Pola Negri was an actress who lifted herself up by her bootstraps, away from a world of poverty in Warsaw. Along the way, she became identified with the excesses of Hollywood in the silent era, a moniker that’s stuck with her into today’s day and age. If you’re looking for evidence, look at the gaudy portrayal of the character in Ken Russell’s Valentino. Author Mariusz Kotowski’s biography on Negri introduces Negri, but never provides enough compelling information to entice you to study her further. If you’ve read other biographies in University of Kentucky’s “Screen Classics Series,” you’ll realize this is for the novice Negri fan only.
Negri’s claim to fame, to most readers, is being the fiancee of Latin lover, Rudolph Valentino. You’d be surprised to know, if you didn’t already, that Negri was a major star in Hollywood before meeting the Lothario. She name became synonymous with female characters who enjoyed sex and knew what they wanted, even if what they wanted was received through ill-gotten means. Kotwoski touches on almost every film in Negri’s filmography, even if the pages tend to be filled more with plot synopsis than analysis. The work Negri was doing in Europe, before her Hollywood début and the enforcement of the Production Code, was revolutionary for the time period, and in many ways remains so today. Her characters weren’t always condemned for their actions, nor were they supposed to.
Kotowski shies away from revealing anything gossipy about Negri, but he also shies away from revealing anything about her at all. I’ve heard many readers complain about the book’s inaccuracies, but I wasn’t that interested in searching for them because the book is very dry. The bare facts about Negri are presented, with little depth to them. Kotowski recounts events easily gathered on IMDb, and reiterates them in a lengthy filmography section that significantly cuts down the page count of actual text. The text takes off when recounting Negri’s time in Germany, and her eventual loss of popularity due to her time there. With the country at war, a big Hollywood star fraternizing with UFA wasn’t helping her career.
Eventually, Negri returned to Hollywood, forced to take whatever jobs were handed to her. Having read the biography on Mae Murray, an interesting biography can be written recounting a star’s fall from grace. Instead, Kotowski recounts events with a 1, 2, 3 method leaving a bare bones accounting of a star. The book reads as indifferent about Negri as most people are to her today.
Pola Negri: Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale introduces the first femme fatale but fails to keep the party going. If you’re interested in a cursory glimpse into her life, especially her relationship with Valentino and friendship with Marion Davies, than by all means give it a read. The book is about 200 pages of actual biography, so it’s a rather quick peruse of a life lived in, and out, of Hollywood.
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