"Baclanova, you go out!" Polish Pola Negri reportedly screamed when encountering Russian Olga Baclanova on the back lot at Paramount. Both were equally tempestuous and both were sponsored by powerful industry insiders -- the director Ernst Lubitsch (Negri) and theatrical entrepreneur Morris Gest (Baclanova) -- but Negri was a genuine star whereas Olga seemed destined to play all the roles considered too insubstantial by her rival, including the waterfront floozy in Josef Von Sternberg's still extant DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928). But unlike Negri, Baclanova, who hailed from the Moscow Art Theatre, earned her chief claim to fame in a sound film. As Cleopatra in FREAKS (1932), she was that most avaricious of Midway femme fatales, a beautiful bareback rider conspiring with the strongman to separate the side show midget from his money. The creatures of the title, all real-life sideshow performers, take a horrible revenge by turning Cleopatra into one of their own: a legless, one-eyed "duck woman." The least likely production ever to emerge from staid Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, FREAKS remains as shocking today as it must have appeared in 1932, too grotesque, really, and in some strange way too moving to claim camp status. Baclanova's screen career was hurt beyond repair by the bad reviews but she continued to perform with a nightclub act and on the legitimate stage before retiring to Vesey, Switzerland, where she died in 1974 age 78.
The final film of Olga Baclanova:
CLAUDIA (20th Century-Fox, 1943) D: Edmund Goulding. CAST: Dorothy McGuire, Robert Young, Ina Claire, Reginald Gardiner, Olga Baclanova (Madame Dorushka), Jean Howard. Baclanova repeated her 1941 Broadway role as an eccentric Russian singer in this charming tale of a young wife (McGuire, in her screen debut) coping with a new husband (Robert Young), a rural farm and the separation from her society mother (Claire) and life in the Big City. Ironically, the role of Madame Dorushka had first been offered to Pola Negri, who turned it down as too insignificant.