Archive for Pola Negri

The Sunday Intertitle: Big head of Pola

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 20, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve been on a Lubitsch kick lately — I did a lecture about him on Friday, so it was quite useful, as well as pleasurable. It finally got me motivated to watch DIE BERGKATZE (THE WILD CAT), which I own in a terrific Masters of Cinema box set, to which I actually contributed essays (on SUMURUN and ANNA BOLEYN), but which I somehow had never gotten around to. Now that the thing’s out of print, I should start appreciating it.

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Like THE OYSTER PRINCESS, my favourite German Lubitsch, this is billed as “a grotesque,” and more than lives up to the billing. It might have been called ROMEO AND JULIET IN THE SNOW, except that Lubitsch had already used that title, and also that might give an impression of tragic romance rather than knockabout foolishness. But the plot deals with star-crossed lovers, a womanizing soldier (much like Chevalier in THE MERRY WIDOW) and a wild bandit girl (Pola Negri), and the whole thing is set around the bandit camp and the ridiculously ornate army fort, both situated in the snow-capped mountains. The film somehow unites baroque sets with real locations, partly by framing everything through fancy vignettes. The arched, or circular, or leaf-shaped frames are so relentless that when an occasional rectangular shot shows up, that looks peculiar.

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Lubitsch had a gift for inspiring comic performances from actors not noted for being comedians (he told David Niven: “Nobody can play comedy who does not have a circus in his head.”) Pola can incline to the grotesque in her mannerisms anyway, so she might seem easy to divert into self-parody, but the lady had a mind of her own. In fact, her performance suits the film’s rambunctious tone, but she still manages to be the main character you care about, to the extent that you care at all.

The “Lubitsch touch” may be present in spots, but really the comedy here is broad and big and cartoony: a distraught lover weeps in his tent until a river flows from the flaps, snaking through the snow in a miniature canyon. When the very drunk commander of the fort tries to open a closet that Pola is hiding in, she snaps ~

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“It’s occupied!”

“In my wardrobe? Shame on you!” the befuddled lush mutters, before staggering off.

So when I ask the trivia question “Which Lubitsch film has a joke about Pola Negri shitting in a cupboard?” you’ll know, won’t you?

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Title of blog post explanation: according to Micheal MacLiammoir, Orson Welles was fond of a story about an émigré director in Hollywood who asked for a closeup of his star by demanding a “big head of Pola.” The phrase became code for a closeup on the set of Welles’ OTHELLO. Maybe it’s a German tradition — Hitchcock used the expression “big head” for a facial close-up throughout his career. It’s quite useful, since a close-up can be of a foot, a hand, a chair or anything. When one asks for a “close-up of Pola,” one’s cinematographer might well ask, “What part?”

The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2011 by dcairns

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE –

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…

Big Head of Pola

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2009 by dcairns

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In the fascinating and highly amusing Put Money in Thy Purse, Michael Mac Liammoir’s memoir* of the making of Orson Welles’ OTHELLO, we hear of some silent-era European émigré director whose English wasn’t too hot, shooting a Pola Negri romance, saying he wanted a “big head of Pola,” meaning a close-up. Welles’ cast and crew liked the expression so much they adopted it, so all through the book, Mac Liammoir writes of each day’s filming, “Big head of Pola of me today,” etc.

HOWEVER! The big head of Pola above is not Pola Negri but Pola Illéry, a Romanian actress in France best known (until now!) for her leading role in Rene Clair’s UNDER THE ROOFTOPS OF PARIS (available from the good people at Criterion) but currently under discussion over at the Auteurs’ Notebook, in my regular Thursday piece, where you can find out what Charles Boyer was doing here on Sunday.

*I can’t get over the fact I just typed “Mac Liammoir’s memoir.”

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