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.

In such a case, the biographer’s task should be to disentangle a life’s lies from its accuracies. No one is as knowledgeable about Negri as Kotowski but he comes across as a little in love with her, a little too eager to excuse her faults and to take her word for things. He has been tireless in returning her to the public gaze; in 2006 he made a documentary about her, Life Is a Dream in Cinema, and he saw to it that a few of her movies are now available on DVD. Among other signs of returning interest, there is a new Masters of Cinema version of her most important film, Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry (1919). In the greater world, her most lasting achievement may be that she invented and popularised the practice of painting toenails red. (Adolphe Menjou thought her feet were bleeding.) She remains an exemplary character, a test case for understanding how fame and cinema work.

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She was born on 3 January 1897 in Lipno, Poland, as Barbara Apolonia Chalupec, the third and only surviving child of an upper-middle-class Polish woman who had married a part-Romany Slovakian tinsmith. Her father drifted into seditious activity against the tsarist occupiers; and when Pola was six years old he was arrested and, in time, exiled to Siberia. When he was released more than ten years later he made no effort to contact his wife or daughter, having found someone new to marry. Pola and her mother – to whom she would remain strongly attached, loyal to her Catholicism and her stoicism – had moved to Warsaw after his arrest, where, after a rocky start, Eleonara Chalupec scraped a living as cook to a wealthy Jewish woman. Yet even in poverty, Eleonara retained her sense of style; the suitcases with which they moved out of a Warsaw slum were faded Louis Vuitton.

In 1911 Pola was spotted dancing on the street by a couple with connections to the world of ballet. On their recommendation she joined Warsaw’s ballet school, where she distinguished herself, but hopes for a career as a principal dancer were dashed when she fell ill with tuberculosis. A friend of the family paid for her to go to a mountain sanatorium; in the library there she found the works of the Italian poet Ada Negri and adopted the name. She also decided that if she wasn’t well enough to dance she would act. After training at the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts she joined a small experimental theatre company, and was soon recommended to Max Reinhardt, Berlin’s great theatre producer and director, for a leading role in his forthcoming Orientalist pantomime, Sumurun. One of the other actors in the piece was Lubitsch, then best known for his comic creation Meyer, an Alexanderplatz cousin to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. Negri had already made a number of one and two-reel films in Warsaw; Lubitsch invited her to perform in a couple of full-length movies – Die Augen der Mummie Mâ (The Eyes of the Mummy Ma) and Carmen, both from 1918.

A visit to her mother in Poland led to Negri’s disastrous marriage at the age of 22 to a handsome and dull Polish count. In her rush to the altar she failed to notice the count’s only tepid interest in her, or how oddly close he was to his sister. The marriage appears to have expired on its first night, but Negri was stuck with it until Lubitsch persuaded her to come back to Germany and make more films with him. Her husband was more pleased than not and so Negri packed her bags and returned to Berlin. It was the beginning of one of the great cinematic partnerships. Sternberg worshipped Dietrich, and Hitchcock adored Bergman; but Lubitsch was sceptical about his leading lady’s character if not about her talent. In part, that was due to the fact that, now she was a star, Negri increasingly granted herself the star’s right to have tantrums. In her view bad behaviour backstage allowed her to lose herself more effectively inside the character she was playing on camera. ‘Accomplished artists,’ she wrote, ‘cannot be equated to people simply because they happen to be people.’

The film she came back to make with Lubitsch was Madame DuBarry, the movie that made them both stars in America, and in so doing reintroduced German cinema – boycotted during the war – to the world. With Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace standing in for Versailles, Madame DuBarry is closer to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette than to Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, offering history as reverie, as style. It entices us with images, seduces us with spectacle, and sees history as a series of purely personal moments. In effect, the causes of the French Revolution boil down to a lovers’ quarrel. Lubitsch’s lack of a political and historical sense troubled some critics: Siegfried Kracauer described the film – and other ‘historical’ works made in Germany in these years – as a way of making history ‘an arena reserved for blind and ferocious instincts, a product of devilish machinations forever frustrating our hopes for freedom and happiness’. The unspoken frenzy Kracauer detected in Lubitsch is partly the result of his insistence on the agency of the crowd, against which the lonely single figure emerges. Lubitsch loves crowds almost as much as he loves Negri and Emil Jannings (playing Louis XV); all three are cinematically thrilling. At the same time the film is a kind of fable about the film star and her audience, and not only provided Negri with her greatest triumph but defined her predicament.

Negri plays du Barry with all the hauteur a small 22-year-old Pole can muster. She’s beautiful but not bothered whether we find her beautiful. She fascinates the viewer; it’s a pleasure simply to watch emotions passing across her face, to see someone so well equipped for the pantomime of flirtation. By our standards, she’s over the top, but her acting isn’t without its subtleties. She can look both dim and cunning, dreamy and on the make. Lubitsch’s biographer, Scott Eyman, wrote: ‘If it’s possible for an actress to believably play a character who sleeps her way to the top and still remains innocent, Negri manages to pull it off.’ Yet for all the compassion the audience feels for her, the film is about du Barry v. the masses: she’s both their representative and their enemy, possessing the wealth and elegance they yearn for and despise. (At around this time, Negri bought some of the Hohenzollern diamonds, literally acquiring the trappings of monarchs.) She performed best when drawing on the class contradictions of her own life: a young woman who had grown up in the slums, but with an eye always on her mother’s former elegance, and the gilt and illusion of the stage. Often in her films she’s an interloper, a parvenue; though she may be ascending the ranks, she remains one of the people. And in the end, they kill her. Madame DuBarry ends with her beheading – the head flung to the crowd, so that the last thing we see is that emotive face, decapitated and immobile. The camera lingers on the face that had fascinated it, now still; the moment is the camera’s and the audience’s revenge.

A number of highly successful films followed, but the best are those she made with Lubitsch. In her German movies, she’s tough, brazen, a streetwise kid. Negri perfected the art of looking self-possessed: every grin, every deprecatory smirk offers us someone immeasurably pleased with herself. She kicks Sumurun (1920) off with a come-hither look that, more than ninety years later, made me regret that I couldn’t get up and go thither. (She plays ‘The Dancer’, a go-getting harem girl at the court of a despotic sheikh, where – in an Edmund Dulac-style vision of the fairy-tale Orient – men are a sorry bunch, eunuchs, besotted old men or feckless dreamers passively enthralled by their desire for women.) That look of hers reminds us that in 1920s cinema it was eroticism that was the great subject, the novelty of the medium, and, despite Eisenstein, not close-ups of maggots in meat. She manifests, at least at first, a sexuality uncomplicated by sorrow or self-doubt; she relishes her own ploys and processes so much that it’s impossible not to enjoy them with her.

The term ‘femme fatale’ suggests languor; there is nothing languorous about Negri. Although billed as ‘The Queen of Tragedy’, her genius was for comedy. In Die Bergkatze (The Mountain Cat) from 1921, there are jokes about the men wanting to be whipped by her, but she’s a noticeably vivacious dominatrix, cheeky, a figure of mischief. As Madame du Barry, similarly, Negri twice has a man blindfolded; she dresses in men’s clothes and has the king acting as a lady’s maid. In Die Bergkatze, when she wants to gain the hero’s attention, she chucks a snowball at him. She’s always running, darting around the possibly parodic Expressionist-style sets, racing up and down the staircases. Matching her energy, Lubitsch experiments wildly with the frame of the image itself, which becomes at various moments a pair of lips, an oval, an ascending stair. ‘Das Mädel hat Schmiss’ (‘the girl’s got spirit’), we’re told. Later the ideal Lubitsch women – such as Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise (1932) or Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be (1942) – were half-distracted schemers, combining the beautiful and the daft. Here we see how Negri was their prototype.

She would rarely enjoy such on-screen freedom again. She left for Hollywood, the first European star to be bought up, but the American movie business didn’t know what to do with her. Although allowed a latitude not granted to native women, there would be no place here for her carefree sexiness. She began to hone her public performance as a star, creating – years before Garbo – a reputation for desirable reclusiveness. Her every move was followed by the press; her relationship with Charlie Chaplin played out in the papers and fan magazines (they were lovers in the headlines long before they actually climbed into bed with each other). With Bernhardt and Duse in mind, she grasped the necessity of managing her stardom in order to sustain her career. Her movie choices were less well managed. She succeeded in getting a small number of good films made, typically with European directors: reunited with Lubitsch in Forbidden Paradise (1924); directed by Garbo’s lover and mentor Mauritz Stiller in the lachrymose melodrama Hotel Imperial (1927); and, post-Hollywood, by Paul Czinner in The Way of Lost Souls (1929), her only British film. Lubitsch without Negri would remain Lubitsch; Negri without Lubitsch was never quite so good again. ‘To Pola,’ a journalist wrote, ‘going back to Lubitsch’s direction was like taking off a tight pair of shoes … He didn’t want her to be beautiful or sympathetic.’ Hollywood required both, on and off screen; it was only a matter of time before the love affair with the American audience ended. Stardom, it turned out, wasn’t just a marketing exercise, or even a matter of stunning performances; it was a relation to the public, allowing oneself to exist as an image in the eyes of the crowd. The relation would go wrong when the public turned critical.

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The break came thanks to Negri’s well-publicised romance with Valentino. Their affair began as the publicity department’s dream come true, an exotic counterpart to the solid partnership of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Then, on 23 August 1926, Valentino died from peritonitis following an appendectomy. If the public demanded heightened life and artifice on the screen, at a burial they required strict naturalism. At his funeral, Negri wept, staggered and swooned (twice); she had a huge flower arrangement delivered spelling out her name. The rumour was that the flowers were so big to make sure they would come out clearly in the press photographs. Movie fans simply didn’t believe in her mourning; she wasn’t in love, she was on the make. Any residual goodwill granted her as ‘Valentino’s widow’ vanished when she married a Georgian prince in exile nine months after Valentino’s death. The account in the Memoirs of her marriage to Prince Serge Mdivani makes odd reading; she seems to have sleepwalked into it, bullied into marrying by her lover, his family and her mother. She made more films, most of them creditable, but was on the way out. The advent of sound was another blow, the Wall Street crash and the demise of 1920s glamour and artifice another. By this time she was drinking copiously, and perhaps taking cocaine too. Although she had successfully played ‘ordinary women’, as in Hotel Imperial, female fans, in particular, wanted a more down-to-earth kind of heroine than it was imagined Negri could believably supply.

Pola Negri at Valentino’s funeral in 1926 with Valentino’s business manager and his wife.
Pola Negri at Valentino’s funeral in 1926 with Valentino’s business manager and his wife.

Sound was supposed to have finished her in the US, yet her accent was no thicker than Dietrich’s or Garbo’s. Her voice, the husky essence of champagne and cigarettes, sounds perfectly fine in her German movies from the 1930s. But Hollywood was unconvinced; Negri was yesterday’s star. She went where the work was: first to London, then Paris, then Germany. She found a home in the Nazi-sponsored film industry, where she was both suspected of being too friendly with Jews and appreciated for bringing in foreign money. Hitler loved her in Mazurka (1935); for a while he watched it two or three times a week, weeping regularly over its sentimental picture of a wronged mother.

As the war approached, Negri absconded via Lisbon on a refugee boat back to the States. She made one appearance in a harmless comedy – Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) – but failed to find more work, turning down too many parts as wrong for her and not finding any that might be right. She became an American citizen and spent her last three decades in San Antonio, Texas. Her last relationship was with Margaret West, the woman who introduced country and western music to American network radio. There was one more film – The Moon-Spinners (1964), with Walt Disney – but it was the independently wealthy West who ensured that Negri’s last years were comfortable; she lived on money West left her for some 25 years. (Negri declared that she and West were never lovers; most people now assume they were.)

Negri was an early choice to play Norma Desmond, the decaying silent movie star in Sunset Boulevard (1950). There are various theories as to why she turned it down: perhaps she resented not being the first choice; perhaps she thought her potential co-star (at that stage, Montgomery Clift) was wrong for the part; perhaps she felt ridiculed by the script, which was very likely based on her. The role went instead to her once great rival Gloria Swanson (though the rivalry had largely been concocted by Paramount’s publicity department). I’m glad she didn’t choose to play the role, partly because Swanson is so good in it but also because it’s clear that for all her toughness Negri might not have stood up against Billy Wilder’s cynicism.

In her Memoirs, there’s a photo of Negri as a late middle-aged woman gazing at a flawless waxwork of her younger self, as she appeared in the title role of The Spanish Dancer (1923). It might have been painful to see such a double, but Negri looks remarkably unworried, and indeed amused by this parodic doppelgänger of herself. To some extent, she bought into her own myth, seeing herself as part aristocrat, part ‘gipsy’; yet, as she had written, something in her was always also watching the image from elsewhere. She dreamed of playing Cleopatra, a role she never landed, but in any case was portrayed by the press in a version of herself that answered to the chauvinist critics’ view of that queen: a person without a centre, fickle, insincere, impulsive, up to no good. Negri had the actor’s longing, to be, as she put it, ‘the world and everything in it’. For a few years, she seemed to be achieving that ambition – creating so many people, so various, so irreconcilable. Even now, though she has been dead for nearly thirty years, those selves remain, facets of a person who is the sum of her performances, especially her archetypal one as a star.