General Cinema Corp. has agreed to buy the debt-laden publishing and insurance company Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. in a merger worth more than $1.4 billion.

General Cinema, which operates one of the largest theater chains in the country, had been rumored to be looking for a company to buy.General Cinema has in excess of $1.6 billion in cash, primarily through the sale of its soft-drink bottling business in March 1989 and the sale last October of its investment in Cadbury Schweppes PLC.

Last fall, General Cinema tried to use its cash pool to buy remaining stock in the Neiman Marcus Group. General Cinema already owns a majority share of the specialty retailer, but the deal fell through.

General Cinema said the purchase of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, based in Orlando, Fla., will be funded out of its cash balances.