, peering out from inside her own public image, poised to become a private person once again. ‘Where am I in all this?’ she muses, and to the end an answer eludes her.

The Memoirs are also a masterpiece of misdirection. As Kotowski puts it, ‘when she told … humorous stories with her dark and cracked voice, the truth was not always confirmable.’ She tells us that the house she built in Hollywood was a simple affair in an unassuming ‘colonial style’; in fact, it was modelled on the White House. She modestly recalls someone addressing her as ‘the most intelligent and responsive person I’ve ever met’. From her own account, she impressed Einstein, charmed Göring and captivated Shaw. Often she seems to be providing a textbook example of confession as self-exoneration. Negri had been accused by many people of doing many unpalatable things. She had to prove that she had truly loved Valentino and not betrayed his memory; that she hadn’t abandoned her native Poland; that she had never been Hitler’s mistress (that much was true) or otherwise a tool of the Third Reich. In these indictments, she faced an industry dedicated to the revelation of an actor’s secrets, or, failing that, to their invention.

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