Joseph M. Newman worked his way up from office boy and clerk to writer and assistant director under George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch and others. In 1937 he was briefly assigned to MGM’s British section as a second unit director, but returned home within the year to direct short features. His occasional involvement in bigger productions included shooting the famous “Donkey Serenade” from The Firefly (1937), for which he did not receive screen credit. Indeed, he received two Oscar nominations as assistant director (a short-lived category in the awards). After directing his first full-length motion picture, Northwest Rangers (1942), Newman served in the war, rising to the rank of major, making documentaries and newsreels for the Signal Corps. The sense of realism and attention to detail he gained during this time served him in later years.
Many of his films, almost all second features and shot on modest budgets, use character actors rather than stars for the lead roles. They have a gritty, semi-documentary look, particularly his two best offerings: the film noir 711 Ocean Drive (1950) and the outdoor drama Red Skies of Montana (1952). Many also share an overriding preoccupation with technology, as in “711 Ocean Drive”, in which an electronically-minded telephone repairman (Edmond O’Brien) becomes entangled with a shady bookmaking syndicate. Newman’s most famous film would have to be the cult sci-fi This Island Earth (1955)–in which the main stars, it must be said, were the special effects–which features clever matte paintings and lush three-strip Technicolor photography. Newman’s contribution to the film is somewhat diminished, however, by the fact that nearly half of it (set on the planet Metaluna) was re-shot by director Jack Arnold because the studio was unhappy with the initial result. Arnold, in the end, shot some of the most famous scenes, including the mutant attack and the escape through the tunnels.
After “This Island Earth”, Newman’s work was competent, if routine: a few westerns, a minor swashbuckler and a couple of crime pictures. Sci-fi fans will remember his four entries into The Twilight Zone (1959), though none were among the most compelling of the series.