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Jean Negulesco: From Painting in Paris to a Successful Career in Hollywood

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

While watching "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953), one of the first Cinemascope movies, I was dazzled by the symphony of colors, the polished aesthetics and the hilarious performances of Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable. The mastermind behind this popular and elegant production was Romanian filmmaker Jean Negulesco who delivered many successful films in the 40s and 50s. Negulesco directed over 35 feature films and confidently navigated through different genres like romantic dramas, comedy, noir films or musicals. My favorites are the critically acclaimed "The Mask of Dimitrios" (1944) and "Johnny Belinda" (1953). The latter won two Golden Globes, a BAFTA award for Best Film and received 12 Oscar nominations including one for Best Director. In 1960 Negulesco received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But let’s go back and discover the details of Jean Negulesco’s career path. He was born in Craiova, Romania in 1900 and ran away to Vienna and then Paris when he was still a teenager. During World War I, he ended up working in military hospitals and later he enrolled in Academie Julian in Paris to study painting. He learned how to paint under the guidance of the renowned sculptor Constantin Brancusi. It was a crucial meeting for Negulesco that gave him access to the artistic elite at the time, people like Tristan Tzara, Picabia, Modigliani, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau.

Negulesco returned to Romania where he quickly gained recognition as a painter, sold 150 paintings and painted Queen Marie of Romania. He returned to Paris where he worked as a stage decorator for a while then moved to Cote d’Azur where he made money as a professional dancer at the Hotel Negresco in Nice. While living in the French Riviera, he met the flamboyant filmmaker Rex Ingram, the man who transformed La Victorine into one of the best studios in the industry. Ingram bought one of his paintings. In 1927 Negulesco travelled to New York in search of a wider audience for his paintings and decided to stay. Looking for a new playground, Negulesco arrived in Hollywood around 1930. Growing tired of painting portraits on commission and attending endless parties and premieres, he decided to chase and embrace a new dream - making films!

Encouraged by art critic Elie Faure, Negulesco wrote, directed and financed his own experimental project "Three and a Day" which was never released but helped him somehow score a job at Paramount Pictures. His drawings were used as storyboards for the rape scene in "The Story of Temple Drake" (1933) and soon he became producer Benjamin Glazer’s assistant. He got work as a second-unit director for "Farewell to Arms" (1932) and wrote the story for "Swiss Miss" (1938), a Laurel and Hardy comedy. In 1940 he signed an eight-year contract with Warner Brothers to direct shorts. Negulesco made his directorial debut with "Singapore Woman" (1941) but he got fired mid-production and sent back to the shorts department.

Finally, the odds turned in his favor with the adaptation of “The Mask of Demetrios” (1944) which proved to everybody that he was a resourceful and talented director, perfectly suited for the noir genre. The constant banter between Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet was one of the main assets of this engaging thriller and Negulesco decided to cast them again in his next project "The Conspirators" (1944). After "Nobody Lives Forever" (1946), Negulesco got to work on "Johnny Belinda" (1948). He described it as "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." The film made the studio $4 million but Warner Brothers didn’t fully grasp its value and fired Negulesco. They must have surely regretted that decision after the star of the film Jane Wyman walked away with the Oscar for Best Actress.

Soon afterwards, Daryl F. Zanuck called and offered him a job at 20th Century Fox. Negulesco delivered 22 films for the studio until 1970 including several major box office hits like "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953), "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954) which was shot in Rome and "Woman’s World" (1955). Other notable titles were "Three Came Home" (1950), the Oscar nominated "Titanic" (1953), the musical "Daddy Long Legs" (1955) starring Fred Astaire, and "Boy on a Dolphin" (1957) with Sophia Loren.

Negulesco shared many interesting stories about his Hollywood encounters in the autobiography "Things I Did… and Things I Think I Did" published by Simon & Schuster in 1984. He spent the last two decades of his life in Marbella, Spain with his wife Dusty where he focused again on painting and collecting art.

Guest contributor: ANDREEA DROGEANU

In the photo: Jean Negulesco and Marilyn Monroe on the set of "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953)



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