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Thursday, July 04, 2019

Pola Says Jump --- We Say How High?

Passion Delivers On Its Title Promise

Passion Was the German epic that punched Pola Negri’s Hollywood ticket. She’d roar into town like Siegfried the Conqueror. Pola seemed born with a gift for publicity. Also eroticism turned loose to kick Puritanism in the teeth (there’s what 1920 liked best about Pola and Passion). Here was a hit for which there was not enough standing room, let alone seats. Even Gothamites were made rubes by Negri’s let-loose sensuality. Passion is still a whale of an entertainment, as proved by the UK’s “Masters Of Cinema” Blu-Ray. Ernst Lubitsch satisfied that he could do more than simple comedies, staging crowd scenes here to make Griffith go begging. Like a good guillotine finish? Trouble is not getting to see heads cut off, till this. Lubitsch cleaves on camera, albeit in long shot, but gives us Negri noggin tossed to the mob like a home run ball. Sorry for the spoiler, but they say that’s how Madam Du Barry got hers, and Passion is based on that, albeit loose. “The Lubitsch Touch” abounds. Lots of Passion is funny, that plus sex like previewing Tom Jones or stolid Moll Flanders where Kim Novak demonstrated that by the 60’s, there weren’t personalities like Pola Negri anymore, point made clear by latter herself in a Disney pic done contemporaneous, The Moon-Spinners, PN temptingly inscrutable for her final screen bow.

Back to when she arrived: I read that Pola strode down Sunset with a leopard on a leash. Weren’t there local ordinances forbidding that? She also wore Chaplin out, to his own admission in a decades-later autobio, and yes, wore out is meant just the way it sounds. Valentino was another Negri conquest. She hurled herself upon his funeral bier before volunteer attendant Ben Lyon had her tossed out. Publicity was all well and good, but this was pushing a limit. Aspects of Pola make her sound like a head case, but time and her own sensible recall make clear that it was all calculated and quite apart from the person she actually was. In fact, Negri lived to a ripe age in San Antonio, of all places. Did the local boy who delivered her newspaper realize that here was the man-wrecker of all time? Again to Passion: Fact it was made by Germans was concealed at US release time (1920) due to emotion still hot from the war. First National got it “for a song” thanks to this ($40K said The New York Times, “Worth $500,000,” they added) Passion made an unexpected packet at the 5,500 seat Capitol Theatre, largest of all sites at the time. Mounted police had to steer crowds and keep order. The Times addressed Passion twice during December 1920, first with a rhapsodic review, then ten days later to marvel at stir it caused.

What rang bells was Euro depart from convention the bane of US filmmaking. No leading woman over here behaved liked Pola Negri, so sure, we’d want more of her. Passion’s Du Barry does time-honored climb from bed-to-bed, all played bawdy and not a little rude. She even sacrifices all for love in spite of being utterly selfish up to then. I tried to get to bottom of appeal from near a hundred years out, and yes, Negri heat can yet be felt. Here was grace note we’ll not see again: Pola smiles wide at one point and there’s a gold tooth (the first, or second, right maxillary bicuspid, says my quick glimpse and subsequent Google inquire). It was a century ago, so let’s be thankful the woman had teeth at all. Among Times back-flipping was designation of Lubitsch as “a cinematician of the first rank.” Would such level of pretension get me a reviewing job at the Times today? Important thing was, it likely greased Lubitsch way to H’wood employ, so all hail the NYT for that. Historic pageants had not had Passion’s, well, passion, before, let alone sex, beating even DWG and his plaster elephants, latter a rigid schoolbook beside Passion. Lubitsch has no-fool-like-old-fool Emil Jannings (as one of the King Louis’) sucking Negri’s toe prior to catching small pox and grimly looking it, face boils and all. Let Lubitsch be subtle elsewhere --- not here! Want a lively silent well off beaten paths? Shop for this Blu-ray. 


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Wow! Clearly you liked this one.

7:03 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I wonder if Norma Talmadge's swan song, DUBARRY - WOMAN OF PASSION, was a direct remake, aside from sharing similarities in the title?

8:14 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

On the British series "Hollywood", I recall an interview clip with Ben Lyon who claimed she wanted to cover Valentino's coffin with a floral display spelling out POLA. He was still ticked off.

Will have to revisit "Moonspinners". The plot was kind of confusing, with Pola's character arriving near the end with all the trappings of a campy villainess but shocked when Hayley Mills informed her of dirty work afoot. Now wondering if she was meant to be shocked in the manner of Claude Rains being informed of gambling at Rick's.

5:07 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

I had to fan myself while reading this post. That Pola Negri sounds like she was one more hot mama!

6:07 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I assume it is Ms. Nigri being parodied in the opening of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN?

10:01 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Geez, Beowulf, spell her name correctly!

(If you were a robot you would.)

1:12 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

It more than lives up to your post though her head ought to have had her eyes open and looking around at the end. Gruesome? Yes. Accurate? Yes, it would be as the brain is still conscious after the beheading.

9:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers various nuances of decapitation:

The gentle readers of this blog might dismiss Reg Hartt’s comments as mordant but hardly correct. In fact, there is much to suggest that he is not only correct, but that the utter horror of a head remaining alive and conscious after decapitation has scarcely been probed.

During the Terror, there was much anecdotal evidence indicating that the heads of victims exhibited changes of expression after decapitation. When Charlotte Corday, for example, was executed for assassinating the Jacobin political leader, Jean-Paul Marat, the executioner displayed her head to the crowd and slapped its cheeks. Witnesses alleged that the expression on her face changed to unmistakably to one of indignation and disgust.

There have been similar stories before and after this period, the heads of Charles I and Anne Boleyn appearing to try to speak after their executions, or a U.S. Army soldier telling of an automobile accident in 1985, in which a friend was decapitated, and describing how the expression on his friend’s face changed from shock and confusion to one of terror or grief.

Such evidence has generally been dismissed as demonstrating only spasmodic or involuntary reflexive movements, to which onlookers would attribute some meaning on the basis of chance resemblance. It was thought that the sudden loss of blood pressure would result an immediate loss of consciousness, if not death.

In 1905, however, a Dr. Beguieux attended the execution by guillotine of the French criminal Henri Languille. Immediately after the decapitation, he noted that the eyelids and lips of the executed man worked in irregular rhythmic contractions for five or six seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased, the face became relaxed, and the eyelids half closed, displaying the whites of the eyes. When Beguieux shouted “Lanquille!”, the eyelids slowly lifted up and the eyes were very definitely focused on him. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, and all was as before. Beguieux again shouted, “Lanquille!”, and without any spasm, the eyes opened again and seemed even more focused on him. After a further closing, Beguieux tried once more, but there was no further movement, and the eyes became glazed in death.

In 2011, Dutch scientists examined lab rats by electrocephalograph (that is, “EEG”) to determine whether decapitation was the most humane way of disposing of such creatures. They were surprised to find that the brains of the animals remained active several seconds after their heads were cut off, and that approximately four seconds after the procedure, there was a pronounced surge of activity, which they described as a “wave of death.”

I’m sure that La Negri would have been up to the task of portraying a still conscious head, though it is probable that the sensibilities of the audience of the time would have been somewhat offended, had the depiction been made with such fidelity.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Reminds me of THE FACE AT THE WINDOW, starring the magnificently and deliberately florid villain Tod Slaughter in a Victorian-era melodrama. There has been a murder, and a new invention may be the culprit's undoing. The scientifically minded hero has a machine that will revive the victim for only a few moments -- just enough for the victim to complete the last action he had begun at the time of death!

8:40 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The color tinting weakens the image. I prefer the straight black and white scenes. Thanks, Dan, for the back-up. I know that we remain conscious after decapitation. All of our cold blooded methods of execution are inhumane. They need to be shown accurately. Softening them makes them more palatable. They ought not to be. That "wave of death" is probably DMT. It is released in our bodies at the moment of death. I have experienced DMT. It certainly can account for the visions of Hell people describe who have had near death experiences. The DMT experience lasts only for ten minutes but those ten minutes feel like eternity. It would be Hellish to those unprepared for it.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Emil Jannings get top billing but it's Pola Negri who gets the screen time.

9:31 AM  

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