Three German Silent Film Actresses and their fates
“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.”
Fern Andra was born in Watseka, Illinois in 1893. Unless you live in Watseka, most likely you have never heard of it, being one of those small towns on the Midwest plains that get no attention from anyone except comedians. Her career as a performer began when she was four years old, walking the tightrope in a travelling circus. Go forward twenty years and she has moved to Berlin, about as existentially remote from Watseka as Antarctica is geographically. She is acting in films like Homunculus and Der Frauspekulant but more than that, a lot of the films she is appearing in she is also writing, directing and producing. The titles mean nothing to me (Drohende Wolken am Firmament: Threatening Clouds in the Sky) though they have a suitably sturm und drang ring to them. So we come to this portrait, which at first glance looks like a fashionably polite exercise in soft erotica, which any studio might turn out. But look at the bottom right: ‘Atelier Fern Andra’. She is also running a photographic studio, and as this makes clear, taking and controlling the distribution of her own portraits.
Her obituary in the New York Times of February 12, 1974, states that during World War 1 she was a spy for the Allies, was arrested but released on the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm. The evidence may prove a little less melodramatic but the basic facts may be accurate. Mata Hari is the best known of a number of performers who doubled as spies.
With this skeleton of background information at hand, you’d think that one place to look for some information about Ms Andra would be the numerous feminist film books out there. Here is a woman who set out on her own path during the earliest days of cinema, but: The Red Velvet Seat; women’s writings on the first fifty years of cinema? Nothing. Weimar Cinema? Zilch. Nordic Exposures? Likewise, nada. Even Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, admittedly by a man and focused on Hollywood but still one of those books anyone interested in silent film agrees is indispensible – zero. Could it be that too many of the women who have written about early cinema from a feminist perspective have been as vacuously middle class as the men they dismiss for being just that? It isn’t hard to make the charge stick. There’s loads of material and reconsiderations of some obvious names like Greta Garbo but little on others you’d expect, who took risks and challenged the orthodoxy.
Part of the problem may be, as it so often is, bad timing. We read that in the early 1920s Fern Andra was one of the most popular actresses in Germany, but by mid-decade her star was waning. We also read that in 1925, about the time these portraits were taken, she was married to Kurt Prenzel, middleweight boxing champion of Germany, who valiantly protected her from a dog as she stepped out from an automobile. It turns out the dog was rabid and the press feared Herr Prenzler’s ‘stellar’ career was threatened as a result. It wasn’t. He went on to fight such ring legends as Roxie Allen, Joe Kubiak and Jerry Kucella (won 8, lost 23). He comes across as a man whose lifestyle was more interesting than his sporting prowess. Maybe the Germans thought the same of Ms Andra: wonderful to look at, difficult to watch. She wisely dropped the first of her four husbands and went to London before returning to America, where she had to start again. It looks like she turned up in Hollywood around the time of the transition to sound, and like hundreds of others discovered the rules had changed. To have her star fading on one side of the Atlantic and barely glimmering to life on the other was bad enough, but if both the Americans and the Germans thought of her as a foreign actor she had little in the way of an identity to promote. The red carpet, such as it was, was pulled out from under her feet. Perhaps, had she stayed in Germany, we would know her now as a fearless pioneer in cinema, Instead, she is forgotten.
From what I read of Mia May, her popularity rivalled that of Fern Andra in the early 1920s but it was of an entirely different nature. Her husband, Joe May, pumped out dozens of short, dramatic two-reelers featuring Mia as the plucky heroine. Mostly they had colourful titles like Die Silhouette des Teufels (Shadow of the Devil) and Die Herren der Welt (Mistress of the World). The German audiences lapped them up but, like cats at a bowl of milk, once a film was finished all they cared about was when the next one was ready. The Mays’ best known is an epic silent serial known as The Mysteries of India, with a script by Fitz Lang.
Yet, when you look through enough of the postcards in the Ross Verlag catalogue, you come away thinking that no one played up to the publicity machine with more vigour and joie de vivre. Most of the actresses who sat for the German photographic studios were (or allowed themselves to be) portrayed as living in a haze of glamour and sophistication. Mia May, on the other hand, appeared to understand she was only an actress and played that for all it was worth. Among the thousands of film star portraits produced during the 1920s, hers remain some of the most striking. At the bottom of all of them is the logo with ‘May’ in a cross, framed within an octagon, a reminder that she and her husband controlled what images Ross Verlag received.
A previous post described how their daughter, Eva May, committed suicide in 1924 and the tragedy led to Mia May retiring from acting. That decision made, she might have missed the life but she never returned to it. Joe May was Jewish and around 1934 the couple left Germany for America. They joined that group of German émigrés/refugees that included Lang, Berthold Brecht and Billy Wilder but May’s films seldom made a big impression. In Hollywood she opened a restaurant, the Blue Danube. Its failure preceded difficult years for the Mays. By 1948 Joe was pawning Mia’s jewellery to make ends meet. He died in 1954, Mia May in 1980. She was long forgotten by then.
The stories of Andra and May are variations on a commonly accepted understanding. Fame and its side benefits are constructions that have little to do with talent. The machine of publicity has an engine operating on principles that no one really understands. Pola Negri’s story is another type. Celebrated in Germany before she arrived in Hollywood, little of her work in Europe or America stands today as cinematically brilliant. Granted, ‘classic’ is applied to any film older than ten years, there’s nothing in her resumé to suggest she played any great and memorable roles. Yet the image of Pola Negri remains vivid. Hers is a face of the silent era as identifiable as Chaplin’s tramp. Her early life reads like the most depressing Russian realism - born into poverty, father disappeared when she was young, two sisters died in childhood - but the woman who sails into New York in 1922 is depicted as possessing all the exotic and decaying glamour of Eastern European royalty.
More interesting than her filmography then is the way the publicity machine built up around her worked. American papers were reporting her imminent arrival even before her ship left Europe. When it docked and she was settled in her hotel, reporters asked her about the rumoured clause in her contract that insured Paramount for one million dollars against her marrying. “I live only for my art.” She apparently replied, acknowledging something everyone already took for granted. “I shall not marry for three, maybe four years.” The statement not only implied she was keeping an eye out for suitors but the press would too. Her repeatedly broken engagements to Charlie Chaplin and romance with Rudolph Valentino were gifts to the newspapers.
On June 30, 1927, the New York Times reported that Pola Negri had been bitten by a spider. Fascinating. These days celebrities have publicists whose job is to keep their client’s name in the media, so toss off every detail they can. In 1927 the publicist worked for the film studio not the star. The important issue was not that Ms Negri had been bitten by a spider but that as a result filming had been held up for a day. It is possible that the story was fictitious and intended to hide some deeper problem with the contract or her behaviour. Whatever the truth, the story tells us a lot about how the studios were learning how publicity really worked. The studio had invested too much in her to risk the audience losing interest. If nothing was happening in her world this week then a spider bite could be regarded as potentially life threatening.
So why did Pola Negri go on to the closest thing the cinemas offers in the way of immortality while Fern Andra and Mia May sank? The paradox was that by taking control of their own images, Andra and May had no recourse when those stated to fade. Maybe because of her horrid childhood, Ms Negri understood more keenly the value in placing her image in the hands of the studios. It may have been a concoction but it was one she approved of and turned out to be more enduring than one she may have devised herself.