Sunday, 16 October 2016

Magnetic Pola… A Woman of the World (1925), BFI London Film Festival with John Sweeney

Apolonia Chalupec - Pola to you
And now the end is near… last day of #LFF2016 and I’m torn between renewing connections with my family and the enduring allure of Pola Negri… Maybe just one more moment of silence with this uncanny woman of the World (I’ll do the chores later)?

I haven’t seen any of Pola’s American adventures and only know her from her Polish and brilliant German films so, Zukor and Lasky you better hadn’t screw this up!

I needn’t have worried… in the hands of under-rated sophisticate, Mal St. Clair, Pola shines: an uninhibited, burst of teutonic energy that radiates true even after nine decades. Bryony Dixon said that this was one of those films included in the Treasures strand simply because it’s fun and whilst this is undeniably true, there’s no denying that Negri is a world-class cultural treasure.

There’s no cheap tricks in Pola’s armoury only a free-spirited expression that almost seems to be non-acting and yet she can act and how. For every haughty puff on her cigarette – what can that all mean..? – there’s a moment of purely-human doubt and weakness. She may dominate the men around her but she is also painfully vulnerable in a way that Mae or Marlene never were. When Pola loses she gets hit hard and those huge dark eyes fill to the lids with bitter-sweet tears of despair.

The film’s great success is in throwing this European class into the culture of the mid-west. It’s a timeless contrapuntal device but one that is perfectly deployed by director St Clair. I loved his “touches” – two sherry glasses filled and partly drained for an illicit rendezvous, the balls of wool slowly unravelling alongside the gossipy rocking chairs on the porches of Maple Valley… it’s playful and subtle allowing the audience in on the joke rather than hitting them over the heads.

A picture paints a thousand title cards and in Miss Negri Mal had an actress who ramped that up to a million… She was a one-woman new media revolution – under-employed title writers must have been lining the streets in protest.

Holmes Herbert as the repressed attorney
Based on Carl Van Vechten novel The Tattooed Countess – the clue is in the title… - A Woman of the World begins with a broken heart amongst the cocktail classes of The Côte d'Azur. A young aristo is busily sweeping a young deb off her feet when his mistress, Countess Elenora (Pola) returns… He protests that it meant nothing but is despatched with a ripping of his lady’s portrait and a black-eyed stare.

To escape her humiliation, Elenora decides to visit her cousin on the other side of the World… but wherever she goes, she won’t be able to eradicate the tattoo on her forearm inked in her lover’s honour.

The scene shifts to that “Other side” and the mid-western town of Maple Valley where the big news is a new water works and a district attorney Richard Granger (Holmes Herbert) bent on cleaning the town up. Well, he’d already done that with the water, why stop there?

Cousins?! Pola and Chester
Improbably, Elenora’s cousin turns out to be Chester Conklin - Sam Poore one of the town’s upstanding citizens with a moustache to die for and a wife, Lou (Lucille Ward) fond of knitting on her porch and making sure that no local news fails to get passed on.

The town’s a buzz with the news that a European Countess is due to visit but the news has almost escaped Attorney Granger as he tries to shoe her out of town for the offence of cigarette smoking… I had no idea that cigarette holders were so closely associated with degenerate behaviour but Granger has a policy of sub-zero-tolerance. He changes his tune when he discovers who Elenora is and is humbled by her confusing mix of direct and in-direct sexual signalling. Who wouldn’t? No woman looked at a man quite like Pola Negri in 1925.

The cultural cringes grow more intense as Elenora meets her relations and is introduced to local society. St Clair handles this action and reaction with economy and the play on Pola’s free expression versus prohibition-era emotional control is hilarious.

There’s a running joke about her tattoo which begins with cousin Sam whispering to a neighbour, “can you keep a secret?” – she can’t and neither can anyone else: they all relish the scandal. One of the sweetest moments comes when Sam later tries to cheer up his dejected relation by showing her his tattoo: a steam train inked from one forearm back over his chest and finishing on the other… Now that’s a tattoo!

We now enter full rom-com as the Granger falls hard for the woman whose morals he can’t comprehend and therefore tries to exile. His young assistant, Gareth (Charles Emmett Mack) is despatched with flowers for Elenora but can’t resist her himself. His youthful play is blocked by the Countess only for Granger to see and get even more confused…

There’s a wonderful line from the conflicted Attorney along the lines of denying love through prohibition – he knows his moral stance is based on his self-denial. So it goes…

You want attitude?
You just hope that someone or something will shock him into just waking up! Cue Pola… with a whip.

Bryony was right (as usual): A Woman of the World is fun and is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen all year. The restoration is superb too and that, coupled with witty piano accompaniment from maestro John Sweeney meant my London Film Festival concluded on a real high.

Catch this film if you haven’t already seen it and hopefully a digital release will allow for more to be reminded of Pola’s grace and star power.

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