The Reading Chair: “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film” by Alan K. Rode
In which we consider Alan K. Rode’s immensely entertaining life of one Golden Age Hollywood’s best directors and how the crown of “auteurism” somehow escaped him.
Michael Curtiz directed so many Golden Age Hollywood classics — The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and, most famously, Casablanca — that most so-called auteurs would turn green with envy and die of despair. Yet he’s never shared auteurism’s limelight alongside Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and others. He seemed trapped in the shadow of his own work.
Film historian Alan K. Rode’s rich and absorbing biography Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (University Press of Kentucky), now in its second printing, does a fine job of bringing Curtiz out of the shadows. It’s a fascinating, richly detailed — and often distressing — look at a figure who, while not an auteur in the strict sense, still stands among the most talented, hard-working, and productive filmmakers ever.
The neglect may be due to the eclectic nature of Curtiz’s output. His 181 films (more than any other director of his time) are a smorgasbord containing nearly every genre: romantic melodramas, horror, historical epics, musicals, and westerns. None seem linked by any particular themes (or “obsessions” as some call it). His best films are visually stunning, ornately and beautifully composed, staged with rigor and discipline and, most importantly, sinfully entertaining in the way only movies can be.
John Ford’s films are knit together by a questioning patriotism, while Hitchcock’s are absorbing thrillers about sin, deception, and the area where good and evil brush and intertwine. You won’t find unifying themes in Michael Curtiz films, but they are united by great craftsmanship. (Among contemporary directors, Stephen Frears seems most similar.) Another link is the director’s three-decade employment with Warner Brothers, one of the Big Five Studios of the day. Their best films still stand tall and Curtiz was the man behind the camera for a remarkable number of them.
Michael Curtiz (pronounced kur-tezz) was the Warner Brothers chief house director. The face his work shows is not his own but the face of the company he worked for: its boss, the obnoxious, penny-pinching Jack Warner and executive writers and creative producers such as Darryl Zanuck and Hal Wallis.
Each of the big five studios had a distinct “house style,” making them corporate auteurs. Warner style expressed itself with simple stories, in mostly urban settings, told with crisp and punchy energy, sharply lensed and underlaid with brassy music scores — Warner Brothers movies sound different from all others, even the gunfire. They also often deal with political and social issues the other studios wouldn’t touch with a twelve-foot boom mike. (They were the first studio to raise the alarm about Nazism in the late 1930s.) Curtiz, more than any other Warner director, understood and filtered that studio style through his own rigorous craftsman’s sensibility.
Curtiz was also a legend in Hollywood, the subject of innumerable yarns, many centering around his fractured, mangled English. One famous story, told by David Niven, has Curtiz ordering up a herd of riderless horses with the cry, “Bring on the empty horses!”
Other stories reveal a man who was deeply disliked by most, possessed of an awful temper, vicious toward actors and crew, and whose eye constantly roamed, all quirks that would not be tolerated now. Film directors are all, to some degree, tyrants, which can make their biographies a challenging read for the sensitive. Reading about Curtiz is one of the bigger lifts. He left a trail of broken hearts, bruised feelings and unwanted children. For every one who loved him — and there were a few — there were five who emphatically did not, and it’s not hard to see why.
And yet, I wouldn’t call Curtiz self-absorbed but work-absorbed. Even Hitchcock would take time off, but Curtiz, though he had a few hobbies, cared for little else but moviemaking. “He excreted film,” as Peter Lorre put it. Many of those who hated him also deeply admired his work ethic and extraordinary skill with the camera and production design. He knew how to make a movie and make it good. For many — especially Warner executives — it made the suffering worthwhile.
Curtiz was born Emmanuel “Mano” Kaminer in Budapest, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1886, the oldest of seven children. Rigorously educated, he spent part of his teen years in a circus while nurturing aspirations an actor. Somewhere during this period, he changed his name to Mihály Kertész.
One of the young Kertész’s favorite Budapest hangouts was the Café New York, a twenty-four-hour saloon where Hungarian artists congregated. Here, Kertész bent his elbow alongside such future luminaries as Alexander Korda, playwright Ferenc Molnar, director Andre de Toth, character actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, and an actor named Bela Blasko, who would later rechristen himself as Bela Lugosi.
Rode’s account of this lost world is rich with color and drama. Hanging out at the Café New York was the doorway into the colorful Hungarian show biz scene. Kertész wound up studying acting at Budapest’s Royal Academy of Theater and Art, under ruthless discipline. While there, he found himself drawn to directing and developed his famous eye for detail.
By the 1910s, a nascent film industry was growing in Hungary, as lively and productive as anywhere in the world. Kertész seemed to be chafing at limits of live theatre when, in 1912, he appeared in his first movie, Ma es honap (“Today and Tomorrow”), where he used his theatrical experience to help develop the script. (Back then, film set protocol was quite porous.) When the director dropped out, Kertész took over and finished the film.
Like that, he moved behind the camera and stayed there. By 1920, with World War I over and the Austro Hungarian Empire in pieces, Kertész had directed over fifty films and developed a mastery of film technique and a ruthless dedication to realism that included an alarmingly blithe regard for on-set safety (a typical policy in the day). Further, Kertész, the former actor, thought little of his acting colleagues — most of them were puppets to be yanked violently about.
As he worked away, he penned articles on his craft that explored an idea that would decades later become “auteurism,” beating the Cahiers du Cinema movement by forty years. Yet, the director who first proposed the idea of a film having a sole author would never be honored with the label.
Kertész left Hungary for Germany where, while working in a variety of genres, he developed a flair for the spectacle. This culminated in The Moon of Israel (1924) a Biblical tale produced to compete with to Cecil B. DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments, complete with its own Red-Sea parting. (In a cunning move, DeMille’s studio, Paramount, bought the U.S. rights and suppressed it so was never really shown in this country.)
In 1925, while directing a film called Fiaker nr. 13 (“The Horsecart Number 13”), Kertész’s fierce concentration was interrupted by some chatty rubberneckers. It’s fun to imagine him blowing his stack and shrieking at the interlopers to get the hell off his set — especially considering one of the kibitzers was Harry Warner, one of the four brothers Warner. Hollywood was the biggest table of all and, at last, Kertész was offered a chair.
By the time he arrived in America in 1926, Mihály Kertész had become Michael Curtiz. Studio boss Jack Warner (for whom the term “cheap clown” seems apt) put him to work on a crime meller called The Third Degree. Curtiz had misgivings about it but, hungry for the chance, he threw himself into it in typical blowtorch manner, earning recognition for his creativity with the camera.
The film was a success. Curtiz found himself riding the Warners gravy train. He was happy to do it, even if it meant occasionally getting stuck in the caboose of cheap programmers. His immigration status, over which Warner kept control, also kept him beholden to the studio. He was a man bursting with ideas that expanded and enriched any project he worked on. To the fury of Warner’s producers, his productions often went over time and over budget. But he got results.
In the 1990s, Premiere magazine published a rare portrait of Curtiz titled “The Little Tyrant That Could.” And indeed, he could. He’d do anything the studio threw at him from in-one-eye-and-out-the-other B-pictures to a long-time dream epic Noah’s Ark. During that production he met his wife, the film’s screenwriter Beth Meredyth, whom he eventually married and who became a close, if mostly uncredited and long-suffering, collaborator throughout his career (unlike Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, who Hitch credited often, publicly and privately).
Despite an epic mounting equal to Intolerance and DeMille, Noah’s Ark (unusual for a Curtiz production) sank and is mostly remembered for the number and severity of injuries incurred during filming of the flood sequence. Star George O’Brien took a spear to the chest while Curtiz broke a leg trying to show a stuntman exactly how he wanted him to tumble down some stairs. Onset safety standards were still but a dream.
Still the failure of Curtiz’s pet project did little damage to his status at the studio (which emphasized quantity for over quality, often to its detriment). He adapted readily to sound and also helmed one of the few early Technicolor productions that remain watchable, The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). The new technology of sound and Technicolor required extraordinarily cumbersome machinery that led to most of those films playing like dusty musty waxworks, but Wax Museum’s eye-filling atmospheric thrills are on a par with James Whale’s Frankenstein films.
Another film, The Mad Genius (1931), used camera techniques that would later find full expression in Citizen Kane. Co-star Fay Wray, another non-fan, nonetheless admired Curtiz’s shark-eyed discipline that made her “feel there was a camera lens inside his cool blue eyes.” He was so relentless, he never took lunch (and thought everyone else should starve right alongside him). He was so mean, he once stabbed a little girl with a hatpin to make her cry on cue.
Finally, in 1935, magic came together. Warner decided to roll the dice on a million-dollar extravaganza, an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s pirate adventure novel, Captain Blood. Under the close eye of Hal Wallis, Curtiz was assigned to the kind of movie he loved best.
After six months of pre-production, they almost everything they needed but no Captain Peter Blood and no leading lady. And so entered an unknown named Errol Flynn and, not long after, another unknown ingenue named Olivia de Havilland. The production was typically tempestuous, with Curtiz relentlessly browbeating most everyone, singling out the insecure, inexperienced Flynn, while running up the budget with on-the-fly script and costume and set changes.
The production of Captain Blood was no one’s idea of a swell time. But for Depression-era movie audiences, it defined it. The movie became one of biggest and most acclaimed hits of its era and both its stars were launched on legendary careers.
On screen, the teaming of Curtiz with Flynn and de Havilland seemed the best idea ever. On the set and behind the cameras, it was pure hell. Flynn and Curtiz hated each other throughout the nine films they made together — including the evergreen classic The Adventures of Robin Hood. Eventually, Flynn had enough. Their work together ended with Flynn almost choking Curtiz to death on the set of 1941’s Dive Bomber.
Like Cary Grant, Errol Flynn seemed to find little reward in his superstar status. It’s possible that Curtiz’s bullying led to what became a notorious lack of discipline as the great star sank into the swamp of addiction and a dissolute, scandalous lifestyle that would ruin his effervescent beauty and end his career and life much too soon. (There never was, and likely never will be, another like him.)
In between battles with Flynn, and the studio over budget and production matters, Michael Curtiz rode from triumph to triumph during the late 1930s and 1940s: Four Daughters, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Sea Wolf, Yankee Doodle Dandy (“The pinochle of my career,” as Curtiz put it.), and, finally, 1942’s Casablanca, one of those collective masterpieces for which it’s almost impossible to single out an “auteur.”
There were so many hands contributing to Casablanca — including producer Hal Wallis and seven screenwriters — that’s not surprising. In the end, though, Curtiz’s exacting eye made the final difference. After nearly twenty years of being “always the bridesmaid and never the mother,” he received a Best Director Oscar.
Curtiz had one more classic to put on his resume and that was Mildred Pierce in 1945, one of film noir’s best. After World War II, the curtain slowly rung down on the Golden Age of big studio moviemaking.
For one, the 1948 consent decree led to the loosening of the big studios’ grip on distribution. For another, and more crucially, television seeped into American homes leading audiences to stay on their couches. Like the other studios, it would take years for Warner Brothers to figure out how to adapt to television. In the meantime, the studio’s fortunes and filmmaking suffered and Curtiz suffered with them. An attempt to form his own production company under the Warner roof proved to be a drain on his energy that never made him a dime, thanks to typically fancy footwork by Jack Warner and his accountants..
Curtiz’s films from this point on are definitely a notch down, though there are some decent ones: Life with Father, Young Man with a Horn and The Breaking Point (a superior adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not). In 1954, he left Warners but found little magic outside the studio gates. He directed, among others, We’re No Angels, The Proud Rebel and, strangely, Kid Creole, starring young Elvis Presley, whom, for once, Curtiz treated kindly.
His behavior, always a bit erratic, grew even more so as age set in and his health declined. In 1961, he received his last “directed by” for The Comancheros, a rousing action western starring John Wayne and Stuart Whitman. In truth, the cancer now coursing through him sidelined Curtiz for much of the production, with the Duke ably taking the reins. He died on April 10, 1962, aged seventy-five. For a man who contributed so much to Hollywood’s Golden Age, his funeral was remarkably small. Many of those he’d known has passed by then. The rest wanted nothing to do with him.
In the end, despite Alan Rode’s excellent efforts, it’s still hard to call Curtiz a real auteur. Auteurism was always that — an -ism, an ideology meant to apply to all things minus any consideration for how real life works, including how movies get made. Even the real film auteurs both greatly relied on the contributions of others while taking on movies for which they had no particular artistic or emotional interest. (“Jobs of work,” as John Ford called them.). Sometimes, they weren’t even directors and, in some rare cases, it happened that the elements just fell together in perfect alchemy. (To my mind, Casablanca and The Wizard of Ozboth fall in that category.)
For Michael Curtiz, it wasn’t a philosophy about God, life, or politics or a burning desire to capture and express the landscape of his mind and soul but a single-minded, ferocious dedication to the craft, the process, of filmmaking. For even the most rigorous viewers and critics, that should be more than enough.
[Correction: the author regrets the misspelling of Alma Reville, Alfred Hitchcock’s wife. It was by no means intended to suggest any resemblance between Mrs. Hitchcock and martial trumpet calls. Thanks to Dar Plone for correcting this error.]
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. “Visconti Noir” a look at the surprising film noir of Italian cinematic grandmaster Luchino Visconti is in the November 2020 issue of Noir City e-mag. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.