Obituary: Jean Negulesco

David Shipman
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:42

Jean Negulesco, film director: born Craiova, Romania 29 February 1900; died Marbella 18 July 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 film-maker, but unlike those named above unable either to stamp his own personality on his work or squeeze that extra something from the material.

He began his career in Paris as a painter and scenic designer, taught by his fellow Romanian Brancusi and friendly with Modigliani. In 1927 he left for the United States to exhibit his work in New York, where he was asked to prepare some drawings for the rape scene in The Story of Temple Drake (1933), based on William Faulkner's Sanctuary. (Paramount at that time had studios on both coasts.) He had to depict the scene in discreet visual terms so that it could be passed by the censor. The producer of the film, 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.

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).

Negulesco's other Warner pictures included Humoresque (1946), in which a spoilt society woman, Joan Crawford, takes up with a poor but proud musician, John Garfield ('Do you like martinis, Mr Boray? They're an acquired taste, like Ravel'); and another Lorre-Greenstreet teaming, the aptly named Three Secrets (1946), with an acrid script by 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). '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.

However, Warner loathed the film - just as he had hated Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre, also made on location, far from his supervision. And he saw Johnny Belinda, too, go on to achieve critical acclaim and immense popularity - and Wyman win an Oscar. Warner was to admit that he was wrong - especially as he had sacked Negulesco from the studio after seeing the first preview. Once the film was shown, Negulesco could have written his ticket at any studio; but on the strength of Deep Valley (1946) 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.

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.

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 sum, Negulesco's career is very much like that of most of his peers: promising, then achieving and eventually flattened by the pressures of the front office to provide a succession of hits. Like Reisch, Brackett and those film-makers listed in the first paragraph, Negulesco was a man of culture and intellect; and though some of them may have old-age failures to their names they did not succumb to the Hollywood malaise.

(Photograph omitted)

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