Pola Negri The Spanish Dancer - San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2012

(Image Courtesy: Start's Thursday)

Pola Negri is famously remembered as Rudolph Valentino’s post-Natacha Rambova amorata and also for her displays of grief during Valentino's funeral.  She’s been categorized as one of the silent era Divas. 

Hers is a name I've always been familiar with, particularly in view of her connection with Rudolph Valentino.  I confess, a good portion of my opinion of her was formed based on her relationship with Valentino.  This colored my view and I have never given Ms. Negri her proper due.  What I knew about her as an actress was precious little.  For years I was content to leave it at that.  My bad.
Rudolph Valentino, Manuel Reachi and Pola Negri at the Biltmore Hotel 1926
Valentino is wearing his suit of lights from Blood and Sand, Negri is in costume from The Spanish Dancer.

So, I've given her little thought as an actress and not too much respect, either.  I’m very much looking forward to rectifying my pathetically ill-informed opinion of Pola Negri this coming July.  Up until recently, not too many of her films have been screened and not too many are available on quality dvds.  Happily, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is giving me a great opportunity to eat crow, eat my words and join the throngs of Pola Negri admirers with the upcoming screening of the 1923 Paramount film The Spanish Dancer.
Screen grab from the restored film (altfg)
Up until a few years back, this film was considered lost.  It is lost no more, recently restored by EYE Film The Spanish Dancer premiered in the Netherlands to rapturous reviews.   Kevin Brownlow told me it was great and if Kevin says so, it’s a do not miss film for me!
The reverse side of the unusual herald to promote the film

In 1922 Rudolph Valentino almost made a movie called The Spanish Cavalier with the recently imported to Hollywood, Pola Negri.  The film was announced by Paramount in their annual campaign book, it was sure to be a blockbuster.  Negri was the hottest new thing to come out of Europe and it was predicted that the pairing of Valentino and Negri on screen would be dynamite.  Chances are it likely would have been as tempestuous as their off screen romance later proved to be. 
Regretably, fate and lawyers deemed otherwise as Valentino refused to begin work his next film and went on his much-publicized strike.  He remained embroiled in a legal dispute with Paramount/Lasky that was not settled until late 1923.  He continued on to his wildly successful 1923 cross-country dance tour promoting beauty contests and Mineralava Beauty products.  He was the flapper’s delight, but not onscreen at this time.

Antonio Moreno by C.S. Bull (Image: Silent Hollywood)
Paramount moved on, changed the script and the director from the original Fred Niblo to Herbert Brenon.  Which, IMO, was a huge improvement right from the get go. To replace the recalcitrant and litigious Valentino, they cast Antonio Moreno with Negri in what was to become the newly titled The Spanish Dancer. 

Click to enlarge

This got me curious about the reception of the film in 1923.  Was it a smash?  I did a little digging around and found some contemporary reviews and ads from the trade mags (primarily Wid’s Film Daily).  The production values are rich and the film was very well received.

Photoplay reviewed the film in the December 1923 issue: 

starring Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno
After being wasted in "Bella Donna" and "The Cheat," Pola Negri comes back to her own in this picture. She is again La Negri of "Passion." She has shed the veneer of sophistication and has reverted to the primitive woman type. As the gypsy girl in this adaptation of "Don Caesar de Bazan," she gives a magnificent performance. She portrays almost every emotion conceivable, and does each and every one admirably. Herbert Brenon, the director, shares the honors. Tony Moreno is a lovable scapegrace as the hero, playing the role in a dashing devil-may-care fashion. Wallace Beery adds another to his long list of fine characterizations as the king of Spain. With this production, Paramount is keeping its promise of bigger and better pictures.

Motion Picture also weighed in the January 1924 issue

starring Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno
We have seen Pola Negri in "The Spanish Dancer," and we admit frankly that we are captive to her flashing beauty and her fire. There has been disparaging criticism of Pola Negri, which has attempted to analyze her fascination and her subsequent popularity. It has been laid to a number of things, chiefly sex appeal. And, admitting that this is basically true, we do not grant that it makes her any the less a personality. She dominates every scene in which she appears, and she is an actress, to boot.

A gypsy girl who wins the King's fancy on a Carnival day. . . while, on the same day her lover merits the royal disfavor and is sentenced to be hanged. . . this is the stuff of which "The Spanish Dancer" is made. Like Mary Pickford's "Rosita," it is adapted from "Don Caesar de Bazan." We have less praise for the production of "The Spanish Dancer" itself than we had for "Rosita." Ernst Lubitsch knows more about Kings and their retinues and European people than our American directors. That is natural. He was born a European, and for years he knew the sophistication of the Continent. We doubt his directorial dexterity in producing a drama of our Middle West.

Antonio Moreno is the dashing Don Caesar, and he is good to look upon. There were several times when he called Douglas Fairbanks to our mind. The monarch, of course, is Wallace Beery. What casting director would have any other actor as a king? Not that we quarrel with them on this score. However, Wallace Beery is to our cinematic mind History personified.

Kathlyn Williams was a regal Queen . . . Adolph Menjou was a fascinating courtier . . . and Gareth Hughes gave poignancy to the role of the weak, adolescent apprentice in whose behalf the hero disregards the royal proclamation.

Sounds good to me! 

You can buy tickets for the 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival here.

A website dedicated to all things Pola Negri can be found here. 

On a personal note, I've been to one of Antonio Moreno's old homes in the Los Feliz neighborhood and it was a marvelous experience.  The home had very little done to it by owners over the years and the current owner has maintained the home in pristine 1920's, original glory down to the massive vintage stove in the kitchen and the original linoleum (green and cream) floor.  That was awesome to see.

I'm looking forward to seeing this film in just about a month.  I love the director Herbert Brenon, I've liked Moreno in all the films I've seen and I am looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about Pola Negri. 

A documentary entitled Life is a Dream in Cinema devoted to Pola was premiered in 2006.  I recently had a chance to watch it and found that it was quite good and really did spark an interest in me to see more of Madame Negri.  Pay a visit to the Facebook page for the film and seek it out, I really enjoyed it.

See you at the Castro in July!  I'm counting the days!


Tinky said…
I wish I could go. The film sounds fab. I don't think I've ever seen Negri--and I would watch anything with Menjou!

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