JEAN NEGULESCO: Every Woman Has A Backstory
BY THE END of his filmmaking career in 1970, Jean Negulesco was best known for his glossy, widescreen dramas of the fifties like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Woman’s World (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955), Boy on a Dolphin (1957), and The Best of Everything (1959). While these films give depth to female characters who might otherwise occupy the muted space of a stereotyped babe, Negulesco’s earlier films like Humoresque (1946), Deep Valley (1947), Johnny Belinda (1948), and Road House (1948) are specifically concerned to give a voice to heroines with roots in 1930s melodramas and working-girl films.
Hollywood was built on close-ups of beautiful women, but Negulesco’s women talk a lot in close up. And they talk about themselves. An almost comical instance is the film Phone Call From a Stranger (1952), which features Shelly Winters as the person you never want to sit next to on an airplane: she tells her poor fellow passenger the entire story of her life. My recent survey of all the Negulesco films I could find shows that his choice to make Johnny Belinda, a film about a woman who couldn’t tell her own story—was hardly random.
Johnny Belinda is about a woman who works on her father’s farm and mill, and is both deaf and mute (played by Jane Wyman, who won an Oscar for her performance). It’s an excellent film, as well as a bonanza of Lacanian clichés. Belinda’s inability to speak keeps her from being recognized as human—she’s called “The Dummy” and her father and aunt speak to her like one of the farm animals she tends. She’s taught sign language by a local doctor (Lew Ayres, then popular for his portrayal of the kindly patriarch Dr. Kildare), but having been given language, Belinda winds up in a court of law—on trial for shooting a man who raped her and tried to kidnap her son (Johnny).
The film’s title oddly combines the first names of Belinda and her son, as though her new subjectivity is inextricable from her identity as mother of this boy-child. (The film’s German title, by contrast, is “Silent Lips”). Like the otherwise silent Belinda, many of the women in Jean Negulesco’s films are given a fairly powerful voice under his benign directorship.
Negulesco was born the first boy of a wealthy Romanian family in 1900. In his memoir he humorously recounts his father’s rage and despair at first having four girls, who were treated as annoying interlopers in the quest for a male heir. After eight children the father finally had two boys, and as Negulesco writes,
To father, my brother and I were different. ‘My Johnny, our George’—we were the chosen ones, the sons of the richest man on the street. The others were the ‘girls’; he never mentioned them by name. ‘The girls will carry the baskets, the girls will clean the place; the girls should write to Grandma to thank her for the Sunday lunch. Johnny and George will ride with me to the vineyard.’
Negulesco studied painting in Paris in the ‘20s at the height of classic modernism’s popularity. His film career began as a sketch artist at Paramount where his European visual sensibility gave him an eye for “unusual” camera angles. His first significant project at Paramount was to design a “rape with a foreign touch” for The Story of Temple Drake. This 1933 film stared Miriam Hopkins, and, like Baby Face (1933) tells the story of a woman who is raped and forced into prostitution.
Paramount’s goal was to get Temple Drake’s rape scene past censors, and Negulesco’s shot design emphasized the heroine’s vulnerability with a dramatic high angle of her body and close-up on Hopkins’s face but concluded with a discrete fade to black punctuated by her scream.
What’s interesting about Negulesco’s introduction to filmmaking in this context is that the victimized-but-resilient pre-code heroine remains at the core of his characterization of women throughout his career. She emerges in backstories like Helen Wright’s in Humoresque in the course of a matter-of-fact, martini-fueled monologue:
There’s nothing very strange about me. I was married twice before, once at sixteen, once at twenty-one. One was a crybaby and the other was a cave man. Between the two of them I said goodbye to girlhood.
The trauma of being “married” at sixteen is underscored in the film’s climax as Helen prepares to drown herself in the ocean. Taking her final drink, she raises the glass and says “Here’s to love. And here’s to the time when we were little girls no one asks to marry.” Helen’s toughness is both typical of Negulesco’s female characters and resonant with the history of Joan Crawford’s proletarian women’s films of the 1930s.
“I don’t know how you men get that way, but every time you meet an attractive woman you begin to plan on how and where you can club her wings down.”—Helen Wright in Humoresque
Negulesco included sexual assault scenes in three films among those I’ve seen: Johnny Belinda, Road House, and Three Came Home (1950). In Johnny Belinda the rape is reminiscent of Temple Drake, with noir-esque compositions showing the rapist’s looming figure, followed by a close up of Belinda’s face as his shadow covers it. Belinda’s point-of-view of his leering face is lingered on, however, and the scene is resolutely un-eroticized – unlike that in The Story of Temple Drake.
In Temple Drake, Hopkins recoils but is displayed in all her sensuousness—even licking her lips ambivalently in close up. Negulesco recounts that during the shoot Hopkins teasingly asked him, “Do I scream? And are my eyes opened in terror of what I see? Or do I close my eyes and let things happen? Jean, do I enjoy it?”
Throughout Johnny Belinda, Negulesco’s camera often lingers on Belinda’s face, giving Jane Wyman’s expressions time to express subtle shifts in feeling. Shorter than almost everyone on screen, Belinda is nevertheless presented either from eye level or below.
Even in the scene where she’s raped, she’s found by her attacker kneeling beside bags of flour and the camera angle is from her height as he looks down at her.
Between 1946 and 1948 Negulesco made four films for Warner Bros.—Humoresque, Deep Valley, Johnny Belinda, and Road House. Each of them shows Negulesco’s background in European silent-film aesthetics (abundant location shooting and graphic or pictorial composition) as well as a jaundiced social perspective reminiscent of Fritz Lang, particularly in relation to small-town collective bigotry and the oppression and isolation of women.
Belinda’s isolation is underscored by the town’s condemnation when she becomes pregnant by her attacker. Rural isolation and the inability to communicate are also central to Deep Valley, made just before Johnny Belinda. Written in part by Salka Viertel, Deep Valley, like Johnny Belinda, features cinematography by Ted McCord with extensive location shooting in Northern California. Ida Lupino plays Libby Saul, a young woman whose parents haven’t spoken in seven years, and who herself speaks only haltingly, with a stutter.
The film introduces Libby as she’s woken by her mother rudely yelling for her from a bedroom in their falling-apart house that lies deep in an isolated valley (the mother claims to be an invalid in order to avoid her husband). Libby’s father also treats her as a servant, and as soon as no one is watching Libby slips out to walk through the woods with her dog, which is how she spends most of her time. When Libby comes over a ridge she discovers a work crew from San Quentin blasting the route of a new highway along the coast and through the valley.
The metaphorical nature of this violent disruption of Libby’s isolation is played out in relation to human connections and communication. Just as the highway promises to free Libby from the confines of her broken family, the presence of the workmen disrupts the family’s dysfunction and forces confrontations with past trauma.
The trauma at the root of the parents’ silence and Libby’s speech impediment is domestic violence: having witnessed her father hitting her mother, Libby began stuttering while also acting as the only conduit between her parents. In the course of the film Libby loses her stutter by discovering her own desires when she falls in love with one of the convicts in the work crew.
The work crew is first seen from Libby’s point of view, high on a ridge looking down. Several tracking shots feature the glistening upper bodies of the sweating workmen as they labor with pickaxes. Libby lies down on the ridge and watches the men thoughtfully while eating from a bucket of berries she’s picked. One of the men comments that she’s been watching them for the last four miles of their progress along the cliff. She’s particularly interested in Barry (Dane Clark), who stops while drinking some water in order to share it with Libby’s dog, who has wandered down the hill.
Libby’s intense interest in the sudden appearance of men in her isolated world plays out in a sequence of point-of-view shots that are clearly libidinal. Like Belinda and several other Negulesco women, Libby is aligned with nature, which is romanticized in the scenes of her enjoying the woods. But unlike the usual silent-melodrama-contrast between nature/female innocence and culture/dangerous female sexuality, Negulesco gives license to Libby’s desires and resolutely refuses to punish her for them. Her presumptive marriage to the “good man” at the end of the film is presented as a logical compromise, a vision of marriage I’ll return to in relation to Negulesco’s 1950s films.
Class and marriage
Lupino gave one of her finest performances in her next film with Negulesco, Road House. In it she plays Lily Stevens, and is introduced as a femme fatale who will disrupt the fragile “family” triangle of Celeste Holm as the good sidekick Susie, Cornell Wilde as the hero Pete, and Richard Widmark as a spoiled, maniacal rich kid. Pete tries to reestablish order by getting rid of Lily as quickly as possible, but she refuses to be bossed around or typecast by Pete as a sexual temptress.
What’s brilliant about Road House is how Negulesco revels in the stylistic excesses of noir and lovingly composes each shot of Lily (she refuses to dress down and fit into the rural scene). The film’s fantastic art direction features a modernist nightclub with rustic styling that unfolds improbably like a Busby Berkeley set.
Lily’s backstory arrives after she is assaulted by a drunk while performing as a singer in the road house bar.
Later, with Pete, she turns on the radio to the sound of a plaintive, operatic soprano. Lily tells Pete that her working-class father won a foot-organ in a poker game and wanted Lily to sing opera. She worked days in a factory and practised singing at night while he accompanied her on the organ.
This brief scene completes Lily’s shift from the generic register of femme fatale to that of the Depression heroine, whose primary goals are to survive and to have (in Lily’s case quite literally) a voice of her own that can shape her narrative going forward.
In later Negulesco films, women’s class struggle may be seemingly resolved by marriage. The films he’s best known for from the 1950s reflect that decade’s emphasis on repressing the tensions of film noir and channeling women’s desire in the direction of home, marriage, and motherhood.
Negulesco’s characterization of marriage is interesting in three ways, however. Firstly, he retains a Depression-era sympathy for women’s economic struggles and the practical necessity of marriage in a world of very limited options. Secondly, he presents women’s desire for a companionate marriage of equals in an entirely sympathetic light. Thirdly, women’s sexual desires are never condemned or presented as whorish by contrast with a virginal ideal (one could claim that Sophia Loren’s breasts are the star of Boy on a Dolphin, but she is also a three-dimensional character fighting for her impoverished village, as she points out to her “rich American” love interest).
Wifehood is also presented as work in Negulesco’s films, whether it’s the hard labor of rural women (Deep Valley, Johnny Belinda), or the work of conforming to middle-class social norms in Woman’s World (1954) – a film whose title is simply descriptive, unlike the theme song’s misleading claim that “It’s a woman’s world.” Married or not, Negulesco’s women are always most vulnerable when isolated from other women. While there is often conflict among women, they inevitably join forces in the face of male oppression.
The comedic version of Negulesco’s interest in women’s solidarity is How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, 20th Century Fox’s second CinemaScope film). It’s a remake of the 1932 film The Greeks Had a Word for Them, and retains a Depression-era sympathy for gold-diggers. Lauren Bacall’s character Schatze Page has a hilarious marriage backstory, which she explains to her fellow-diggers Pola (Marilyn Monroe) and Loco (Betty Grable) on the terrace of their sublet penthouse:
She just got back from Reno
Oh, then you must be loaded!
No, mine was one of those divorces you don’t read about. The wife finished second.
But that’s against the law, isn’t it?
I was absolutely nuts about that guy. You know what he did to me? First off he gives me a phony name. Second, it turns out he was already married! Third, from the minute the preacher said amen, he never did another tap of work. The next thing I knew he’d stolen my television set and given it to a car hop. And when I asked him how about that he hits me with a chicken!
A live chicken?
No, a baked chicken! Stuffed!
He sounds incompatible to me.
Well, last time I saw him, I stepped out of the car for a minute at a gas station and had to walk home.
Well, I’m surprised you’d ever want to get married again.
But that’s the point about this whole set-up! Of course I want to get married again. Who doesn’t? It’s the biggest thing you can do in life.
Schatze gazes at a male nude sculpture decorating the terrace, pointedly glances between its legs and turns, raising an eyebrow dismissively.
But the way most people go about it they use more brains picking a horse at Belmont than they do picking a husband.
Do they really?
It’s your head you’ve got to use, not your heart.
The scene plays out with the three women distributed across the CinemaScope frame, drinking champagne on their penthouse terrace with the Manhattan skyline in the background as if to illustrate the wealth they have every right to partake in. Schatze’s anti-romantic approach to marriage is presented as Jane Austen-like pragmatism, and Bacall’s appearance is all business. She wears a pencil-skirted grey suit, and her self-determined image resonates with Bacall’s previous films, in which she’d played savvy women who call their own shots and know “how to whistle.”
Men’s status as the owners and controllers of wealth is never presented by Negulesco as deserved or “natural.” Instead, it’s often ridiculed. The best example of this is in Daddy Long Legs (1955), a musical staring Leslie Caron as the French orphan Julie Andre. Fred Astaire plays her anonymous benefactor Jervis Pendleton III, who Julie only knows to be a rich American. Pendleton is a spoiled, self-centered man whose support for Julie comes about coincidentally. He completely ignores her attempts to communicate and foster a friendship with him throughout the film.
In a fantasy musical sequence, Julie imagines him as a grotesquely grinning caricature of wealth dressed as a cowboy with a hat full of gold coins. During her fantasy, Pendleton struts arrogantly across a stage in front of oil derricks and a huge, million-dollar banknote.
Julie is one of several orphans in the films of Negulesco: Scandal at Scourie (1953) is about adoption, and the heroines of both Johnny Belinda and Lure of the Wilderness (1952) lost their mothers as children. Negulesco himself adopted two daughters after his wife Dusty suffered repeated late miscarriages, the first during production of Johnny Belinda. In Daddy Long Legs, the fact that orphaned Julie winds up marrying her wealthy benefactor is presented as entirely justified, if not-at-all convincingly romantic.
Marriage and sexuality
Schatze’s assessment of the nude statue’s manhood in How to Marry a Millionaire underscores the down-side of marital pragmatism, however. Part of the pleasure of Negulesco’s 1950s films is that they accept the apparent necessity of marriage for women, but always with a wink or sigh at the inevitable sacrifices involved—including sexual freedom.
One can easily ascribe a queer subtext to Negulesco’s ensemble women’s films like How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Came Home. The latter film, based on Agnes Newton Keith’s memoir of surviving a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Borneo, features an ensemble cast of women who, separated from men, bond with and support each other. Agnes’s close relationship to fellow inmate Betty is particularly emphasized, and when Agnes is attacked by a would-be rapist, Negulesco has her successfully fight him off (kicking and screaming for Betty even as she’s dragged by the legs and thrown in the bushes) until Betty arrives, prompting the attacker to run away.
Negulesco’s own heterosexuality was ambiguous in spite of his reputation as a playboy. Clearly many women loved his company (including, famously, Marilyn Monroe), but when Negulesco cites Harry Cohn calling him a homosexual, his playboy reputation is overtly used in self-defense. Negulesco also made four films with Clifton Webb and two with Agnes Moorhead, both of whom were widely known in Hollywood to be queer, so regardless of his own orientation he was well-exposed to non-hetero-normative perspectives on life and marriage.
The Negulesco films that strike me as the most ambivalent about marriage are Three Coins in the Fountain and The Best of Everything. Unlike the women in How to Marry a Millionaire, those in Three Coins are looking for love, not just financial security. They are professional secretaries with enough independence to sign up with an agency and ship out to Italy on their own. Anita (Jean Peters) lusts after Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) while the prim but equally desiring Maria (Maggie McNamara) takes a more calculated approach to getting what she wants (Prince Dino di Cessi, played by Louis Jourdan).
Dorothy McGuire gives a fascinating performance as Frances, the expatriate personal secretary of author John Shadwell (Clifton Webb), and in many ways their relationship is already like a marriage. He relies on her completely, but is also emotionally aloof and sees no reason she should want anything more in life than what they already have together. The most intriguing thing about this sexless marriage (which, of course, becomes an actual marriage at the end of the film) is that Frances is presented in every scene as an elegant, well-dressed and desirable woman.
Anita is, like the man she falls in love with, sensuous but less classy than Frances; Maria, as her name indicates, dresses like a convent girl; Frances, seemingly the old maid of the trio, is also the most elegant and it’s not at all clear why she loves a man who just wants her to continue being his secretary. The lack of any desire on his part couldn’t possibly be more apparent, and the only compensation seems to be their similar tastes and education.
The redeeming aspect of this relationship, however, is their longstanding friendship. Seen meta-textually as an example of the marriages made by queer men and women to avoid social stigma, the pairing makes perfect sense. What’s missing is a clearer perspective on Frances’s romantic longing: she has no backstory. She’s also given no last name and is listed in the credits as “Miss Frances,” a strange absence that suggests permanent maidenhood.
The trio’s friendship in Three Coins doesn’t imply, as it does in How to Marry a Millionaire, that “the girls” are more important than their men (who will simply deliver a meal-ticket for sexual services rendered). Similarly, female friendships are important in The Best of Everything, but take a back seat to work and men. The Best of Everything is based on Rona Jaffe’s memoir of working-women’s hardships in 1950s corporate Manhattan, a milieu whose male-centric power structure and sexism has more recently been richly detailed in the television series Mad Men (2007-present, AMC).
The three main female characters share a small apartment: Caroline (Hope Lange), April (Diane Baker) and Gregg (Suzy Parker). They work at a mass-market publishing firm under Amanda (Joan Crawford), playing a dragon-lady-executive. The story’s title is definitively ironic by the end of the film, given the following outcomes: Caroline has given up a hard-won executive position in order to marry an alcoholic, April loses her pregnancy after being jilted, and Gregg goes mad and falls to her death after her lover refuses to marry her. Even boss-lady Amanda seems emotionally doomed, having given up all hope of companionship in order to stay in the job she loves.
The Best of Everything, with its muted Mondrian-themed corporate office cubes, moves its characters through various confined spaces and social roles, none of which offers much pleasure or freedom, particularly when compared to the Rome of Three Coins in the Fountain. The most inviting space in the film is the cocktail bar on the ground floor of the office tower, and, given the narrative, this seems a likely refuge for most of the characters.
After the happy-go-lucky How to Marry a Millionaire, Negulesco’s colorful wide-screen films are emotionally darker than his 1940s black-and-white ones—an exception being Boy on a Dolphin (1957), which is notably not set in the U.S. The Best of Everything and Woman’s World are so bleak they even take pity on the men of corporate America. Scenes of therapeutic backstory sharing fade away, as though there is hardly any point. Self-determination and fulfillment, in Negulesco’s 1950s America, seem illusory.
Jean Negulesco, Things I Did and Things I Think I Did. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SARAH BERRY writes on film, media, and cultural studies, and designs interactive multimedia projects. She is the author of Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood (2002).