Can you remember my telling you I’d been to see a fabulous new musical at the Arts Theatre earlier this year called The Tailor Made Man all about 20s movie idol Billy Haines and his spectacular fall from MGMs biggest star to box office poison? I know how he feels. Kidding. Sort of. Anyway, The Tailor Made Man features a camp cameo role for Pola Negri: the Polish silent movie queen who made the leap to Hollywood with German director Ernst Lubitsch a decade before Dietrich and Von Sternberg and out-vamped both Theda Bara and Gloria Swanson.
Negri is something of a joke in Tailor Made Man; a has-been living in a Norma Desmond fantasy dreaming of her comeback and mourning her dead lover Rudolph Valentino. There is some truth to Negri being ‘aware of her own drama’ as a former boss of mine used to call flamboyant actions and reactions. When Valentino died in 1926 Pola apparently fainted several times at the foot of his coffin and laid a wreath that spelled her name not his. But the silent movie cameras loved her and it is entirely plausible that she made her last silent for Paramount in 1928 fully intending to retire and exit stage left to the French Riviera with Prince Serge Mdivani.
As does tend to happen with obscure European princes, Serge gambled away what little fortune he had before turning his attentions to Pola’s. Following a miscarriage, the couple split and Pola made movies in the UK and, later, the Ufa studio in Berlin. Her most popular talkie Mazurka was made in 1935 when Joseph Goebbels was the head of the studio. It was a great favourite of Adolf Hitler leading to rumours of an affair between the fascist leader and the vamp. On the eve of the Second World War, Pola returned to America. She made a couple more movies but spent the rest of her life happily in San Antonio, Texas, living on a ranch. The ranch hands would reconstruct the sets of her Paramount movies and Pola would re-enact her past glories presumably in front of an audience of hicks, cowhands and bison.
Billy Wilder wrote Sunset Boulevard with Pola in mind but she (like Mary Pickford and Mae West) turned it down. She was, however, gracious enough to praise her old Paramount rival Gloria Swanson, who finally made the movie in 1950 co-starring William Holden. How Judy Holliday won the best actress Oscar for Born Yesterday in 1950 astounds me when she was up against Bette Davis in All About Eve, Kate Hepburn in Adam’s Rib and Swanson in Sunset. Anyway, I digress. Why did we get onto the subject of Pola Negri? Well, ever since I met her again in The Tailor Made Man I’ve been not a little obsessed and hugely inspired.
Just as Bette Midler occasionally becomes possessed by the spirit of Sophie Tucker, so too have I been channelling Pola Negri when faced with the pitifully diminishing standards of life in 21st century. Whenever I see a tattooed lady lumbering down Oxford Street I often ponder ‘what would Pola think?’ One thing Pola would decidedly not do is tolerate what passes for First Class on the East Midland railway from St. Pancras station to Chesterfield. Yes, I’m on my bi-annual pilgrimage back to Derbyshire to visit parents and have been driven to a state of silent fury before we’d even left the station.
In the good old days a lady in a clipped RP accent would announce to the station that a train was ready for boarding and passengers invited to make their way to the platform. This afternoon we had an Asian chap with a hand-held tannoy who sounded as if he was underwater burbling something unintelligible in the general direction of the ticket barrier. It was anybody’s guess which train was Chesterfield-bound. Anyway, once on the train a young lady with a broad Yorkshire accent informed us the train was delayed half an hour and there was no air-con because we were in ‘Eco Mode’.
The delay, we were told, was due to a problem in the Flintwick area. I wondered whether the Flintwick area was some part of the driver’s anatomy but my travelling companion informed me Flintwick was actually a town in Bedford and someone had committed suicide on the line. After half an hour twiddling thumbs on board we were informed that the member of the crew we were awaiting was in fact the driver who would ‘be along shortly’. Terrific! Now were I Pola Negri, I would have stormed off the train and decided instead to travel by Bugatti. This not being an option, I sat tight and waited for the drinks trolley.
In t’olden days trains used to have a buffet car. I even remember silver service in the dim recesses of my mind though that could be regression to a former life as the Grand Duchess Olga. Today we have two fat ladies performing an ungainly push-me-pull-you with a trolley groaning with carbohydrates. The ladies move so slowly you’d think they were pulling Lord Nelson’s catafalque to St. Paul’s.When the refreshment mule train finally arrived at my seat, I was told without the whisper of an apology that East Midlands water didn’t sparkle and ‘we don’t do ice’. Rowley, I bagged my favourite line from The Tailor Made Man: ‘How much CAN Pola bear?’
Alors, as I write we’e got a fairly presentable girl with her feet-up on the seats eating a bag of foul-smelling crisps and faffing around with an iPod. We have a young lady who has decided 3pm on public transport is the perfect moment to reapply a full face of make-up and we’ve got enough bare flesh on display to contravene the Hayes Code. What would Pola do? You might well ask. She’d whip a Cartier emerald pin from her turban and get busy. In my next letter I’ll be pondering what Pola would do at Her Majesty’s pleasure.