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Tag Archives: Jean Negulesco

Road House (Sept. 22, 1948)

Road HouseThe second feature in our Jean Negulesco double bill is a tad less serious than the first.

Negulesco’s film Johnny Belinda (1948) is the story of a poor, uneducated deaf-mute girl played by Jane Wyman. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, and won one — Wyman took home the Oscar for Best Actress.

Road House, on the other hand, was nominated for zero Academy Awards.

But they’re both very good films, and watched back to back, they really show Negulesco’s facility with both A-quality material and B-quality material.

A truly good potboiler is as hard to pull off as a truly good drama is, and Road House is a truly good potboiler.

In an interview he gave in 1969, Negulesco recalled being given the assignment to direct Road House by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Negulesco said that Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because basically it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with ‘Road House.'”

Negulesco knew exactly what kind of picture he was directing, and he directed the hell out of it. The first shot of Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) shows her with her bare leg up on a desk. She’s dealing cards alone, and there’s a smoldering cigarette next to her bare foot.

Lupino was smart, sexy, and talented, and she’s a joy to watch in Road House. When she played a singer in The Man I Love (1947), all of her performances were dubbed by Peg La Centra, but this film finally gave moviegoers an opportunity to hear her real singing voice. As Susie Smith (Celeste Holm) says in the film, “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Lupino may not have been the most impressive chanteuse working in Hollywood, but when she sings “One for My Baby and One More for the Road” in Road House, it’s an emotional scene that tells us more about her character than pages of expository dialogue ever could.

Besides the lovely Lupino and the talented Holm, Road House also features chiseled hunk Cornel Wilde. My favorite scene is the one in which he gives Lupino the angriest, most sexually charged bowling lesson I’ve ever seen in a film.

And last but not least, Road House was the third time Richard Widmark appeared on film, and it was the third time he played a memorable villain. He plays Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins, the owner of the juke joint that gives the film its name, and his character is a scheming chump who just can’t take no for an answer.

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Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.

Deep Valley (July 30, 1947)

Every student of film noir knows that the genre owes its style to German Expressionism, and to the influx of European directors to the U.S. during World War II.

Jean Negulesco’s Deep Valley doesn’t really qualify as a film noir, although it has some hallmarks of the noir style. Instead, it seems as if Negulesco is drawing from an earlier German artistic movement — Sturm und Drang.

The high emotions of the film are expressed physically — often through the turbulence of the natural world. Ida Lupino plays a simple country girl named Libby Saul who lives in a broken-down old farmhouse deep in the California wilderness with her parents, Cliff Saul (Henry Hull) and Ellie Saul (Fay Bainter). One night, long ago, Libby’s father beat her mother, and her mother has never forgiven him or spoken to him again. Libby speaks with a stutter, and it is implied that it is directly related to the traumatic memory of seeing her father hit her mother.

The rift between Libby’s parents is absolute. Mrs. Saul never leaves her upstairs bedroom, and relies on Libby to wait on her. Mr. Saul never goes upstairs, and roams the ramshackle property in a perpetual foul mood.

Libby has no friends, and is isolated from the world. Her father is cruel to her and her mother, who is an invalid by choice, lives in a fantasy world and has never let go of the idea that she is an aristocratic lady. Libby’s only solace is her dog, Joe, and the woods that surround the Sauls’ property. Her only happy moments are when she is roaming the forest with Joe and communicating with nature and wild animals.

One day, she discovers a crew of prisoners working on a chain gang along the ocean, excavating and dynamiting the coastline in preparation for a highway. This destruction and remaking of the natural world will bring a steady flow of people past the Sauls’ farm, and radically change Libby’s life.

But her life is changed almost immediately when she spots a dark, handsome convict named Barry Burnette (Dane Clark) working on the line.

Naturally, fate contrives to bring them together.

During a dark and stormy night, a landslide destroys the toolshed in which Barry and a couple of other prisoners are locked up. Libby finds Barry in the woods and helps him stay hidden from the posses that are searching for him, as well as from the good-natured but black-hearted Sheriff Akers (Willard Robertson) and the blandly handsome engineer running the highway project, Jeff Barker (Wayne Morris), who has an eye for Libby.

Libby and Barry’s romance begins in an idyllic fashion, but the weight of doom slowly crushes it. It’s not just because he’s an escaped convict. He’s also a violent hothead — never towards Libby or someone who hasn’t provoked him, but when faced with a problem, his first instinct is to lash out and break through, with no thought of what he’ll do next.

But Barry is always a likable character. Dane Clark’s performance is soulful and tortured, and his big eyes and open countenance make him sympathetic, even when he’s crouching in the second floor of a barn with a scythe, ready to kill whoever comes up the ladder.

We root for Barry and Libby, even though we know their love is impossible. As the film progresses, the shots become increasingly full of shadows and menace, and Barry and Libby are forced into smaller and smaller spaces, symbolizing the world closing in on them.

Deep Valley is based on a novel by Dan Totheroh. The screenplay is by Salka Viertel and Stephen Morehouse Avery, with uncredited assistance from William Faulkner.

Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

Nobody Lives Forever (Nov. 1, 1946)

Jean Negulesco’s Nobody Lives Forever is far from a great film, but it’s crackerjack entertainment. Warner Bros. had been making crime pictures for 16 profitable years at this point. While the heyday of the Warner gangster film may have been in the ’30s, this is a fine example of the quality product the studio was still churning out in the post-war era.

The screenplay is by W.R. Burnett, whose 1929 novel Little Caesar was made into a film in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson — the first of Warner’s great cycle of gangster movies. Nobody Lives Forever is based on Burnett’s novel I Wasn’t Born Yesterday, and while it may not be as significant as Little Caesar, it’s still a tight thriller with plenty of snappy tough-guy dialogue.

Besides the good script and excellent direction, the picture works as well as it does because of impeccable casting. When you’re looking for a hard-bitten but essentially decent con man, you can’t ask for a better protagonist than John Garfield. A kindly, doddering old mentor of cons named “Pop”? Who better than Walter Brennan? A sweaty, bug-eyed, paranoid louse named “Doc” who desperately needs one decent score to get back on top? Is George Coulouris available?

Garfield plays Nick Blake, a World War II veteran honorably discharged after being wounded in action. One of his hands doesn’t close quite right, but other than that he’s none the worse for wear. After his sidekick Al Doyle (George Tobias) picks him up from the hospital in Governor’s Island, they take the ferry back to Manhattan, where he reunites with his girl, Toni Blackburn (Faye Emerson). As she sings “You Again” in a swanky nightclub, Nick follows the mustachioed club owner Chet King (Robert Shayne) into his office to settle a beef over money. Rudi Fehr’s editing in this sequence is superb, cutting between Toni on stage, Al standing guard outside the office, and Nick bracing Chet inside.

After Toni finishes her number, Nick confronts her, then kisses her passionately, then smacks her in the face for double crossing him.

The action soon switches to California, where Al has gotten a line on a widow with a $2 million fortune, which — as Pop points out — is a lot of money, even after taxes. Nick, a handsome “diamond in the rough,” is the perfect candidate to pose as a shipping magnate and charm her out of her cash.

Unlike most long cons, Nick, Pop, Doc, Al, and the other members of their crew meet in smoky back rooms as if they’re planning a bank heist. The only problem with the job is that Nick actually starts to fall for the widow, Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who turns out to be younger than most widows, and a dish to boot.

When Doc pushes Nick to close the deal, he shoots back, “I’m not used to operating with a bunch of cheap, hungry chiselers who should be in the strong-arm racket. Big deals take time.”

Garfield has great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly the ladies, but the relationships take a back seat to the action, especially during the final climactic 20 minutes.

Sure, there are some holes in the plot, and there’s nothing deep about Nobody Lives Forever, but it’s a hell of a way to kill an hour and 40 minutes.