1920’s – Gloria Swanson Versus Pola Negri

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According to Irwin Zeltner (1971), “Hollywood has had many famous feuds, but cannot compare with the feud between two 1920’s silent film stars Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri.  At the time, both were two of the most exotic women this town had known and experienced.  The battleground was Paramount Studio in which their movies were made.  When I first met Gloria Swanson, I was a bit startled by her voice. It was anything but musical.  She was charming, but I quickly noted she spoke with an unmistakable midwestern accent.  My first impression of her was she appeared tiny.  Reared in Chicago by her U.S. Army officer father, in her early teens she was employed as ribbon clerk in a store not far from the stockyards.  Somehow, like so many other famous discoveries, she landed a job with Mack Sennett Studios. She was standing in the doorway of a shack on the Sennett lot one day, when the great star maker Cecil B. Demille chanced by. DeMille, as he told me later, did a double-take and his intuitive perception told him this young lady had personality, charm, and appearance wholly distinctive.  In a short while Miss Swanson was before the DeMille camera clothed in costumes that then were a shock to Hollywood. Her hair was done up in bizarre styles, and in a few lessons, she was taught to gesture with an elongated cigarette holder. The soon-to become famous Miss Swanson was thus prepared for the roles she was assigned to, and these were mostly females of questionable morals.  With everything against her, she somehow remembered her public-school motto “Perseverance Wins”. How well I remember how exciting my duties were in behalf of two of her productions “Feet of Clay” and “Madame Sans Gene” released a couple of years later. These activities brought me in close contact with Miss Swanson and during one of our frequent meetings I was astonished when she spoke out most critically of Pola Negri who had appeared on the Hollywood scene to challenge Gloria’s pre-eminence as “Queen of the Movies”.  “Mr. Zeltner”, she said I am the topmost female star of our industry and I cannot seem to get our Paramount Studio to subdue that Pola Negri woman, that foreigner, that gypsy. I listened carefully, as Gloria after a moments rest continued her tirade. Her eyes glinted, and she was relentless and more sharply demanding than ever. It was not long in coming a showdown with Paramount Studio officials and Adolph Zukor a kingly little man who was President. In his effort to calm the tempestuous Miss Swanson, Zukor offered her a contract in which Paramount was to pay her upwards of one million dollars annually.  But she would not give an inch.  About this time, I had luncheon with Miss Swanson, and no sooner had sat down when I ventured to inquire about her latest Paramount offer.  Her reply was quick “Mr. Zeltner I am forming my own production company. I am the reigning female star of the movie world and determined to remain as such”. I will make arrangements to release my pictures through an affiliation with United Artists. She would be joining Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplain, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino.  It was not long, after Gloria now complete master of her fate, realized her star was glowing less brilliantly.  Gloria carried her head high, persevered as was her wont and never for a moment allowed her battle with Pola Negri to lapse. Miss Negri kept up the challenge. However, it was now Hollywood History that Miss Swanson won that war, and for along time sustained her exalted position.  It was producer Ernest Lubitsch, who brought the gifted Pola Negri to America and to the Paramount Studio.  Here she immediately clashed with Gloria Swanson. I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Negri on the day of her arrival. This very exotic female was a genuine gypsy. Her father died in exile in Siberia after he had become involved in Poland’s fight for independence from Russia.  Miss Negri in my opinion was a beautiful and talented woman.  She achieved considerable success on the Warsaw stage. In Berlin, impresario Max Herinhardt directed her to state and screen stardom. Miss Negri was well-known on the European Continent as a dancer, having graduated from the Russian Imperial Ballet School. Her combined abilities were now being praised in movie and stage circles in America and juicy contracts were being offered to her. Somewhere in between Miss Negri married and then shelved a real count. The one thing, I keenly remember of Miss Negri on the day of her arrival was that she kept reminding all and sundry that she was a countess.  It was only natural for Lubitsch, to star her in his epic “Gypsy Blood”. This of course, was produced by Paramount Studio. Her role was that of a sultry vamp, and the picture was a box-office success. Soon as the cameras started to grind on this picture, and all through production her famous clash with Gloria Swanson on the same lot flared and it forthwith, grew in intensity.  The battle between them both was so bad Paramount officially shifted Gloria to the East Coast Studio. Later when they sent her to Paris, one of her first achievements was to acquire a titled husband a marquis. Now her fight with Miss Negri was really joined. While this was all going on, Miss Negri was succeeding in turning everyone in Hollywood against her. She held everyone and everything in contempt. She avoided all social contacts, remaining in solitude and her music and literature and an occasional visit from a European friend.  Miss Negri found herself completely rejected and she took great comfort in the romance and love that quietly existed between her and Rudolph Valentino. Incidentally, I was one of only a few close friends of Rudy’s to know of this romance.  When word came to Miss Negri in Hollywood the Latin Lover was on his deathbed, she made a transcontinental dash to be at his bedside. It is true among Valentino’s last words were “If she does not get here in time, tell her I love her”. This message which she received in Hollywood, gave her license to display great grief and some have said was laying it on too thick.  About this time, her popularity started to rapidly decline, and Paramount Studios found it hard to sell her films.  Heroic efforts were made to remold the temptress image, but everything fizzled.  Abruptly she went back to Germany, where she was understood and admired. Again, she married to a fake Prince and I was not surprised by the news at all. I received a cable invitation to come to Germany. This and a later letter detailed her desire for American promotional campaigns for her pictures. She was frank enough to state our methods applied to her German Films would rebound in her favor in the U.S. and this she wanted more than anything else.  Even though she was offering me an amount more than what I was currently earning I respectfully declined. My regard for Pola as an actress never wavered and nor my respect until one day, I received authentic information from a remarkably close friend in American news that Miss Negri was linked with Adolf Hitler. My friend queried her on this, and she never denied the association with the Fuhrer. Her only comment was that there had been many prominent men in her life, with Valentino heading the list”.

Reference:

Zeltner, I. (1971). What the stars told me: Hollywood in its Heyday.  Exposition Press.

 

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