The versatility, vitriol and vision of Michael Curtiz
MICHAEL CURTIZ: A LIFE IN FILM by Alan K. Rode. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 630 pages. $50 retail.
Given his many classic films – which include Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Casablanca (1943), to name only a few – there’s no such thing as a quintessential Michael Curtiz film, nor did he evince a specific directorial style. There are filmmakers today whose work is referred to as “Hitchcockian,” “Capra-esque,” “Spielbergian,” “Tarantino-esque,” “Kubrickian,” or “Hawksian,” but Michael Curtiz has no such designation.
Yet this prolific filmmaker, with over 180 credits to his name, made some of the most revered films of their time, if not all time – in any number of genres. He made gangster films, grand adventures, horror films, musicals, melodramas and period pieces. If there was a film to make, he’d make it – usually with antagonizing cast, crew, and studios along the way. For a remarkably long period, he got away with it, simply because he got results. Love him or hate him – and people were squarely divided –Curtiz was a moviemaker. This was his life, making the subtitle of Alan K. Rode’s epic biography a most appropriate one.
In addition to his body of work, the larger- (and louder-)than life Curtiz is remembered for his fierce temper and his (debatable) command of the English language, which yielded any number of oft-told Hollywood anecdotes. Curtiz is widely cited as a master, if you will, of the show-biz malapropism, including “Bring on the empty horses” on 1936’s Charge of the Light Brigade (which co-star David Niven appropriated for one of his memoirs), and others which could not be repeated here.
Despite essentially owing his screen career to Curtiz, Errol Flynn (who made 12 films with him!) couldn’t stand Curtiz. Nor could Olivia de Havilland, although she did concede he made good films. Others – John Garfield, Claude Rains, Doris Day, Elvis Presley – maintained great respect and affection for him, frequently despite his bellicose bullying. There’s no question that Curtiz was a taskmaster. Even if he drove himself as hard as anyone, it didn’t endear him to his crews, particularly when he worked them 20-hour days or without lunch breaks. (Curtiz wasn’t hungry, so why should anyone else be?)
The 181 films he worked on, some of them still acknowledged classics, speak for themselves – even if he couldn’t always clearly do so for himself.
Born Mano Kaminer in Budapest on Christmas Day 1886, the future filmmaker changed his name to “Mihaly Kertesz” when he embarked on an acting career. Acting, however, was only a conduit to what he really wanted to do: direct. His first film, Today and Tomorrow, was released in 1912. By the time he signed a Warner Bros. contract in 1926, Curtiz was already considered a pioneer in Hungarian cinema.
Little has been known of Curtiz’s early life and career, until now. Rode covers considerable ground, especially when on considers that most of Curtiz’s silent films are long lost, and he clears up some long-held misconceptions and myths. Rode clearly conveys how Curtiz replaced William Keighley as director of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and how, despite the oft-told rumor that George Raft turned down Casablanca, it was Humphrey Bogart’s show all the way (Raft’s name came up as a possible Rick Blaine during an early studio assessment of the script).
Both screenwriter Casey Robinson (This is the Army) and Curtiz’ stepson John Meredyth Lucas (later a producer of the original “Star Trek” on NBC) opined that Curtiz was only as good as his script. “A great director can make a bad story better but never make it great,” Lucas said, and that sentiment could be applied to just about any filmmaker.
Curtiz wasn’t particularly adept at picking material. He needed a sponsor – a Darryl F. Zanuck or, most frequently, a Jack Warner – who could provide him with a project. Given that Curtiz lived beyond his means, he simply went from one film to the next, taking them as they came, and in his later years, he simply wasn’t getting the best material.
In 1954, he directed White Christmas, the much-beloved (but not particularly good) yuletide musical/comedy that remains a staple of holiday viewing, which became the biggest box-office hit of the year. He followed this with The Egyptian, a fumbling pseudo-Biblical epic that was one of the biggest flops of the year, remembered (if at all) for being a film that almost starred Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Instead, it starred Edmund Purdom and Bella Darvi.
Curtiz also had a habit of going over-budget and over-schedule – frequently to the consternation of Warner and/or producer Hal B. Wallis – simply because he was trying to get the best out of his material, budget and schedule be damned.
Rode gives Curtiz the credit he deserves as a filmmaker, but doesn’t shy away from the more distasteful elements of his life. In an era when sexual harassment in the entertainment industry has generated a firestorm of debate, Curtiz’s (mis)behavior would surely have damaged, if not derailed, his career. He had three (known) illegitimate children, numerous adulterous liaisons, and an embarrassing vice-squad bust in the late 1950s. There’s no small irony that The Egyptian featured Darvi (Zanuck’s mistress) and Anitra Stevens (Curtiz’s mistress).
Rode isn’t here to bury Curtiz or to unconditionally praise him but to convey a fully rounded portrait of a highly complex – even contradictory – personality who made his mark. To that end, he has succeeded admirably. A Life in Film is so thoroughly, assiduously researched that it’s hard to fathom a more comprehensive, or compelling, biography of Michael Curtiz than this.
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