The Star of Pola Negri
Updated: Oct 12
Originally published in 2014:
In the past we have celebrated the great Polish born actress Pola Negri and we are thrilled to introduce new comer Tomi Bellert to South West Silents. Tomi is a recent film graduate at the University of Bristol who studied the work of Pola Negri.
And before Tomi takes to the stage to introduce Pola on the night, he has allowed us to post an edited down version of his work on Pola Negri.
Pola Negri (1897 – 1987) was a Polish-born Hollywood star of the silent era. She was the first European star to come to America and paved the way for Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich to follow. She went on to make sixty five pictures over the course of her acting career, twenty of which were made with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Her vivid career also included work as a vaudeville singer and recording artists. Pola Negri’s life in the United States made the headlines of newspapers and gossip columns. She was engaged to Charlie Chaplin at one time and had a romance with Rudolph Valentino just before his sudden death in 1926. She is also known for starting several important women’s fashion trends, some of which are still fashion staples today, including red painted toenails, fur boots and turbans. Yet, few people today know this magnificent actress since the impact of her presence in Hollywood in the 1920s seems to have been undervalued by film historians (Koszarski, 1990, p. 296).
In this essay I will attempt to reconstruct the meaning of Pola Negri during the period in which she was still making films. Although her entire career will be reviewed, the main focus of this research has been placed on years 1922-1928, the time when she was living in the United States and making films for Paramount Pictures. I will discuss Pola Negri’s on-screen persona and off-screen image in relation to the immediate contexts of this period as well as specific ways of understanding ethnic and sexual questions which were available in the 1920s for American audiences, rather than in relation to what they mean now. In doing so, drawing from the notion of the star text, an approach developed by Richard Dyer and combining semiotics and sociology, I will present one of the many existing ways of exploring the idea of stardom, before moving on to discussing Pola Negri in the context of ethnical otherness and typology of a star.
THE STAR OF POLA NEGRI: Since her arrival in the United States in 1922, Pola Negri gained a lot of attention in the press. Despite the favourable film reviews taking note of her strong acting skills and her huge popularity reflected by her winning an opinion poll in the summer of 1926 amongst the readers of Motion Picture Magazine, voting for their favourite actresses, her contract with Paramount Pictures was not renewed in 1928 (Koszarski, 1990, p.298). Therefore, it has become the focus of my study to identify the complexity of ways Pola Negri’s image was constructed and presented to the public in the American media of the 1920s in order to explain the struggle Pola Negri faced in obtaining a long term successful Hollywood career despite dramatic flows of popularity throughout the period in which she was signed to Paramount Pictures. According to Dyer (1998, p.11) “stars move in and out of favour, and even at the height of their popularity may make a film that nobody much goes to see”. Therefore, the rise and fall of the stars indicates that economics alone cannot explain the phenomenon of stardom and the case study of Pola Negri’s Hollywood career reveals that the lack of a stars’ success needs to be explored in the context of ideology and social conditions in which they emerged.
In doing this project I have integrated critical and theoretical discussion in the field of star studies with primary source historical research into the particular star – Pola Negri. Since the focus of my study was Pola Negri’s image which, as previously mentioned, consisted of both her on-screen persona and off-screen publicity, to obtain the primary sources it was necessary to conduct both archive research and create an account of relevant social history. Whilst the former involved mainly textual analysis of Pola Negri films in order to explore if her roles coalesced into a single recognisable persona, the latter produced a broader contextualisation of her image from the point of view of audiences. Therefore, primary materials would also include documents pertaining to how Pola Negri’s image was portrayed to the public through contemporaneous articles, gossip columns, photographs, film reviews and opinion polls found in fan magazines, trade magazines and newspapers.
However, due to the old nature of the materials and the fact the great majority of films made in the silent era have since been lost forever, it proved challenging to obtain primary sources for this research. From all the Pola Negri films that survived, almost none were re-released in the UK for the general public. Considering the essay’s word limit as well as difficulty in obtaining all surviving Pola Negri films in their full lengths within the given time constraints, I decided the main focus of my research would be the publicity surrounding Pola Negri’s life and career in America rather than her extensive filmography. Nonetheless, bearing in mind that on-screen persona could be a significant part of a star’s image, I will refer to certain films as they undoubtedly contributed to the way Pola Negri was depicted by American society. Majority of the analysed extracts from fan magazines such as Photoplay and Motion Picture Magazine were accessed online via the Media History Digital Library or found in academic books. It is also worth mentioning that one of the most useful sources for this research was a feature-length biographical documentary film Pola Negri: Life is a Dream in Cinema (2006) including live interviews of people who either knew or worked with Pola Negri or who are scholars and historians in the field, each delivering their perspective of this early era of film in Hollywood. Additionally, I directly approached the Texas-based production company Bright Shining City Production responsible for this production via email, and the company was kind enough to provide me with some rare archive materials.
Koszarski (1990, p.298) notes that the exact financial returns on Negri’s pictures, as most with silent Paramount releases are unavailable, and thus it has become problematic to determine the extent to which Pola Negri’s films were successful amongst the movie goers in the period in which they were released. Throughout my secondary research I have encountered a great amount of contradictory information and incoherence regarding particular Paramount releases. For instance, on one hand Diane Negra (2002) states that Hotel Imperial (1927), the fourteenth film of Negri’s American career, failed in restoring her to her earlier fame. On the other hand, in his extensive study of the history of American cinema, Richard Koszarski (1990, p. 298) notes that despite Pola Negri’s negative publicity at the time of Rudolph Valentino’s funeral, her career “continued to flourish and Hotel Imperial was a tremendous hit”. Neither of them, however, supports their statement with any valid evidence nor defines their understanding of such ambiguous terms as ‘hit’, ‘failure’ and ‘success’. I realised that the lack of detailed box office data from the silent era resulted in many other examples of unsupported statements that rest solely on the authority of the individuals who make them. Furthermore, all references to opinion polls such as the one I mentioned before, should be understood with the caveat that their accuracy and impartially are also open to scrutiny as votes could be purchased by the studios which wanted to promote their stars and films. However, taken as a whole they do reflect something of the star’s changing status in the public eye and thus seem appropriate for this study.
POLA NEGRI AND THE ETHICAL OTHERNESS: Pola Negri was already a top continental star when her German collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch in a 1920 epic drama Madame DuBarry (retitled Passion in the United States) earned her excellent reviews and managed to bring down the American embargo on German films (Card, 1994, p.308). It was in 1922 when Pola Negri signed a contract with Paramount and arrived in New York to a flurry of publicity, becoming the first ever Continental star to be imported into Hollywood (Kotowski, 2011, p.56). This would set a precedent for a very long line of imported European stars and filmmakers which would famously include Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and many others. From the very beginning, the American press seemed slightly perplexed with the arrival of ‘ready-made’ stars. In Photoplay’s July 1922 edition, a long article by Helen Klumph, entitled ‘What About Pola Negri?’ asks the readers to forecast her future for themselves and calls her career ‘converted’ since “instead of attracting attention in several pictures and gradually working up a following she was introduced to America in her greatest role”.
In The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities, Paul McDonald (2000) identifies the emergence of publicly circulated knowledge about individual film performers as one of the crucial factors that appear central to the development of the star system in American cinema. Similarly, for deCordova the star system was only fully realised when the stories and information about identities of performers began to actively circulate in the press, “so that the star was known not only through his or her roles but also as ‘a character in a narrative quite separable from his or her work in any film” (deCordova, cited by McDonald, 2000, p.32). Pola Negri received a huge amount of publicity upon her arrival in Hollywood and the fan magazines quickly jumped on the bandwagon. She was almost always written about in the context of her ethnic background, foreign accent and exotic looks. In the article ‘You Can’t Hurry Pola’ published in Photoplay in March 1923 Joan Jordan referred to the actresses as “the alluring, the foreign, the thrillingly different and wonderful Pola Negri”.
Another article called Pola “an exotic sorceress”, who lived “a crepegorgette existence” (Basinger, 1999, p.249). As Negra (2002, p.385) notes writers would frequently employ deliberate misspellings and grammatical errors to convey Negri’s foreign status through her imperfect and heavily accented English. Moreover, magazine articles on Negri carried such titles as ‘Who is Pola Negri?’, ‘The Real Pola Negri’, ‘How Polish is Pola?’ and ‘Now We Know About Pola’ and framed a kind of detective narrative in their investigation of what for the American public imagination was Pola’s ethnically vague background.
However, whilst the ethical otherness of Pola Negri created a great amount of curiosity amongst audiences, it also contributed to the anti-immigration anxiety reflected in the tone of some of the articles. One can discern a fear of foreign immigration, with regards to actors and filmmakers imported to Hollywood, perpetuating the trade press in 1920s. In July 1926, Ivan St. Johns wrote in Photoplay:
Pola Negri started it all. Quite innocently, to be sure, but she started it just the same, this hegira of foreigners in quest of good American dollars in our motion picture field. It is fast becoming serious. Directors are worried. Actors and actresses are more so. And why shouldn’t they be? (Johns, 1926, p.28)
In July 1923, after visiting sets of two simultaneously filmed Paramount productions – The Silent Partner starring Leatrice Joy and The Cheat with Pola Negri – Photoplay concluded that “we don’t wish to say anything about Miss Negri’s great art – but let’s not neglect nor forget to applaud such home talent as Miss Joy’s in our appreciation of foreign greatness”.
Furthermore, Pola Negri’s ethnicity was aligned to issues of morality since some of her film roles were seen as a threat to domesticity and traditional womanhood. In his essay Protecting Protestantism: The Ku Klux Klan vs. the Motion Picture Industry, Tom Rice (2008) notes that in the spring 1923 the Ku Klux Klan launched a series of protests against Pola Negri’s first American film Bella Donna, as a result of which the film’s screenings were completely banned in Texas. The group re-articulated existing discourses and referred to Pola as ‘the exotic foreigner’ and described the film’s story of a woman who leaves her British husband for an Egyptian tycoon as ‘coarse, degrading and insulting’, ‘a disgrace to the white race’ and ‘open propaganda for social equality’ (Rice, 2008, p.370). Moreover, Pola Negri herself would also use her ethnical background as an excuse to explain her over-the-top antics and temperamental outbursts off-screen.
As the 2006 documentary Pola Negri: Life is a Dream in Cinema reveals her popularity in the States declined dramatically as a result of her hysterical displays at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral, creating a huge amount of hate mail and the backlash against Pola in the press accusing her of misusing the occasion for self-promotion purposes. In her own defence, Pola admitted to be overemotional by virtue of her Gypsy temperament and said, “I cannot help that I have not the restraint of the Anglo-Saxon. My emotions seem to them exaggerated, but I am not acting” (Negri, cited by Leider, 2003, p. 394). Furthermore, Pola would also often complain about the quality of high culture in America. Koszarski (cited by Horak, 2005, p.245) notes that “she was appalled at Hollywood’s backwater culture and frank in discussing her feelings with the American Press, which suspiciously characterised her as ‘an intellectual’ and ‘a reader of books’”. Therefore, it could be argued that Negri’s off-screen image was consistently associated with a discourse of ethnical otherness that seemed to challenge American values at the time.
However, Negri’s exotic image, while played up in her publicity, was generally tamped down in her Hollywood pictures. In her analysis of Paramount’s attempts to convert Pola Negri into a single recognisable type that would both suit her image and please American audiences, Diane Negra (2002) states that the U.S. film narratives in which she appeared were not always coextensive with the persona being constructed. Although her early roles in Bella Dona (1923) and The Cheat (1923) presented her as a glamorous but earthy vamp with the capacity to disturb gendered relations of power, Pola’s erotic aggression was significantly contained and undercut by a series of roles in certain films, notably Barbered Wire (1927) and Hotel Imperial (1927). As a result, Hollywood had constructed two Negris which were fundamentally at odds with one another and, therefore, “Negri’s vaguely eastern European ethnicity was seen to be utterly resistant to attempts at Americanization” (Negra, 2002, p.400).
CONCLUSION: To conclude, research into the film stardom involves understanding of general ideas about society and the individual during a particular period. According to Richard Dyer (1998) and his notion of ‘star image’, which laid the groundwork for star analysis within film studies, stars are intertextual constructs produced across a range of media and cultural practices. Thus they need to be studied in the context of social production and circulation of meaning. Taking into consideration textual analysis of selected Paramount films starring Pola Negri as well as press reviews and contemporary academic accounts on the silent era, one can conclude that Negri’s roles did not coalesce into a single recognisable type. The employment of Dyer’s concept into the research on publicity surrounding Polish-born actress Pola Negri reveals a lot about the status of foreign stars in the silent era. Undoubtedly, Negri’s influence upon her arrival in Hollywood in 1922 cannot be underestimated. Her mysterious past and vague ethnicity formed the cornerstone of her initial publicity in American press. However, a fear of foreign immigration – with regards to actors and filmmakers imported to Hollywood – well complemented other contemporary anxieties about what was considered the foreign character of ethnic female sexuality. Since Pola Negri successfully passed a voice testing and started to record the songs she sang in her later movies, it was these tensions surrounding her publicity, rather than the introduction of talkies, that ended her career in Hollywood.
Bibliography BASINGER, J., 1999. Silent Stars. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. CARD, J., 1994. Seductive Cinema. The Art of Silent Film. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. DYER, R., 1998. Stars. London: BFI Publishing. KOSZARSKI R., 1990. An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of The Silent Feature Pictures 1915-1928. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. KOTOWSKI, M., 2011. Pola Negri. Legenda Hollywood. Warszawa: Proszynski I S-ka. LEIDER, E., 2003. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. London: Faber and Faber. MCDONALD, P., 2000. The Star System. Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities. London: Wallflower NEGRA, D., 2002. Immigrant Stardom in Imperial America: Pola Negri and the Problem of Typology. In: J.M.BEAN and D. NEGRA, eds. A Feminist Approach in Early Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 374-403.
Online sources: HORAK, J.C., 2005. Sauerkraut & Sausages with a Little Goulash: Germans in Hollywood. Film History, Vol. 17, No. 2/3, PP. 241-260 JORDAN, J., 1923. You Can’t Hurry Pola. Photoplay [online] KLUMPH, H., 1922. What About Pola Negri? Photoplay [online] RICE, T. 2008. Protecting Protestantism: The Ku Klux Klan vs. the Motion Picture Industry. Film History, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 367-380 [online] ST. JOHNS, I., 1926. The Foreign Legion in Hollywood. Photoplay [online]
Films: Pola Negri: Life is a Dream in Cinema (2006) Directed by Mariusz Kotawski. USA: Bright Shining City Productions. Madame DuBarry (1919) Film. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Germany: PAGU. Bella Donna (1923) Film. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. USA: Paramount Pictures. The Cheat (1923) Film. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. USA: Paramount Pictures. Hotel Imperial (1927) Film. Directed by Mauritz Stiller. USA: Paramount Pictures. Barbed Wire (1927) Film. Directed by Rowland V. Lee and Mauritz Stiller. USA: Paramount Pictures.