A review of a 2007 screening of Pola’s very earliest known surviving film
by Frank Noack, edited by David Gasten
A newspaper advert for The Polish Dancer from the Appleton Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wisconsin, dating November 29, 1921. (Courtesy Cole Johnson)
Bestia (1917) is the only one Pola Negri's Polish silent films known to survive complete, and it managed to survive only because in the 1920’s, a U.S. distributor had bought it. The version I saw at the Potsdam Film Museum on May 12, 2007, was called THE POLISH DANCER. Its imaginative intertitles were definitely not the original 1917 Polish ones, for they had a sophistication lacking in the film's sets and photography. The dialogue was written on titles beautifully decorated with flowers, shoes, or bottles of wine, depending on what verbiage in the intertitles had to be illustrated.
The film's first image is striking. We see Pola, announced as a symbol of untamed youth, playing with a huge dog. At first she appears childish, innocent. Then suddenly her playing with the dog intensifies, she contorts her body, writhing, finally lying in a pose of submission before the startled animal. The character she plays is called Pola Bashnikoff; it is impossible to say whether this and other role names are from the Polish original or created strictly for the U.S. version. Pola's poor small town parents are worried because she is away for so long; she should be in bed already. While they worry, we see Pola and friends have a picnic. Some boys fight because of her, but it's all playful. Pola comes home too late, with her parents already sleeping. She enters through the window. Her father wakes up and beats her, and then goes back to bed. Pola is fed up and escapes, again through the window. These scenes are well staged and composed, but there is some confusion because they are supposed to take place at night, but were obviously shot at daylight.
Pola knocks at the door of her clumsy admirer Dimitri, who all too eagerly accepts her plea to run away with him. He takes her to a hotel and orders alcohol. What seems to become a standard seduction scene has a funny and unexpected twist: Pola secretly pours her glasses of alcohol away so that Dimitri gets drunk and she remains sober. Her behavior makes it difficult to believe her naivety; Negri definitely doesn't look or act like a girl in peril who could easily be taken advantage of. As Dimitri is lying unconscious on the sofa, she takes his money, but being decent at heart, she leaves a letter promising him she will pay the money back. She then finds work as a dressmaker's model. She is asked to accompany her new boss to the cabaret and, watching a dancer, wants to become a dancer herself. During her first dancing lesson, she immediately turns out to be a natural talent. As in most of the film, Pola wears rather high heels, not stiletto but high, and she dances well, though never on her toes, as did the dancer she watched at the cabaret. Pola has strong hips, to put it mildly.
A new man enters her life: Alexis Vilineff, who is married and has a daughter. Alexis goes to see the sensational new Cabaret dancer Elena, which is Pola's new name. In comes another striking sequence, the Apache dance number. Pola is wearing a tight black silk dress, with one slit fully exposing her right leg, a short black slip visible below the dress, and high-heeled black boots going up to the ankle. The dress is quite revealing for the time in which the film was made. She and her macho dance partner even use a whip in their routine. The dance takes place on a very small stage, so there is no place for complicated steps.
What makes Pola's performance so innovative is that she uses the body movements of the Keystone Bathing Beauties and comediennes like Mabel Normand, and fuses them with the persona of the vamp, who in those days was rather wooden and statuary. Needless to say, Alexis wants to be introduced to the dancer. Rather shamelessly, Pola receives him lying on a divan, her body again making strange, suggestive movements. But like Louise Brooks in the famous Pabst films, Pola seems innocent. She doesn't want to destroy anyone, she's just uninhibited. When she is sitting in front of a mirror, combing her hair, she is also doing it in an ecstatic manner. She receives a theatre manager who wants to offer her a contract while lying on a bed and wearing a white nightgown. If there is one thing to criticize about Pola’s performance, it is that she moves too much, so sometimes it is difficult to watch her, as she literally dances through her role. However, because of her onscreen humour and charm, her overacting is likeable.
Continuing the story, Pola doesn't know that Alexei is married. He lies to her, constantly postponing the promised wedding, while not daring to tell his wife about the double life he is leading. He turns to drink. Pola never suffers for long; she is always finding a reason to laugh. One day Alexei and Pola go to the Cafe de Paris, where the hapless Dimitri has found work as a waiter. She manages to keep her face hidden from him, and decent as she is, leaves her former suitor the money she still owns him in an envelope. This makes him only more furious. When Pola learns that Alexei is married, she ends the affair. By then, his long-suffering wife Sonia has had enough, taking her luggage and daughter Natalie to her mother's. This brave woman, who seemed so strong for some time, falls ill and dies. Alexei comes to her deathbed too late. Pola's hours are counted as well. Outside the luxurious hotel where she is residing, the jealous Dimitri shoots her. She is carried inside and dies on a divan, but unfortunately, not in close-up; in fact, the entire film does not contain a single close-up shot.
THE POLISH DANCER is rather well lit, its direction and cinematography are solid but unadventurous and not particularly inventive, and all the roles are well cast. The print shown at the Potsdam Film Museum ran for 48 minutes, which seems to have been the original length, as there were no holes or lapses in the story.