Lost Masterpiece: A Pola Negri Silent Resurfaces

A review by David Gasten
(Originally published in Classic Images magazine, May 2003, p. 30-31)

Pola Negri as the cabaret girl in "The Woman He Scorned" (1929).

Pola Negri as the cabaret girl in The Woman He Scorned(1929).

The Woman He Scorned (1929), starring Pola Negri, Hans Rehmann, and Warwick Ward. Directed by Paul Czinner. Produced by Charles Whittaker Productions (United Kingdom). Distributed by Warner Brothers (UK). Silent film with synchronized sound track and sound effects, 89 min.  DVD release by Grapevine Video, October 2002.

(Click to buy The Woman He Scorned from Grapevine Video. )

Over the years, the memory of most if not all the actors and actresses of the silent era has faded like a photograph left in the dashboard of a car, to the point where an actor who once brought ooh’s and ah’s remains little more than a cartoonish caricature of his former self. Although this kind of attitude towards silent film stars is more typical of the general public, it is not lost on film fans either, especially if the artist’s films are no longer available for evaluation. The best way to correct this is to put the artist’s films, especially their best films, back in circulation. 

One actress in particular whose memory has become faded and distorted is the sultry, raven-haired Polish/German film star Pola Negri. To today’s movie watching public Pola is remembered, if at all, as Madame Habib in Walt Disney’s 1963 Hayley Mills vehicle The Moon-Spinners. To classic film fans she is known to be Madame DuBarry in the UFA costume epic Passion (1919), the film that brought down the American ban on German films after World War I, gave us director Ernst Lubitsch, and began the Hollywood phenomenon of importing European directors and actors. Passion, upon its release, caused an international sensation and immediately aroused public interest in its director and its lady star. After Mary Pickford sent for Lubitsch to direct her in Rosita (1923), a bidding war began in Hollywood for Pola, which was won by Paramount. Pola made films for Paramount from 1923 to 1928 in a flair of publicity, one famous example being her fabricated rivalry with Gloria Swanson (one of the half-truths published was that they had a cat fight with real cats!). Her most famous accomplishment stateside during this time was not in her films, but in her engagement to Rudolph Valentino just before his sudden death in 1926. At Valentino’s funeral, Pola in her grief and vanity made a public spectacle of herself, sending a huge flower arrangement inscribed with the letters “P-O-L-A” to cover Rudy’s casket and fainting numerous times in public (the headlines screamed “Pola Faints, Faints, Faints!”). Add to this a rebound marriage to Serge Mdivani, Prince of Georgia, a mere nine months later, and you had one disgusted American public that stopped sending fan mail and attending Pola’s movies. It’s quite possible that had Pola stayed in American films her career could have survived this backlash even with talkies coming in (as receipts from her films were just beginning to show and her 1932 hit song “Paradise” hinted at later on). But by the time her contract was up for renewal in 1928, Pola voluntarily chose not to renew it. She was at that time an expectant mother and wanted to retire from films to raise a family.

It was after Pola suffered a miscarriage and, in the resulting depression, began turning to alcoholism that she received an offer to star in an independently produced picture in England, which she accepted. At first it was thought that she would star in a filmed version of the George Bernard Shaw play Ceasar and Cleopatra. But when the filming rights proved to be too expensive, they went to work on a modern story, which was released as The Woman He Scorned (also known as Street of Abandoned Children, The Way of Lost Souls, and Son Dernier Tango) in late 1929. 

The Woman He Scorned was to be Pola’s last ever silent film. The film was believed to be lost until a beautiful condition Belgian print with French intertitles was discovered. It was restored by C. N. C. Archives du Film in France and has been released by Grapevine Video on DVD and VHS with English intertitles. And its re-discovery is nothing short of a revelation. If you still think of Pola hamming it out at Valentino’s funeral and suspect that her film performances are more of the same, then The Woman He Scorned will prove you dead wrong. The Woman He Scorned replaces Passion as the first Pola Negri film you should see—it is that good. 

When Pola died in 1987, headlines across the world proclaimed that the “legendary Vamp of the silent screen” had passed away. Although she did play a few vampy roles (such as in Carmen [1918] and Sappho [1921]), Pola always refuted the “vamp” stereotype, priding herself in being a great tragedienne, that is a dramatic actress who suffers great perils and (usually) dies at the end of the film. The truth goes even further in that Pola would, as film historian Lotte Eisner noted in the German film textbook The Haunted Screen, convincingly become about any role she was given, be it vamp, socialite, courtesan, mother, bride, dancer, singer, feisty teenage girl, or even comedienne, often in the course of the same picture. She would play princess and street prostitute with the same believable intensity. Her performances became more and more understated and powerful over the years until her performance in the celebrated German sound film Mazurka (1935) drove even Hitler to tears (Hitler had this film screened repeatedly as an emotional outlet during his bouts with chronic insomnia). 

The Woman He Scorned captures Pola in what is quite possibly her most sterling performance in a silent film.  The story follows a young lighthouse custodian (played by German actor Hans Rehmann) from the English town of Cornwall, who sails across the English Channel on business to a French port on business. While stopping at a bar in the city's red light district (shot on location in Marseille's “Street of Abandoned Children”, hence one of the films’ alternate titles), he meets Pola, one of the bar’s dancing girls. Although he doesn’t like the girl, he stands up for her when her pimp/boyfriend Max (played by English character actor Warwick Ward) mistreats her. Pola is enamored with the first man who has ever treated her kindly and runs after him, begging him to take her with him. After he nearly drowns from his boat capsizing in a storm on the Channel, Hans agrees to have compassion on Pola and marries her. Pola goes to work changing her ways to adapt to her new role as housewife, having her share of mishaps along the way. Just as she is staring to settle in and forget her past, the old boyfriend, who is wanted for murder and running from the law, shows up in her house and forces her to give him shelter. She lies to the police about him and runs to her husband at the lighthouse, who is furious with her and makes her swear that she will never see him again. The boyfriend hounds her again, and this time the husband catches Pola in the act of aiding him and disowns her. Pola gets into the boat her husband gave her as an anniversary present, and rows into the middle of the Channel to meet her fate as a storm approaches.

Pola Negri in The Woman He Scorned (1929)

The former dancing girl becomes a dejected wife in The Woman He Scorned.

The film is directed by German director Paul Czinner. Czinner was one of the progenitors of the German Kammerspielfilm, the film genre that gave silent film some of its greatest artistic accomplishments. The Kammerspielfilm, or “instinct film”, simplified its storyline down to an almost instinctual level (hence the name), allowing the visuals to tell the entire story through the actions and expressions of the actors, focus on detail, and the use of moving cameras and/or unusual camera angles. Intertitles were rare if not completely absent from these pictures. In addition to The Woman He Scorned, The Last Laugh (1924), Sunrise (1927), Lonesome (1928), and the Hedy Lamarr sound film Ecstasy (1933) are all shot in the Kammerspielfilm style. Eisner mentioned in the above-mentioned The Haunted Screen that Czinner’s career went downhill after the advent of talking pictures and that his truly great work was in his silent films (most of which were Kammerspielfilmen). But until now, none of Czinner’s silents (some of which starred Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings, and Czinner’s wife Elizabeth Bergner) have been available for evaluation, which is yet another reason to see The Woman He Scorned.

The film’s synchronized soundtrack is one of the most unusual and certainly one of the most “modern” sounding of any surviving original silent film soundtrack. The soundtrack was written by Fred Elizalde, who led one of the most successful British jazz dance bands of the 1920’s and who went on to become a successful modern classical composer in the 1930’s. (Thanks to John A. B. Wright and colleagues in the UK for this information.) This soundtrack catches Elizalde in the transition between the two genres, and the music, whether popular or classical in nature, electrifies the already emotional film. There is an unusual amount of atonality in the soundtrack, which makes it sound especially “modern” and ahead of its time. There are no spoken lines (it’s not a “part-talkie” as was once believed), however the film makes frequent use of sound effects. In some instances, such as in the lengthy bar sequence where Pola meets her husband-to-be (which, by the way, is the sexiest sequence the author has seen in any Pola Negri movie), there was not a strong attempt to synchronize the sounds perfectly with the visuals, which gives the film a slightly abstract and, once again, “modern” feel.

One minor flaw in this new edition is that the English intertitles were translated from the French too literally, which makes the language sound a little stilted at times. For example, when Pola runs after Hans Rehmann begging to go with him, the original intertitle, “Emmene-moi, emmene-moi!” is translated “Take me! Take me!” when it might have translated better as “Take me with you! Take me with you!” But since the film goes for as long as twenty-one minutes without one intertitle, this is really a minor concern. On the other hand the picture quality, although not without occasional minor flaws, ranks the film as one of the cleanest and sharpest of any of Grapevine’s releases.

The Woman He Scorned is the kind of film that could easily become a hit at film festivals. In fact, it’s rather unusual that a film of this caliber made it to video first with no previous interest. Its pending success may even open up the possibility for other rarely seen Pola Negri treasures like Mazurka, Sappho, Forbidden Paradise (1924), and A Woman of the World (1925), all of which survive, to begin seeing the light of day on home video.  (Editor's Note, August 2011:  Sappho and A Woman of the World are both on DVD now thanks to Grapevine Video; Forbidden Paradise and Mazurka are still awaiting DVD reissues.)

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