Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Pola Negri: Temptress of Silent Hollywood

Pola Negri is, without doubt, one of the most interesting and (relatively speaking) little appreciated stars of the silent era. She was a major star in the United States in the 1920s, as well as in Europe, where earlier she had risen through the ranks of the Polish and German film industries. In fact, Negri was so big in America (she was both hugely popular, and, she had a BIG personality) that many up and coming stars were compared to her. Negri was sophisticated, worldly, and alluring. Early on, Louise Brooks was once described as a "junior vamp" a la Negri.

I've long been interested in the Polish-born Negri. And my interest was rekindled after having seen a restoration of the Malcom St. Clair directed A Woman of the World (Paramount, 1925), starring Negri, at last year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It was funny and enjoyable, and Negri was simply terrific. I can't wait till the restoration is released on DVD, hopefully sometime soon.

Recently, I finished reading a new book on the actress, Pola Negri: Temptress of Silent Hollywood, by Sergio Delgado. The book was published by McFarland, a long standing publisher of books on the silent film era.

From the publisher: "Femme fatale Pola Negri (1897-1987) was one of the great stars of the silent film era, an actress whose personal story of hardships and successes, loves and tragedies is more compelling than most Hollywood dramas. Yet today she is largely overlooked, her name tarnished by myths and scandals. Taking a fresh look at her life and career, this book debunks the myths and gossip, presenting a candid portrait of one of the silent screen's most sensational leading ladies. Rare photographs are included, along with in-depth discussions of her films."

As it is, Delgado's book serves as an introduction to the actress and her films. And as just that, I enjoyed it. It is a good read. However, all along I was hoping for something more, something more in depth -- especially in regards to Negri's European years.

As the author admits, his sources for Negri's are somewhat problematic: they are the various, publicity-driven movie and fan magazines of the day, like Photoplay, as well as Negri's own book, Memoirs of a Star, which was published in 1970 and was described at the time of its release (as relayed by the author) as "fiction."

Delgado as much as admits these sources are not always to be trusted, but then writes a book based almost exclusively on them. That left me frustrated.

That's why I was left wondering, time and again, where were the Polish or German or French sources? Negri was born and raised in Poland, worked there and in Germany making some of her best and worst movies (including some with Ernst Lubitsch), and later lived on and off in France. Certainly there is a Continental paper trail of some sort? In Pola Negri: Temptress of Silent Hollywood, the European incidents in Negri's life and the films she made in Europe are described almost always through the eyes of the American press, or the star's own "suspect" memoirs.

Pola Negri: Temptress of Silent Hollywood is not a bad book. I enjoyed reading it. And, I suggest you get this book, and check it out on your own. Pola Negri was a fascinating if not temperamental personality, as well as a good actress. That, certainly, comes across in Delgado's new book. Heck, who else can claim or did claim to have had affairs and been engaged to BOTH Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino?

[In the meantime, if you want to learn a little more about Negri, start with her Wikipedia page, or the 1987 obituaries which appeared in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Along with her now out-of-print Memoirs, which were published in 1970, a more recent account of the actress's life can be found in Pola Negri: Hollywood's First Femme Fatale by Mariusz Kotowski. First published in Poland as Pola Negri: Legenda Hollywood in 2011, the book was issued here in the United States by the University Press of Kentucky in 2014.]

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