In a career that spanned more than 30 years, Jean Negulesco (1900-1993) was one of Hollywood's most versatile directors and an early master of Cinemascope, the wide-screen technique pioneered in the 1950s.
Negulesco directed 72 films, nearly half of them short subjects, and served as producer, screen-writer and second-unit director on numerous others. Negulesco is best remembered for such classic films as The Mask of Dimitrios, Humoresque, Johnny Belinda, Road House, How to Marry a Millionaire and Daddy Long Legs. These and many of his other features contribute to a body of work whose wide appeal is testament to Negulesco's broad aesthetic interests.
Early Interest in Painting
Jean Negulesco was born in Craiova, Romania, on February 26, 1900, the son of a hotelkeeper. Art was Negulesco's first love, and by his mid-teens he was a precocious painter. When composer Georges Enesco visited the military hospital where Negulesco worked during the First World War, the youthful Negulesco drew a portrait of him, and Enesco bought it. Encouraged by this, Negulesco decided he wanted to become a painter.
He went to Paris, where he met fellow expatriate artists Konsantin Brancusi, Jules Pascin and Amodeo Modigliani. Brancusi served as his mentor. During the 1920s Negulesco's artistic reputation grew, and in his late 20s he began to work as a stage designer. In 1927, an exhibition of his work was put on in New York, and Negulesco also began working for Paramount Studios in New York. His early work for the studio involved sketching the opening montage of Tonight We Sing and as technical advisor on the controversial The Story of Temple Drake, based on William Faulkner's novel, Sanctuary. Later the Western Association of Museums gave him a one-man exhibition in Los Angeles as its "foreign painter of the year."
Turned to Film Career
After his one-man show, art critic Elie Faure, who reportedly hadn't even seen the exhibition, advised Negulesco to quit painting and throw himself into film, even though as an artist Negulesco had a following on both sides of the Atlantic. Negulesco remained in Los Angeles and debuted as a director with a self-financed experimental film titled Three and a Day. The star of Three and a Day, fellow expatriate Mischa Auer, helped Negulesco gain entrance into the big studios.
In 1932 Negulesco was second-unit director for Paramount's film A Farewell to Arms and technical director for This Is the Night. In 1934 he served as associate director for Kiss and Make Up, a comedy starring Cary Grant. In the late 1930s Negulesco worked primarily as a studio writer. He wrote the screenplay for the 1937 film, Expensive Husbands, and worked on the stories of other movies.
His work at Paramount and later Universal brought him to the attention of the short subjects department at Warner Brothers. That studio offered him a job as a director of shorts, which in those days were an essential part of movie theater's bills.
Negulesco's first studio directorial effort was the 1940 ten-minute short, Joe Reichman and His Orchestra. That same year he directed Alice in Movieland, another musical short written by Ed Sullivan. Over the next four years Negulesco directed numerous short subjects for Warner Brothers, mostly musicals and many featuring second-caliber big bands. He also worked on the crew that filmed two short dance pieces by Leonid Massine: "Gaiete Parisienne" (released in 1941 as The Gay Parisian) and "Capriccio Espagnol," Spanish Fiesta, released in 1942.
Negulesco soon started being considered for feature films. He was credited with directing the 1941 melodrama, Singapore Woman, although he may have been pulled off the project before completion. Prior to that film he was chosen to direct The Maltese Falcon, the movie that would be a big hit for Humphrey Bogart, but he was replaced by John Huston.
Negulesco's real break in Hollywood came in 1944, more than 14 years after he decided to switch careers, when he directed the noir film The Mask of Dimitrios starring Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, both of whom had appeared in The Maltese Falcoln. The style was an interesting challenge for the urbane Negulesco, but Greenstreet and Lorre were experienced noir actors and Negulesco pulled off the film's recreations of various European settings. While some critics have argued that The Mask of Dimitrios is not first-rate noir, in its time the film was successful enough to lift Negulesco out of the Warner Brothers short subject department. He did direct two more shorts for Warner Brothers in 1944: Listen to the Bands and Grandmother's Follies. These followed his second feature, The Conspirators, starring Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid and again featuring Greenstreet and Lorre. The Conspirators is a World War II film with noir aspects about a group of underground anti-Nazi conspirators in Lisbon, one of whom is a Nazi double agent.
In 1946 Negulesco teamed with Greenstreet and Lorre for the third and final time when he directed Three Strangers, a drama about fate and those who attempt to alter it. That same year Negulesco teamed up with actor John Garfield. He first directed Garfield in Nobody Lives Forever, a film noir that addressed the plight of returning World War II serviceman. The protagonist is a New York gambler who gets involved with a gang of grifters in California. Negulesco exhibited a firm grasp of noir conventions and in some places modifies them to heighten the film's irony. Humoresque, written by Clifford Odetts, was the second collaboration between Negulesco and Garfield; it also starred Joan Crawford as a predatory fan of Garfield's character, a concert violinist. In this film, Negulesco, who had made so many musical shorts, proved what he could do when he was on familiar ground. He followed up with Deep Valley (1947), a crime melodrama starring Ida Lupino. Negulesco's next project was to have been The Adventures of Don Juan, but artistic differences with Errol Flynn, the film's star, caused studio boss Jack Warner to remove him from the project. The resilient Negulesco bounced back from that setback in 1948, when he directed the film considered to be his greatest artistic achievement.
That film was Johnny Belinda, starring Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres. It was the apex of Negulesco's career. He was nominated for an Academy Award for best director (he lost to John Huston), and Wyman won the Oscar for best actress. By the time of the awards ceremony, however, Negulesco was no longer employed at Warner Brothers. Warner disliked Johnny Belinda so much that he fired Negulesco after seeing the film's preview.
Master of Different Styles
Negulesco went to Twentieh Century Fox, where he directed film noir staples Lupino, Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark, as well as Celeste Holm, in Road House (1948). This was Negulesco's most solid noir offering, and it capitalized well on his painterly and set-designer background through the use of unreal scenery that mirrors the characters' physical and psychological situations. Negulesco scored another hit in 1950 when he teamed with writer Nunally Johnson for Three Came Home, about women in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Borneo. He followed this with Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) and Titanic (1953). The former featured Bette Davis in a cameo role while the latter starred Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyk.
In the five years after he left Warner Brothers, Negulesco's style and his choice of scripts softened. He and Johnson teamed up again for the studio's second CinemaScope feature, How to Marry a Millionaire. This was the first of several Negulesco films about women searching for happiness. The others were Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), a popular film about three women in Rome that is not critically acclaimed; Woman's World (1954), an illustration of the adage "behind every successful man is a woman"; and The Best of Everything (1959), a film that is the polar opposite of Woman's World, in which three women struggle to make it to the top in a New York publishing company.
During his stay at Twentieth Century Fox Negulesco had the opportunity to direct some of the Hollywood's biggest stars, including Fred Astaire (in Daddy Long Legs, 1955); Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe (in Millionaire); Richard Burton and Lana Turner (The Rains of Ranchipur, 1955); Irene Dunne (The Mudlark, 1950); Sophia Lauren and Alan Ladd (Boy on a Dolphin, 1957), and Joan Crawford (Woman's World). Yet despite all this star power Negulesco's films in the 1950s were not ground-breaking. Their popularity was largely due to the actors' followings and gimmicks like CinemaScope.
Later Years and Retirement
Negulesco made only four films in the 1960s, and one of them, The Pleasure Seekers (1964), was a remake of Three Coins in the Fountain, this time set in Madrid. Another project was an uncredited effort for The Greatest Story Ever Told, released in 1965. George Stevens was given sole directorial credit, but David Lean and Negulesco also worked on the film. His final directorial effort was 1970's Hello-Goodbye.
After 1970 Negulesco worked sporadically. He appeared in three films: Un officier de Police sans Importance (1973), L'Arriviste (The Thruster) in 1976, and Le Jupon rouge (Manuela's Loves) in 1987. In retirement in the south of France Negulesco invested in real estate and returned to his first love, painting. In 1985 Negulesco published his autobiography, Things I Did … and Things I Think I Did. In his review of the book for the New York Times, John Houseman wrote that Negulesco was "a true man of the world," yet one of his "attractive qualities [was] his modesty."
Negulesco appeared on television twice, both times as himself. In a 1960 episode of This Is Your Life he was one of the guests who surprised Italian actor Rossano Brazzi. He also appeared posthumously in the 1997 documentary The Reality Trip, which celebrated the centenary of film. As a producer Negulesco sheparded the televising of the 27th Academy Awards ceremony in 1955. In 1962 he produced and codirected the made-for-TV film Jessica.
Negulesco was married twice. His first marriage ended in divorce soon after he arrived in the United States. His second marriage was to model Dusty Anderson in 1946. Negulesco had a son, Julian (also a film director), and two adopted daughters. Negulesco died of heart failure on July 18, 1993 in Marbella, Spain.
Silver, Alain and Elizabeth Ward, eds., Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, The Overlook Press, 1979.
Guardian, July 23, 1993.
Independent, July 22, 1993.
New York Times, February 24, 1985.
Times (London), July 22, 1993.
"Jean Negulesco," http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0624535 (December 9, 2003).