Jean Negulesco (1900 - 1993)

Jean Negulesco (1900 - 1993)

Jean Negulesco belonged to the great age of Hollywood directors - Zinnemann, Kazan, Wilder, Mankiewicz, Huston - who transformed the American cinema by choosing their own material. As often as not they selected from properties already owned by their bosses, as did Negulesco when making the handful of pictures which drew him to the attention of the critics. He was more than a competent filmmaker, but unlike those named above unable either to stamp his own personality on his work or squeeze that extra something from the material.

Born in Craiova, Romania, he absconded from home at the age of twelve, ending up in Paris. He earned some money washing dishes, which paid for his art tuition, on the way to fulfilling his dream of becoming a painter. The First World War intervened, and Negulesco found himself working in a field hospital on the Western Front. Returning to Paris unscathed, he embarked on a more serious study of the arts, learning to paint under the guidance of his emigre compatriot Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and friended Modigliani, and subsequently returned home to Romania. Proving himself an adept pupil, Negulesco sold 150 of his paintings at his very first exhibition. Back in Paris by the early 1920's, he discovered another outlet for his creativity by working as a stage decorator.

John Huston, Roberto Rossellini, Jean Negulesco

In 1927 he left for the United States to exhibit his work in New York, in hope of finding a wider audience. He decided to stay. Travelling across the United States to California, all the while making money by painting portraits, Negulesco took years to arrive at his destination. In 1932, he was hired by Paramount (working for producer Benjamin Glazer) for his first job in the movie industry, as a sketch artist and technical advisor, notably designing the rape scene in The Story of Temple Drake (1933) without violating the Hays Code. He had to depict the scene in discreet visual terms so that it could be passed by the censor. Benjamin Glazer liked the result so much that he made Negulesco his assistant, enabling him to gain experience in almost all aspects of movie-making. His work as second-unit director at Paramount and then at Universal brought him to the attention of Gordon Illingworth, producer of short subjects at Warner Bros, who put him in charge of those with pretensions to art, ie featuring ballet and/or orchestra. Negulesco also chalked up some credits at Warners as a writer.

In 1941, when the withdrawal of the European market had caused profits to drop, Jack L. Warner decided to find some new directors who could bring a fresh approach to low-budgeted subjects. Negulesco started work on The Maltese Falcon, only to find it taken away and given to another director making his debut, John Huston. Negulesco was assigned to a remake of Dangerous, Singapore Woman (1941), but was removed during filming and demoted, that is, returned to the shorts department - for the second time in his career.

Jean Negulesco, 1951

Three years later he was given a third chance at a feature, and almost wrecked that by submitting a poor test of the leading actors. Negulesco felt 'naturally upset', after waiting 15 years to make a feature, that he should run the risk of being removed yet again. The film concerned was The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). Anatole Litvak had advised him to look at Eric Ambler's exciting but complex mystery story, which no writer at the studio had managed to lick. Negulesco took it to Henry Blanke, the producer of The Maltese Falcon, and told him that he would keep the budget low - the action took place over much of Europe - by filming among shadows and darkness, instead of elaborate sets. He also suggested it as a co-starring vehicle for Peter Lorre ("the most talented man I have ever seen") and Sydney Greenstreet, whose amused approach to the sinister roles they played was so effective in both cases. The result retained the gritty tone of the original, at its best in the banter between Lorre and Greenstreet, two intelligent but wary men. It is also the only cosmopolitan Warner thriller of this era not to imitate Casablanca (in which these two actors had also appeared, as well as The Maltese Falcon). After The Mask of Dimitrios another Lorre-Greenstreet film was directed by Negulesco - The Conspirators (1944) - followed by the noir Nobody Lives Forever (1946) starring John Garfield.

Negulesco's next Warner picture was Humoresque (1946), which was in many ways a victory of style over content. The maudlin tale of an up-and-coming young violinist John Garfield) and his stormy and, ultimately ill-fated relationship with an unhappily married, alcoholic socialite Joan Crawford), could have been hackneyed soap opera under a lesser director.

However, Negulesco not only elicited electrifying performances from his stars, but also gave Humoresque an edgy look, as well as effectively juxtaposing the ghetto background of the Garfield character with the lush high society settings of Crawford's. Aided by Ernest Haller's photography, a bitingly clever screenplay conceived by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold, and with Franz Waxman's lavish orchestration of music by Dvorak and Wagner, Humoresque was another major hit with critics and public alike.

Working on a caricature drawing of Jack Carson during lunch break while working on the 'Doughboys'

He made yet another Warner picture teaming again Lorre-Greenstreet, the aptly named Three Strangers (1946), with an acrid script by John Huston. He then landed the studio's plum assignment, The Adventures of Don Juan, an expensive swashbuckler meant to re-establish Errol Flynn after several years in drab contemporary films. But Flynn did not like his approach to the Don, whom Negulesco thought of as victim rather than victimiser. Jack L. Warner said to Negulesco: "Johnny, I cannot make Don Juan without Flynn, but I can make it without you." So Negulesco found himself looking at some scripts commissioned by the producer Jerry Wald.

One was Johnny Belinda (1948), based on a half-forgotten play by Elmer Harris, about a deaf-mute who is raped by the village stud, and the kindly doctor who is thought by the villagers to be the father of her baby. Negulesco recognised the situations as melodrama, but believed that he could make it work - as well as satisfying the censor - if he presented an honest portrait of the small Nova Scotia community in which the tale takes place (it was actually filmed near San Francisco). Negulesco tackled what was at the time something of a 'taboo subject' in films (considered box office poison) with restrained sentimentality. "Making it," Negulesco said, "was the happiest experience of my life. We all loved what we did in it. This was the only time in my career when everybody connected with the film felt themselves an integral part of the project." This was apparent in the result: Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres were superb in the leading roles, she touching and he tender; and Agnes Moorehead and Charles Bickford brought off the difficult task of playing salt-of-the-earth types. Critic Bosley Crowther pondered in his review, why Warners had undertaken the project in the first place, but gave both it and its director an excellent appraisal (October 2 1948). Unfortunately, Warners did not concur, and, though Johnny Belinda made the studio $4 million, Negulesco was unceremoniously fired. He did have the last laugh, however, being himself nominated for an Academy Award and seeing his star, Jane Wyman, walking away with a Best Actress Oscar.

Once the film was shown, Negulesco could have written his ticket at any studio; but on the strength of Deep Valley (1947) 20th Century-Fox had already taken him on to direct Road House (1948), an atmospheric small-town thriller with Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm and Richard Widmark.

Drawing a caricature of Paul Henreid between takes on the set of 'The Conspirators'

But after Johnny Belinda there would be no more melodramas, unless Negulesco wished there to be. He lighted upon Margery Sharp's cunning, panoramic novel of life in one particular part of West London, Britannia Mews (1949), reduced in Ring Lardner Jnr.'s screenplay to just two episodes, with Maureen O'Hara and Dana Andrews in a dual role as both her drunken husband and her puppeteer lover. Negulesco thought the result, which was badly received, "quite bad", and it is certainly bizarre - as indeed was The Mask of Dimitrios, though it wasn't clear this time whether this was deliberate.

Negulesco then joined another civilised talent, the writer-director Nunally Johnson, to film Agnes Newton Keith's account of her imprisonment by the Japanese in Borneo, Three Came Home (1950). It had been a bestseller, but Negulesco and Johnson's motives were to duplicate the authenticity of the book, rendering as honestly as they could - by the standards of the time - the brutality of the captors and the sexual frustrations of the prisoners, both those who knew that their husbands were in neighbouring camps and those tempted by Australian POWs on the prowl. Claudette Colbert led an excellent cast, including Florence Desmond, Patric Knowles and Sessue Hayakawa.

Johnson and Negulesco came a cropper with The Mudlark (1950), with Alec Guinness as Disraeli and Irene Dunne stuffed with cotton wool inside her cheeks to play Queen Victoria; and there is nothing to be said in favour of Negulesco's return to Johnny Belinda territory, for MGM, Scandal at Scourie (1953), a schmaltzy vehicle for the fading team of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. His other films for Fox were sound commercial jobs, and we should note Phone Call From a Stranger (1952), if only for Bette Davis's cameo as a bedridden widow recalling her marriage, and Titanic (1953), which added Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb and some fictions to that tragic occasion. That the whole is as watchable as it is may be due to a screenplay partly by Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, working together for the third time since writing Ninotchka with Billy Wilder.

Director Jean Negulesco, John Garfield & Joan Crawford on 'Humoresque' set

Negulesco and Johnson were put in charge of Fox's second film in CinemaScope, How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), a comedy with Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. Monroe's myopic blond gold-digger gave her her final thrust into stardom, and she was often deliciously funny, despite the fact that, as Negulesco himself put it, it was difficult to understand how "to do intimate scenes on that great wide oblong." The three stars had to do the opening sequence nine times as everyone tried to adjust to the new format. The answer seemed both to Fox and Negulesco to be to string the cast out across the screen, as in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) and Woman's World (1954). The cast of the latter included June Allyson, Bacall, Wilde, Webb, and Fred MacMurray; among those throwing their coins in the Trevi were Jean Peters, Dorothy McGuire, Webb and Louis Jourdan - in what amounted to a romantic re-working of How To Marry a Millionaire, in itself a rehash of the story Fox had filmed at least three times before. Helped by Frank Sinatra's rendition of the syrupy title-song, this was one of Fox's biggest successes in its history. Negulesco remade it with even less enthusiasm as The Pleasure Seekers (1964), its story transposed to Madrid.

Other late films included The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), a remake of The Rains Came which startlingly teamed Richard Burton and Lana Turner, and Boy on a Dolphin (1957), a tale of ocean archaeology in which Sophia Loren's dripping-wet frocks out-acted a miscast Alan Ladd. As screen teams go, there should have been magic when the orphan Leslie Caron met up with Daddy Long Legs Fred Astaire in 1955. And there was, when they were allowed to dance simply together; but, in trying to wrest the crown for making the best musicals from MGM, Fox had brought in Roland Petit to choreograph two dream ballets which were both vulgar and derivative. Negulesco directed his last film, The Invisible Six, in 1970. In 1973 he played an actor in Un Officier de Police Sans Importance, while his son Julian has appeared in a number of French films.

In the late 1960's, he moved to Marbella, Spain, to paint, and to collect art. Jean Negulesco reminisced about his Hollywood experiences in an autobiography in 1984, Things I Did...and Things I Think I Did. He died in Marbella of a heart attack at the respectable age of 93.

Filmography


  • Hello-Goodbye (1970)
  • The Invincible Six (1970)
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
  • The Pleasure Seekers (1964)
  • Jessica (1962)
  • The Best of Everything (1959)
  • Count Your Blessings (1959)
  • A Certain Smile (1958)
  • The Gift of Love (1958)
  • Boy on a Dolphin (1957)
  • The Dark Wave (1956)
  • The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)
  • Daddy Long Legs (1955)
  • Woman's World (1954)
  • Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
  • River of No Return (1954)
  • How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
  • Scandal at Scourie (1953)
  • Titanic (1953)
  • Full House (1952) (segment 'The Last Leaf')
  • Lure of the Wilderness (1952)
  • Lydia Bailey (1952)
  • Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)
  • Take Care of My Little Girl (1951)
  • The Mudlark (1950)
  • Under My Skin (1950)
  • Three Came Home (1950)
  • Britannia Mews (1949)
  • Road House (1948)
  • Johnny Belinda (1948)
  • Deep Valley (1947)
  • Humoresque (1946)
  • Nobody Lives Forever (1946)
  • Three Strangers (1946)
  • The Conspirators (1944)
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
  • South American Sway (1944)
  • Grandmother's Follies (1944)
  • Roaring Guns (1944)
  • Listen to the Bands (1944)
  • Over the Wall (1943)
  • Food and Magic (1943)
  • Cavalcade of Dance (1943)
  • Women at War (1943)
  • Army Show (1943)
  • Childhood Days (1943)
  • All-Star Melody Masters (1943)
  • The All American Bands (1943)
  • Three Cheers for the Girls (1943)
  • Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra (1943)
  • The United States Army Band (1943)
  • The United States Navy Band (1943)
  • The United States Service Bands (1943)
  • The Voice That Thrilled the World (1943)
  • The United States Marine Band (1942)
  • Six Hits and a Miss (1942)
  • Glen Gray and His Casa Loma Orchestra (1942)
  • The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady (1942)
  • Spanish Fiesta (1942)
  • Calling All Girls (1942)
  • Borrah Minnevitch and His Harmonica School (1942)
  • Carl Hoff and Band (1942)
  • The Spirit of Annapolis (1942)
  • The United States Army Air Force Band (1942)
  • At the Stroke of Twelve (1941)
  • Carioca Serenaders (1941)
  • University of Southern California Band and Glee Club (1941)
  • Those Good Old Days (1941)
  • Hal Kemp and His Orchestra (1941)
  • Singapore Woman (1941)
  • Marie Green and Her Merry Men (1941)
  • Freddie Martin and His Orchestra (1941)
  • Cliff Edwards and His Buckaroos (1941)
  • Jan Garber and His Orchestra (1941)
  • The Dog in the Orchard (1941)
  • Skinnay Ennis and His Orchestra (1941)
  • The Gay Parisian (1941)
  • Alice in Movieland (1940)
  • The Flag of Humanity (1940)
  • City for Conquest (1940) (fill-in director) (uncredited)
  • Joe Reichman and His Orchestra (1940)
  • Henry Busse and His Orchestra (1940)