Nigel de Brulier, left, and Pola Negri in Loves of an Actress (Lubitsch, 1928).
The era of silent film is gone, never to return. Gone with it are the stars, all dead. Many of their names, once splashed across newspapers, lit up on billboards and uttered with reverence are now almost forgotten; great talents like Asta Nielsen, Rod La Roque and Nita Naldi are barely remembered today.
Pola Negri, one of these nearly-forgotten names, was a great star throughout the 1920s. Originally from Poland, Negri's career began in Berlin; she appeared in early German expressionist films like Die Bergkatze and Die Dame im Glashaus. Her forte, though, was as a tragedienne: an actress who suffers indignities and dies at the end of the film.
In her mid-twenties, Negri came to America and became a sensation; she carried on high-profile love affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.
Contrary to popular belief, the talkies did not ruin her career. A series of complicated problems in her personal life, along with studio shenanigans, hurt her popularity. Negri also starred in a German film; despite her anti-Nazi sentiments, and her refusal to turn her movie into a propaganda vehicle, her success in Nazi Germany crippled her popularity in America.
Pola Negri was not a vamp; she just looked like one. However, her sultry looks, her acting ability and her fierce style sense all made her a style icon––and an icon, still, today.
In her early twenties, Negri started to appear in films in Berlin, Germany. Though she is sometimes mistakenly called a "German expressionist star," only a few of her films fit into the German expressionist genre. Most of her films from this period, like Gypsy Blood, Madame DuBarry, Vendetta and The Last Payment were straightforward dramas.
In 1922, Pola moved to America and starred in silent films there, including A Woman of the World and Hotel Imperial. Though we remember her, somewhat erroneously, as a vamp, Negri did not play any one "type" of role. Her personality permeated every role, from Czarina to chambermaid.
In many roles, Pola emphasized her eyes by using dramatic eye makeup. She shaved her eyebrows and painted them over with two thin, black lines, in an arch which made her look wistful and tragic. In many films, her thin lips are emphasized by dark lipstick, a look then popular among silent film actresses.
Pola Negri had thick, curly, dark hair which she usually cut at or above her shoulders. Depending on the role, Pola might wear it tied behind a scarf, marcelled or straightened and bobbed.
It was she, together with Ernst Lubitch, who introduced sex to movies. Lubitsch created many new and inventive ways to imply sex without actually showing it. Negri's raw charisma didn't hurt either, and she was able be more seductive with a cigarette holder than some actresses can be with their whole body.
Negri was a great actress, but she was sometimes seen as a bit of a sex object. This is where her "vamp" status comes from.