Pola Negri: Temptress of Silent Hollywood Book Review
In “Pola Negri: Temptress of Silent Hollywood”, out now from McFarland Press, author Sergio Delgado has pieced together an impressive piece of scholarship.
What makes this book so impressive? First and foremost, Delgado spends almost as much time tearing down myths and legends as he does building up the life story of Negri. Where others might have accepted the word of the PR agent because it makes for a juicier story, Delgado takes on the Herculean task of sorting out fact from fiction – at least as much as possible.
Negri’s entire history is a well-crafted myth. Somehow it has come to be accepted that he birth name is Barbara, which seems to have no foundation. Others said she was Pauline Schwartz, an obvious falsehood that just wouldn’t die. Her years in theater and ballet were becoming more and more grand. Of course, her life really was exciting – through her marriages, she was at one time a countess and later a princess of sorts.
Her two most high profile relationships are picked apart in detail and scrutinized. Did she really fling herself on to the casket of Rudolph Valentino? No. And there is some question about how much she embellished her romance with him – some say it never existed at all. Negri’s connection to Charlie Chaplin is much better documented, but even there Delgado has much work to do. Negri’s story conflicts sharply with Chaplin’s, and the newspaper accounts were far different from either!
Besides some extensive myth busting, “Pola Negri” excels in its coverage of lost films. Delgado goes through Negri’s career film by film, and it is incredible just how often we see that a film is either completely lost, in an archive unseen by human eyes, or only available on a public domain DVD. It’s no wonder that Negri went from being one of the biggest stars of her time to being largely forgotten — people today have no way to see her movies. If I could wish only one thing with regards to Delgado’s book, it is that companies like Kino and Criterion take notice. Kino has released some nice editions of Negri’s German films with Lubitsch. Isn’t it time we get some decent transfers of these public films, or better yet… get the archives to allow scans of their prints. If the goal is preservation, the films would be much safer if not maintained as flammable nitrate.
Interestingly, the films before and after her time at Paramount seem to be largely intact. Which brings us to the book’s third act, Negri’s time in Nazi Germany. Unlike the great actor Emil Jannings, she didn’t embrace the regime by any means. But her name still managed to get mixed up in the whole mess. Rumors persisted for years that Negri was a mistress of Adolf Hitler. Of course, these rumors were false, and the truth is that she increasingly came under the scrutiny of Joseph Goebbels and Nazi censorship. But the American press, who had a strong love-hate relationship with the actress, were not shy about spreading the rumors and possibly (indirectly) killing her career in the United States.
Although the book is by far the best work on Pola Negri so far in existence, I cannot help but point out a shortcoming or two. Perhaps something for a second edition? Based on the book’s footnotes, I get the impression that Delgado did not use genealogical sources. This is a real shame, as her naturalization record is easily found online, as are several ship manifests that shed further light on her traveling companions. Because Negri was Catholic, there is even a good chance her baptism record can be found, which could help cement any birth discrepancies. Likewise, Delgado notes that “it is said” the State Department kept a file on Negri, but no attempt seems to be made to find this record. Having researched cinematographer Karl Freund, I can personally attest that the FBI, if not the State Department, did keep records on a number of prominent European-Americans. Lastly, although only a minor incident, I was saddened to see no mention of Negri’s lawsuit for when her image was used in a medication ad.
These nitpicks should not be interpreted as my saying not to get the book. On the contrary, anyone interested in the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin, the relationship between Hollywood and Europe, etc will surely find something of interest in here.