Before Marlene Dietrich, before Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren or even Greta Garbo, Polish film star Pola Negri made the journey from Europe to Hollywood and found fame in America, the first European film actress to succeed on both sides of the Atlantic.
She was born Barbara Apolonia Chałupiec in what is now Poland in 1897, fashioning the name "Pola Negri" for herself (after Italian poet Ada Negri) during her confinement to a sanitarium for tuberculosis. After Russian authorities sent Negri's father to Siberia as a revolutionary, Negri and her mother moved to Warsaw where Negri studied ballet and eventually found success on the stage and screen.
During World War I, she moved to Berlin where she caught the attention of Ernst Lubitsch who signed her to a movie contract at Universum Film AG ("UFA"), Germany's best studio and, until the Nazis took power in 1933, one of the most influential in the world. After a half dozen low-budget films with other directors, Lubitsch in 1918 cast Negri as the lead in Die Augen der Mumie Ma—"The Eyes of the Mummy."
We remember Lubitsch now for his witty, sophisticated comedies, but during his early career in Germany, he alternated between broad farces and serious dramas. The former usually starred Ossi Oswalda, the latter, Negri. Despite its lurid title, The Eyes of the Mummy wasn't a horror picture but a tragic romance, the story of a young woman (Negri) rescued from the Egyptian tombs where her captor (Emil Jannings) has held her for years only to find him stalking her anew through the posh capitals of Europe.
The Eyes of the Mummy is a minor entry in the Lubitsch canon, and Negri is still a raw young actress (she was just twenty-one when filming began), but somebody connected with the film—the screenwriters, Lubitsch, Negri—knew something about the psychology of stalking from the point of view of both the stalker and the victim, and Negri is effective as a lusty child-woman slavishly devoted to whichever man possesses her at any given moment.
Better is Lubitsch's next collaboration with Negri, a film version of Prosper Mérimée's novel, Carmen. Adapted to film as early as 1907, the story of a soldier who throws over his family, his fiancee and his honor for a beautiful gypsy smuggler with tragic results has spawned dozens of versions over the years and was familiar enough to audiences that Charlie Chaplin could film a spoof of it, A Burlesque on Carmen, in 1915. Stripped of its Spanish setting, Carmen is essentially a retelling of Eve and the apple, and while I agree with Nero Wolfe's sidekick Archie Goodwin that "[n]o man was ever taken to hell by a woman unless he already had a ticket in his pocket, or at least had been fooling around with timetables," that doesn't mean this oft-repeated formula doesn't work; indeed, it forms the basis of much of literature, film noir and some of the more brutal aspects of many of the world's cultures.
The key to Carmen is, of course, the actress playing the title role. You have to believe that an honorable man would throw away his good name, a promising career and a faithful fiancee for a romp with a treacherous tramp. Although the print of Carmen has deteriorated beyond repair in places, it's still possible to see what both Don José and movie audiences saw in Pola Negri's Carmen—she's ripe and sensual, with large eyes full of promises she has no intention of keeping.
Better men than Don José have given up a whole lot more for a whole lot less.
"Love is disgusting," Negri herself later opined, "when you no longer possess yourself."
Negri and Lubitsch made a total of eight movies together, each better than the one before it. In addition to The Eyes of the Mummy and Carmen, they made Madame DuBarry (a.k.a Passion) and Rausch (both 1919), Sumurun (a.ka. One Arabian Night) (1920), Die Bergkatze ("The Wildcat") (1921), Die Flamme (1923) and Forbidden Paradise (made in Hollywood in 1924 for Paramount).
Negri's collaboration with Lubitsch made her an international star, and so great was her reputation that the U.S. finally dropped its embargo of German films (instituted during the war) just to satisfy popular curiosity. After the success of Carmen (released in the United States in 1921 as Gypsy Blood), Negri signed with Paramount and arrived in New York in September 1922.
She quickly supplanted Theda Bara as silent film's top sex symbol and while (thanks to the vagaries of film preservation) I can't compare Negri to Bara's most famous role, Cleopatra, if Bara's surviving film A Fool There Was is any indicator, Negri was lightyears beyond her in terms of projecting sexuality on the screen. Was Negri a great actress? I'm not sure. But judging from the reaction of audiences when her European films finally made their way to America, she was revolutionary.
The films with Lubitsch also represented Negri at the top of her popularity. Despite begging her to come to Hollywood, Paramount didn't really know what to do with Negri and as her star faded, she became even more theatrical and haughty, which poisoned her relationship to both the studio and her audience.
When in 1926, the press decided her engagement to the recently deceased Rudolph Valentino was a fabrication, the public was done with her. To her dying day, Negri insisted that the engagement was real and told the Los Angeles Times shortly before her death, "Rudy was the great love of my life. I remember him with great regret. Somehow, the fates changed what wasn't to be. You can't rage with anger against it, and even though you love someone, you like to be with them and want to marry them and hope that it will all work out this time ... but he died, just when we were engaged to be married."
She was also briefly engaged to Charlie Chaplin who jilted her soon after giving her a $15,000 engagement ring. Negri's revenge? She gave the ring to her Forbidden Paradise co-star, Rod La Rocque.
She later married a Georgian prince, Serge Mdivani, who left her for an opera singer after Negri lost her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. After their divorce, Negri lived with Margaret West, a Texas oil heiress, until the latter's death in 1963.
"No one could believe that we were closest friends, that nothing sexual was involved," she wrote in her autobiography. "Yet it is true. She was as close a friend as I've ever had."
When talkies came in, Negri's thick accent relegated her to supporting roles. Despite a measure of success in such films as A Woman Commands—she had a hit with the song "Paradise"—she retreated to Europe and retired in 1943, making one last picture in 1964, The Moon-Spinners, at Walt Disney's personal behest. Her London press conference promoting the film was a sensation—she showed up with a live cheetah on a chain leash.
Negri died on August 1, 1987, in San Antonio, Texas. She was 90 years old.