Pola Negri

The first Continental star to be imported to Hollywood

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Who was Pola Negri? In a nutshell: She was the first European star to be imported to the US – before Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.




Pola Negri’s Polish start in the business

Pola Negri was actually born Barbara Apolonia Chalupec on January 3, 1897 in Poland. She grew up very poor with only her mother when her father was sent away to Siberia for some revolutionary activities. They relocated to Warsaw, the main capital of Poland and her mother was working as a cook to make ends meet. 

As many Old Hollywood actresses, Pola showed an early interest in dancing and performing and was accepted to Warsaw’s Imperial Ballet Academy. She danced in Swan Lake and even made it to a solo role in the ballet Coppélia. Unfortunately, she developed tuberculosis and had to retreat to a sanatorium in Zakopane. During this time, she adopted her stage name Pola Negri. 

Pola, which was short for Apolonia and Negri after the Italian novelist and poet Ada Negri. 

After her recovery, Pola dismissed her dancing plans and applied to the Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts in Warsaw. She was very invested in her studies both in the formal school curriculum as well as outside where she trained with Polish stage actress and professor Honorata Leszczyńska. Already while still being a student, she appears on stage and even made her first movie in 1914 (aged 17). When she graduated, she received offers from many prominent theaters in Warsaw and would establish herself as a popular stage actress and acted in a variety of Polish movies. Her success was so immense that it travelled across borders and reached Berlin, Germany. 

In 1917, when Pola was 20, she was presented with the opportunity to appear in one of the plays she had already successfully done in Poland and met Ernst Lubitsch during the production. Lubitsch at that time was producing comedies for UFA, the prominent German film studio. 

But, instead of UFA, Pola signed with Saturn Films and made six movies with them before Lubitsch convinced UFA in 1918 to let him make a large-scale film with Negri as the protagonist.  Their first collaboration was „The Eyes of the Mummy Ma“, which proved to be a big success and which would become the first of many Lubitsch/Negri collaborations which became bigger and grander in style over time. Their third movie, Madame du Barry, which was released under the name „Passion“ in the US became such a success worldwide that it actually brought down the American embargo on German Films. Their was such a demand for this as well as other Pola Negri production that there was good chance that Germany might become a serious threat to Hollywoods monopolistic position in the international film market. Negri and Lubitsch made three more movies and then Negri was paired with other directors. All of her movies proved to be successful and were sold also to the United States. 

Hollywood Success

Hollywood, of course, didn’t like the emerging film industry and star power in Europe. That’s why Hollywood started buying out key talent from Germany, which was then the capital of European film. The first two talents to be brought to Hollywood were none other than Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri. 

Old Hollywood Royalty Mary Pickford asked for Lubitsch for her costume film „Rosita“ and Jesse Lasky from Paramount was so impressed by Negri in Madame du Barry that he invited her to Hollywood and Pola Negri signed a 3000$/week contract with Paramount, which equals about 50.000$ today. In September 1922, Negri finally arrived in the US – that made her the first continental star to be imported to the US (even before Dietrich or Garbo). 

The decision to relocate to the US definitely proved to be the right step for Pola Negri – she became one for the most popular Hollywood actresses and one of the richest women in the film industry at that time. 

A funny coincidence: Her successful movie The Spanish Dancer was based on Victor Hugo’s „Don Cesar de Bazan“ as was Rosita, the movie Lubitsch made with Mary Pickford. They were released the same year and the critics loved to compare these two. Both got positive reviews – Pcikfords was deemed more polish, Negri’s more entertaining. 

In 1925, the audiences started to reject Pola Negri’s opulence. Mal St. Clair and Pola Negri reacted to this and parodied it in the comedy „A Woman of the World“ which Negri starred in. You can still see the movie on Youtube actually. 

She did only about 8 more movies with Paramount and then decided to not renew her contract with Paramount. She actually had planned to withdraw from acting completely and live as a mother and housewife at a chateau new Vigny in France that she had purchased. She actually was reported to have earned about 90 million $ corrected for inflation up until 1929, the age of 32 years. 

Pola Negri’s love life

Pola Negri was definitely not shy when it came to men. She apparently had been married in Poland to Count Eugeniusz Dabski, therefore becoming Countess Apolonia Dabska-Chalupec. They were married for only about three years, most of the time though separated. When Pola Negri arrived in Hollywood, she made headlines with her high-profile affairs.

Charlie Chaplin, who she had met in Germany, was her first serious relationship – so much so that the media headlines even read „The Queen of Tragedy to Wed the King of Comedy“. But, the relationship fell apart. She got involved with actor Rod La Rocque, one of her co-stars afterwards. And then, Pola met Rudolph Valentino. They apparently met at a costume party at the estate of Marion Davies ad William Randolph Hearst. And for the next two years until his death, they are reported to have been lovers. Her dramatic behavior during his funeral, including uncontrolled crying and fainting as well as large floral arragenemnt spelling out POLA caused a media sensation. Pola Negri insisted that Rudolph Valentino had been the love of her life. 

Nevertheless, she got married less than nine months later to the Georgian self-styled „Prince“ Serge Mdivani. 

Short sidenote about Mdviani: When researching Old Hollywood, you will encounter the name Mdivani more than once … actually many times. Why? Because there are actually five siblings that have become known as the „Marrying Mdivanis“. They fled to Paris after the Soviet Invasion of Georgia and got engaged and married to high-profile entertainment people. The two girls, Nina and Isabelle actually weren’t that notorious,  Nina Mdivani got married eventually of Denis Conan Doyle, a son of Sir Arthur Canon Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Isabelle married Spanish painter Josep Maria Sert. But the three brothers really took on the United States. 

David Mdviani was the first Mdviani to marry into entertainment royalty. In 1926, aged 22, he married actress Mae Murray – once he had bankrupted her, she divorced him and the two had a fierce custody battle about their son Koran David. He than dated French actress Arletty, who is known for her quote „My heart is Fresh, but my butt is international“, when being imprisoned for her affair with a German Nazi soldier. David than married Virginia Sinclair, heiress of Sinclair Oil millions, which also produced a son, Michael. This Mdviani was to become 80 years old. His brothers weren’t that lucky. 

Alexis Mdivani married Louise Astor Van Alan, a member of the high-profile Astor family at age 26, but divorced her to marry Barbara Hutton, Woolworth heiress and one of the world’s richest women at that time. At the time of his death he was 30 years old.  He died in an automobile accident in Spain – he was traveling with beautiful, married, 23 year old German Baroness Maud Thyssen. 

Serge met and married Pola Negri in 1927, when he was only 24 years old (and Pola Negri 28). When most of her money had gone, he abonded her, married opera singer Mary McCormick and then former sister-in-law Louise Aster van Allen Mdviani and died that same year at age 33 .

So, Mdivani had left Pola Negri and they got divorced shortly after. When Negri returned to the US, she became friends with oil heiress and vaudevielle actress Margaret West, whom she had known for almost 20 years then, and moved in with her and Negri’s mother into a beachfront home in LA  and later in Bel Air. When Negri’s mother died, West and Pola relocated to Austin, Texas. It is unclear wether these two had a love affair or whether they were mere friends. 

Negri dies age 90 from the complications of pneumonia and a brain tumor that she had refused treatment for. 

Influence on Fashion and Culture

She also became a fashion icon and introduced trends that were copied by many and still live on: she introduced red painted toenails, fur boots and turbans amongst many. 

She had a pet leopard and regularly walked it along Sunset Boulevard 

The eyes of Negri, Theda Bara and Mae Murray were combined to form the Chicago International Film Festival logo. 

With all my love!




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