A Book Review by Louis Wasser.
“I’m the last of Hollywood’s dinosaurs.” – Jean Negulesco (124)
Although, in retrospect, the stars seemed to align during the years of Jean Negulesco’s birth and death (1900-1993) for him to be tagged a Hollywood-Golden-Age director, the Romanian immigrant had little clue what his eventual career would be when he first set foot on American soil. This current biography, Jean Negulesco, Life and Times by Michelangelo Capua (McFarland, 2017) recounts an interview the director once gave about his fortunes:
When I was 14 I knew already my vocation: politics are for the politicians, business trading left me indifferent, since I could not understand its mechanisms and did not like to study …. For this reason, I decided to leave my paternal house and go to Vienna because I wanted to be a painter. But World War I forced me to return home (4).
One doesn’t ordinarily think of film directing as a profession one stumbles into. And yet, in Negulesco’s case, stumbling ultimately seems to be the best explanation. But when he was a very young man, contrary to the wishes of his father who’d wanted him to go into business, through the distractions of history and World War I in particular, he’d decided to be a painter.
After some minor but significant artistic successes in Bucharest and Paris, and a marriage to wealthy American widow and mother Winifred Hayers Havelick, six years his senior, Negulesco set sail for America with his new family in 1926. With the financial help of his new wife (his first of two), he set up a studio in New York’s Greenwich Village. After his exhibitions received critical attention, Jean, Winifred, and her daughter moved to Washington, D.C., whereupon Jean sold paintings to, among others, Duncan Phillips, who’d started that city’s esteemed Phillips Collection.
Financial pressures and Negulesco’s extra-marital affairs eventually caused his and Winifred’s marriage to break up. Meanwhile, in the spring of 1930, Jean left Winifred in Washington, and made his way alone to California.
Capua is shrewd and discerning enough a biographer to let readers know early on that Jean Negulesco’s memoirs are often self-serving and, therefore, not always reliable. Frequently in this work, Capua therefore refers to works of others which dovetail or conflict with Negulesco’s own accounts to help us get to the truth.
Nonetheless, Capua cites one useful Negulesco reminiscence at length to help us understand how the filmmaker serendipitously moved from painting to directing. When he arrived in California, he managed to land exhibition space for his works which, in turn, led to his getting acquainted with Hollywood notables who subsequently commissioned him for portrait work.
As a result of his new-found popularity, Negulesco seemed the likely person to act as escort and translator for noted French art historian Élie Faure, who had just arrived in Los Angeles to deliver a series of lectures on art and cinema. As Negulesco recalled it, the meeting between the two men propelled his career switch from painting to film. Here’s how Faure advised him:
“Listen Jean, it’s possible that you are a great painter. It’s possible that you’re a genius. [But] why don’t you put aside the brush for a while? Maybe one day you’ll take it back? You have a foot inside the studios. You are friends with the studios’ biggest names. They will help you. This is the art of the future. This is the art that uses all other arts: dance. music, literature, etc. Look here at the beer. It’s lifeless, but if you point a camera here, the scene will have a certain rhythm, you walk with it, and inanimate objects become alive and the beer starts to dance.” (15)
At once amazed and appreciative, Negulesco then continued:
“(I’ve never forgot that. Every time I had a scene too static with a long conversation, I’d slowly move the camera from right to left, from left to right. It would create a rhythm in a scene, which otherwise would be dead.) I was so happy that someone whom I admired had told me ‘Quit painting.’ That night I put aside the brush. It took me 13 years to make my first film. But that period of my life had been amazing.” (15)
Inspired by this revelation, Negulesco was able to move deliberately and patiently through subsequent stages of his career. He became a sketch artist of sets, an assistant producer, screenwriter, and second unit director before becoming a full-fledged director.
At best, despite all acclaim and his many awards, he became a fine film technician or journeyman director. His acute visual sense of where to place objects and actors on the screen was unfailing – most conspicuously, in his work on cinemascope movies like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). It was always clear, though, in Negulesco’s final productions, he never entirely shed his skin as a painter.
Yet, almost all of his movies now come off as sappy and over-sentimental, rank-and-file studio assignments – movies like Humoresque (1946), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), and A Certain Smile (1958). On viewing any of them now, we come away with the sense Negulesco and the films’ producers seem to be groveling for audience appeal and box-office ratings. In this context, the director’s work fit in during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
It speaks well of Michelangelo Capua that he maintains his enthusiasm for his subject without trying to inflate his ultimate stature as a filmmaker. Negulesco lacked the social-narrative gifts of, say, Sidney Lumet, the broad, humane outlook of William Wyler, or – to suggest a more contemporary comparison – the versatility of Steven Soderbergh. As Capua bluntly states, “He was certainly not the greatest or most individual of directors” (2). Still, if Negulesco’s contribution to cinema development indeed has been neglected by film historians, Capua has done more than a respectable job of prompting a reconsideration.
He includes enough first-person documentation from friends and colleagues to give us a sense of Negulesco’s gifts and shortcomings. And Capua’s writing is fine. Unfortunately, some shoddy editing detracts from what one can only hope is the first edition of this biography. Jean Negulesco, The Life and Films is rife with typos. The great actor Charles Bickford becomes “Charles Bickfors.” And when Negulesco is called to consult on a project to help set “international film standards,” the phrase readers are stuck with, instead, becomes “intentional film standards.”
But make no mistake. Capua’s biography of Jean Negulesco is an important piece of American film history about a neglected and underestimated director.
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.