Friday, April 18

The Directors: Jean Negulesco

His career can easily be divided into two parts.  The first was some masterful film noir work, mainly at Warner Brothers, and secondly at 20th Century Fox where he steered big-budget, big-cast, glossy productions in comedy, drama, romance and musicals.  I was practically raised on his Fox work.  I didn't miss a single one of them from the 1950s.  It was only later when I went back and familiarized myself with his earlier work that I could scarcely believe it was the same director.

Born in Romania in 1900, Negulesco ran away to Paris at age 12 where he pursued his dream to become a painter.  He painted while he studied art and sold much of his work which was deemed very good.  Interrupted by WWI, he returned to Paris and combined his talent on canvas with stage decorating, his first foray into show business.  At age 27 he moved to New York for an exhibition of his work and stayed for seven years.  Then he decided to go to California as the film business began to interest him more.  The trip itself took a few years because he wanted to leisurely see the country.  He supported himself by painting portraits.

Originally hired by Paramount he worked as a sketch artist and then as a second-unit director.  He caught the eye of Warner Bros and was put under contract where he was a jack of all trades.  For a spell he did some writing and then he assumed directing chores of short subjects.  His stay at Warners was a fractured one which began with his being fired from directing The Maltese Falcon (1941).  His first big success came three years later with The Mask of Dimitrios (which I saw for the first time last week), a damned good noir about a mystery writer who finds a body washed up on shore.  Both of these films costarred Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, two terrific scene-stealers, who would star in the director's next two films, The Conspirators (1944) and The Three Strangers (1946).

Also in '46 he had great success with Humoresque, an edgy and ultra-stylish noir that capitalized on Negulesco's painter's eye.  Playing a concert violinist, John Garfield had one of his most unusual roles while he romanced his socialite-patroness, Joan Crawford. 

Deep Valley (1947) was a moody drama starring Ida Lupino and Dane Clark about an escaped prisoner who enters the life of a young woman living an isolated life on a small island with her bickering parents.  It was a stirring piece of filmmaking although not wildly successful.  That would happen with his next film, Johnny Belinda (1948), the story of a deaf mute who is raped and has a child much to the consternation of her small farming community.  Jane Wyman would win an Oscar and Negulesco would receive his only Oscar nomination for a film that most film scholars would claim is the best thing he ever did.

Acclaim or not, he was unceremoniously dumped by the Burbank studio.  It was said Jack Warner disliked the film, fool that he was.  Negulesco was quickly gobbled up by Fox, hired as a contract director.  That is to say that like contracted actors, he did as he was told.  That is not as dismal as one may think because his films at the studio, for the most part, were quite popular with the public (which includes me) if not with the critics.

First up was another film noir, again starring Lupino, in 1948's Road House.  She had a good role as a singer in a juke joint and Richard Widmark, as the owner, had one of his juiciest villain roles.  Celeste Holm and Cornel Wilde rounded out the cast in a most entertaining movie.

Big years for Negulesco (and me, too) were 1953 and 1954.  Titanic starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner did not sink at the box office.  Arguably the most popular movie he would ever do was 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire, the first of four films he would oversee that dealt with three women looking for husbands.  This trio consisted of Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall.  It was notable as much for being the first film made in the new Cinemascope (although the second one, The Robe, beat it into the theaters).

The cast of  "3 Coins"

In 1954 Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters and Maggie McNamara threw Three Coins in the Fountain hoping to capture Clifton Webb, Rossano Brazzi and Louis Jourdan while Fox captured many dollars.  The huge success was in no small part due to a popular title song and the gorgeous Rome locations.

Also in 1954 was Woman's World, a romance-drama offering three more female roles (June Allyson, Lauren Bacall, Arlene Dahl) although this time they're married (Cornel Wilde, Fred MacMurray, Van Heflin).  Clifton Webb, the owner of a car company, invites three top execs to NY to look them over for one promotion.  I ate it up because of the yummy cast but it didn't do well.  I also liked the following year's The Rains of Ranchipur but it fared about the same.  An adulterous wife (Lana Turner) makes a doctor (Richard Burton) put down his stethoscope for a special examination while floods in India threaten the population.  Both films are fun on a TCM Sunday afternoon.

I also liked 1957's Boy on a Dolphin, starring Alan Ladd and Clifton Webb and introducing Sophia Loren to American films.  Despite colorful filming in the Greek Isles, this treasure-hunting saga sunk at the box office. 

The remainder of his work lost the sheen of his earlier successes.  Nothing at Fox ever matched the critical acclaim Negulesco received at Warners and his post-50s output didn't match the financial successes of his early Fox years.  Had Fox given up on him and simply assigned him rather hackneyed scripts?  A bit noteworthy is 1959's The Best of Everything... again three women looking for husbands, this time in Manhattan's publishing world.  A cast that starred Hope Lange, Stephen Boyd, Suzy Parker, Louis Jourdan, Diane Baker and Joan Crawford certainly accounted for my buying a ticket.
The ladies of  "The Pleasure Seekers"

Toward the end of his career, Fox again saddled him with the three girls scenario, this time a rather bland musical remake of Three Coins.  Titled The Pleasure Seekers, it starred Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin as three horny lasses leaving their scent all over Spain.  Yes, yes, I saw it but mainly because it was 40s goddess Gene Tierney's final film and because Gardner McKay was in it.  Don't know him?  Hit "Google images" and seek your own pleasure.

So with those early film noirs and the glossy, all-star extravaganzas of the 1950s, I have a lot to thank Jean Negulesco for.  Perhaps he didn't sit at the same table with the big-boy directors of his day, but he turned out some pretty entertaining films which starred a great many of the actors and actresses I was whipped on at the time. 

Perhaps he discovered or rediscovered Spain when he made The Pleasure Seekers, because he moved there and would die there at age 93 in 1993 from heart failure.

In Their Nineties

1 comment:

  1. I'm getting to be a habit with You. Don't worry, I'm just singing.I think I saw almost all Negulesco's movies , but the one that's still in my mind is HOW TO MARRY...and You know why? For the wonderful opening scenes of New York. I did not see that magical town then and I was dreaming to do. Many years later I took the first of quite a few trips to N.Y. with my friend and I pinched my arm saying to myself " I'm in N.Y. ,I'm in N.Y." God, what a wonderful time.Ok. I bothered You enough.
    All the best. Carlo.