The Loudest Voice in Silent Film

The lavish life of Hollywood’s first female starlette, Pola Negri

Pola Negri decided early on in life that she would be a star. Born Apolonia Chalupec in Poland at the turn of the 19th century, Pola resolved to not let her impoverished background prevent her from achieving her dreams. She found early success in Europe in her teen years, but had her “big break” when Hollywood came knocking at her door in 1922. Pola accepted a Paramount Pictures invitation to Hollywood, changed her surname to Negri, and film history was made soon after.

How Pola Negri’s allure shaped American culture

America immediately fell madly in love with the young, foreign actress. Her smoky eyes and sultry beauty made her irresistible to fans of the silent screen. And it was Pola who popularised red toenail polish, fur boots, and turbans, leaving her permanent stamp on American fashion.
Her movies were immediate hits, with racy titles like: Bella Donna, The Cheat, The Spanish Dancer, Men, Forbidden Paradise, Flower of the Night, A Woman of the World, and Good and Naughty. Her movie titles seemed to mirror her personal life, or at least her personal life as told by the ever-curious tabloids of the time.

Pola Negri in "Mania", 1918 (From the collection of Filmoteka Narodowa)

Darling, diva, or just really good at PR?

Americans flocked to see Pola Negri films, but perhaps even more so to the newsstands to read the latest scoop on her dramatic personal life. She was a master of publicity, making it difficult to determine how much of her media-portrayed private life was true and how much was carefully orchestrated to boost her celebrity persona or publicise an upcoming film.
Some of the stories that most captured morning readers were about her supposed feud with actress Gloria Swanson for top billing, on screen and off. News centered around their lavish lifestyles, out-there personalities, and penchant for marrying minor royalty. Her rivalry with acclaimed actress Marlene Dietrich was another story that became the talk of the town.
Grand parties. Fantastic outfits. Rumors of torrid love affairs. She offered it all and readers loved every word of it.

Sheet music:Paradise / A Woman Commands, 1931 (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

The beginning of the end with Rudolph Valentino

A femme fatale on screen and in real life, Pola was married three times — twice to royalty. Her most famous love affairs were with Charlie Chaplin (although he denied their relationship) and Rudolph Valentino, ‘the Great Lover’.

Rudolph Valentino, 1920/1925 (From the collection of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles)

Pola and Valentino were openly living together when he died in 1926. Pola’s mourning of his death was interpreted by many as being ostentatious: she staggered, weeping, onto Valentino’s coffin. She also had thousands of red and white flowers arranged to spell “Pola” sent to the funeral home. The fine lines of Pola’s public and personal life began to blur, and her fans slowly turned on her during this period of mourning.

Pola married again only seven months after Valentino’s death, further leading some to question her grief, accusing her of overacting for publicity, while others defended her, claiming she never loved anyone other than Valentino. Nonetheless, her marriage after Valentino’s death took its toll on her career and her public image.

Pola Negri’s later years

Between 1927 and her death, she made a mere fifteen films, in stark contrast to the twenty films that made her a star during her golden years at Paramount (1922-1927).

In 1935, she went to Germany for a few movies and, while there, came to the attention of Hitler, who tried to convince her to make propaganda films for the Third Reich. She declined. Rumors of an affair with Hitler haunted her while she stayed in Europe, but she denied it and won a lawsuit against a French magazine who had published the story.

Despite one of her movies being a huge hit in 1943, she was not offered another part in a movie until 1964. Retiring to Texas, she passed away from severe pneumonia in 1987.

Pola Negri on the cover of “Kino” magazine from 1931, 1931 (From the collection of Filmoteka Narodowa)

Although her career was comparatively short, she remains a legend of the silver screen, larger than life thanks to her enduring personality and talent.

An excerpt of the original film stock of "Mania", 1918 (From the collection of Filmoteka Narodowa)
Words by Sarah Frohmberg
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