She had trained as a dancer in St. Petersburg and, during the First World War, she made a number of films in Poland with Aleksander Hertz. But in 1917, Max Reinhardt brought her to Berlin to play in the stage version of Su mu run. She quickly became a star in the German cinema and, after several pictures for Curt Matull, she asked for the young Lubitsch to direct her in Die Augen der Mumie Ma (18). She worked for other directors— Georg Jacoby, Paul Ludwig Stein, and Dmitri Buchowetzld (Sappho, 20)—but she was outstanding in Lubitschs costume films to which she brought not only beauty and expressiveness, but unusual depth of character, so that, as Lotte Eisner wrote, she showed up stage actors for their artifice: Carmen (18); Madame Dubarry (19); Medea (20); Sumurun (20); Die Bergkatze (21); and Die Flamme (22).
Madame Dubarry, retitled Passion, had been shown with enormous success in America, and in 1922 Paramount invited her to America. Her first films there were far short of her German work: Bella Donna (23, George Fitzmaurice); The Cheat (23, Fitzmaurice); The Spanish Dancer (23. Herbert Brenon); and Shadows of Pans (24, Brenon). In an effort to revivify her, she was paired with one of her directors in Germany, Buchowetzki, for Men (24) and Lily of the Dust (24). But it was only with Lubitsch, in Forbidden Paradise (24), that she matched her former glory.
She worked in Hollywood for another four years until sound and her accent forced her to abandon America: East of Suez (25, Raoul Walsh); The Charmer (25, Sidney Oleott); Flower of Night (25, Paul Bern); A Woman of the World (25, Malcolm St. Clair); The Crown of Lies (26, Buchowetzld); Good and Naughty (26, St. Clair); Hotel Imperial (26, Stiller); Barbed Wire (27, Rowland V. Lee); The Woman on Tiial (27, Lee); Three Sinners (28, Lee); The Secret House (28, Lee); as Rachel in Loves of an Actress (28, Lee); and The Woman from Moscow (28, Ludyyig Berger). She went to England to make The Woman He Scorned (29, Paul Czinner) and after one more film in America, A Woman Commands (32, Paul L. Stein), and Fanatisme (34, Gaston Ravel), in France, she returned to Germany.
She had a great popular success in Mazurka (35, Willi Forst) and played in Moskau-Shanghai (36, Paul Wegener); as Madame Bovary (37, Gerhard Lamprecht); Tango Notturno (37, Fritz Kirchhoff); Die Fromme Luge (38, Nunzio Malasomma); and Die Nacht der Entscheidung (38, Malasomina). In the first years of the war she was in France, but in 1943 she went to America and made Hi, Diddle Diddle (43, Andrew I,. Stone). She retired and reappeared in onlv one cameo in The Moonspinners (64, James Neilson).
Negri was the first European actress to be wooed by Hollywood: in response, she scorned the shoddiness of American, as compared with German, films, gradually lost the popularity earned by American versions of those films, was the gloomy heavy in a stoked-up rivalry at Paramount with Gloria Swanson, and, cruellest twist of all, was offered to Mauritz Stiller as compensation for the Garbo he had brought to America but whom MGM preferred to keep to themselves.
The dark, soulful concentration of Negri, as well as her deliberate cultivation of an aura of mystery, now make her seem a very dated figure. Rodney Ackland s verdict places her as the archetypal “great actress”: “She had a blind and uncritical admiration of her own genius in the blaze of which her sense of humor evaporated like a dewdrop on a million-watt arc lamp. Most memorably, she is the star described in Dos Passos’s portrait of Valentino, swooning at the actor’s funeral “after she had shown the reporters a message allegedly written by one of the doctors alleging that Rudolph Valentino had spoken of her at the end as his bride to be.” The press mocked her for that, just as many people in movies laughed at her extravagant immersion in her own emotions. The irony was that she launched the career of Ernst Lubitsch, but was sadly untouched by his restraint.