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Mud, Blood and Flood

Michael Curtiz: A Life In Film, by Alan K. Rode —

Ask an average, eighteen-year old American to name a movie director and he or she might think of Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Tarantino or Tim Burton. That person’s parents could name Coppola, Eastwood, Scorsese and Woody Allen. Their grandparents would surely remember Hitchcock and Welles, perhaps Ford, and Kubrick. Film school attendees are conversant with the with the work of David Lynch, Spike Lee, Peter Jackson, Kathryn Bigelow, the Coen brothers and the two Andersons, Paul Thomas and Wes. After a couple of semesters, they’ll know all about Hawks and Huston, Lean and Lang, Wilder and Wyler, Fellini and Fincher, Chaplin and Cukor, Ida Lupino and Agnes Varda.

There is one director, however, whose name is almost never known by “the man on the street” despite the fact that some of his motion pictures are among the most famous ever made. Even serious film buffs—folks who relish discussions of Busby Berkeley camera shots, Hugo Friedhofer orchestrations and 1960’s Czech animation—sometimes can’t recall the man who won an Oscar for directing one of the best, most beloved movies from Hollywood’s Golden Years: “Casablanca”.

His name is Michael Curtiz (correctly pronounced Cur-TEZZ) and the body of work in his 75-year life span is staggering. A Hungarian Jew born in Budapest in 1886, Mano Kaminer, later Mihaly Kertesz, ultimately Michael Curtiz, acted in plays at the Hungarian National Theatre as well as in Denmark and Austria. He began to work  in films in 1912 and in the following fourteen years directed nearly 100 silent movies, including gigantic biblical epics like “Sodom and Gomorrah” and “The Moon of Israel”. Today, nearly all of these films are lost.

American studio heads were all aware of the European wunderkind’s reputation: good with story; can work fast; sometimes over budget from too many takes; great eye for artsy camera shots; can make a little tug-your-heart story from a novel or a big, rich extravaganza with thousands of extras. He signed a contract with Warner Brothers in 1926, came to Hollywood, made one of the last and most spectacular silent films, Noah’s Ark”, 1928, and was soon guiding major  stars in their first sound-on-disc “talking pictures”. Curtiz had gained plenty of technical experience in Europe and, for his first Hollywood epic, demanded as much realism as possible. He seemed to have little regard for life and limb as he called for “Action!” and watched fourteen cameras record the release of millions of gallons of water. The results on screen were spectacular but scores of actors, extras and crew members ended up with broken bones and more serious injuries. In the words of Dolores Costello, one of the film’s battered stars, it was “mud, blood and flood”.  

The metamorphosed Michael Curtiz would spend almost three decades at Warner’s burgeoning Burbank studio directing about 90 films. He was blessed—some would say cursed—with tireless energy, a quick-thinking mind and a malicious, explosive temper. His screaming insults on the set were aimed at big stars like Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland as well as legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, prop men, electricians and nameless bit players. When then-new craft unions instituted mandatory lunch breaks, Curtiz would light another cigarette, drink more black coffee and pace outside the commissary, grumbling about what lazy bums he was stuck with for a cast and crew. He had top writers and producers providing material but routinely altered scripts—usually improving them—fired crew members and often exceeded a film’s agreed-upon budget, to the dismay of his boss, Jack Warner. He frustrated his higher-ups but was fast, extremely versatile and his films made money for the studio.

Curtiz fans and those unfamiliar with his work can rejoice; a long awaited biography of the director—the first ever—has been published. Michael Curtiz: A Life In Film by Alan K. Rode is the definitive, comprehensive story of one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers. This effortless read is full of rich details about Curtiz’s career in Europe before Warner Brothers brought him to the U.S. in the mid-1920s. There is never a dull moment in the 600-plus pages, especially when Curtiz begins his quarter-century stay on the Warner lot, racing from one set to another. Despite daily battles with producers, stars and crews, he consistently provided the public with entertaining, successful movies.

Background “inside” stories about Curtiz’s films are plentiful as are fresh descriptions of some of the era’s biggest talents, both in front of and behind the camera. Rode’s annotated research is commendable, providing obscure data on personalities and films. He cannot, for example, confirm the rumors or a likely death or two in the chaos of Noah’s Ark, but reminds readers that studios in those early days routinely paid police departments and newspapers for their silence. He’s read every memo in the studio’s archives written to, by or about his subject and has scrutinized every note scribbled in Curtiz’s old scripts. Rode co-hosts the annual Film Noir Festival in Los Angeles and his easygoing, friendly manner of speaking at those events comes through in his writing. Reading Michael Curtiz: A Life In Film is like having a long, enjoyable conversation over dinner with the gracious, genial Rode.

Curtiz was the hardest-working man in Hollywood, planning two or three stories ahead of the one he was currently directing. In the frantic 1930s, he turned out six or eight films every year. There were gangster potboilers and cute comedies, but also striking, moody pieces with big stars (John Barrymore as “The Mad Genius”, 1931); social dramas, a Warner Brothers specialty, like “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” (1932), starring Spencer Tracy;  two early, eerie, Technicolor horror films, “Doctor X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum”; a remarkable, pre-feminist statement, 1933’s “Female”, with Ruth Chatterton; a quirky Cagney turn in 1934’s “Jimmy the Gent”; and the rousing, 1936  historical drama, “The  Charge of the Light Brigade”, with Errol Flynn leading hundreds of cavalry men and horses.

The handsome, dashing Flynn and the lovely, virtuous de Havilland were teamed two years earlier in 1935’s Captain Blood, their first joint appearance in a genre perfected by Curtiz–Swashbuckling Adventures, in which the duo was threatened by evil men like Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone while every scene was swaddled in lush scores composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Max Steiner. In the next six years, more of these successful collaborations were filmed, including: “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”, “Dodge City”, “The Sea Hawk” and “Santa Fe Trail”.  

Along with many notable films, Curtiz made his real masterpieces In the 1940’s: Cagney deserved his only Oscar for the tour-de-force “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; Jack London’s  novel, “The Sea Wolf”, was a highlight in Edward G. Robinson’s oeuvre; the iconic “Casablanca” was nominated for eight Academy Awards  and won three;  the wartime “Passage to Marseille” was buoyed by Humphrey Bogart and a raft of great character actors; Joan Crawford made an Oscar-winning, mid-career comeback as “Mildred Pierce”; Doris Day debuted in “My Dream is Yours”;  “Flamingo Road” was an all-star melodrama; Kirk Douglas became the “Young Man with a Horn”; and John Garfield gave a great performance, his penultimate, in “The Breaking Point”. That’s just a few of them and only takes us to 1950.

For anyone who loves these movies and wanted to see them on a big screen, 2018 has been a  good year. From January through March, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a Los Angeles cultural treasure,  presented an ideal cross-section of 21 of Curtiz’s greatest hits. Alan Rode hosted the excellent double-bills, often featuring restored prints of some of the above-mentioned films, at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood’s Hammer Museum

The only film in the series this viewer hadn’t previously seen was The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), a captivating, “pre-Code” Depression story: boy (newspaper reporter) meets girl (lower class, with an illegitimate baby). It featured lovely, underrated Ann Dvorak, co-star in the original “Scarface”, made that same year, exchanging sexy, frantically-paced dialogue with Lee Tracy, the fastest-talking man in early sound films. Curtiz could always draw affecting moments and real emotion from his actors, even in comic scenes, and this film was no exception.

For aficionados who prefer to see old Hollywood films from the comfort of home, Turner Classic Movies is virtually a non-stop video nirvana. Every Wednesday this past April, TCM presented 24 straight hours of Michael Curtiz pictures in roughly chronological order of production. The generous array included: boxing stories, William Powell detective capers, westerns, “women’s pictures”, war films, family fare and film noir mysteries. The TCM and UCLA series made it abundantly clear that Curtiz could deftly direct any script handed to him, no matter the topic, the period, the budget or the cast.

The old Studio System required directors, writers and actors, often under seven-year contracts,  to do exactly what they were told. Few people, including Curtiz, were happy with such constraints. Davis, Cagney, de Havilland and others were sometimes suspended without pay for refusing to accept assignments they felt were inferior. Because Curtiz had to adapt his considerable skills to a different project every two months, a unique, immediately recognizable “Curtiz style” is, for some of us, missing. In “The Film Encyclopedia”, Ephraim Katz wrote:

“His forceful personality frequently broke through the most routine material and it was often difficult to tell who was subservient to whom, Curtiz to the studio system or the studio system to Curtiz. More often than not, they seemed to be one and the same.”    

Program notes accompanying the recent TCM retrospective were more generous:

“Curtiz played star-maker for several powerhouse performers, and he directed 11 performances that were nominated for Academy Awards. In addition to his masterful handling of actors, Curtiz was known for his distinctive visual style, incorporating dramatic lighting effects with fluid camerawork that ranged from intimate close-ups to dramatic crane shots.”   

Curtiz could be brusque and impatient and a famous anecdote about his manner was recounted to Peter Bogdanovich by Jimmy Cagney. The director was pacing back and forth on the deck of the ship’s set in “The Sea Hawk”. An old bit player, dressed as a priest,  kept backing away until he stumbled and fell several feet, landing “with a thud on the stage floor”. Curtiz glanced down at the obviously injured actor and barked : “Get me another minister!” Raymond Massey and Ronald Reagan told the same story except about a different film, “Santa Fe Trail”. Digging deep into the studio’s legal correspondence, Rode discovered the injured actors name and the accident’s exact circumstance, adding that “any involvement by Curtiz is unmentioned”. It’s little more than an amusing footnote but is an example of the author’s determination to get his facts right.

Nor does he shy away from an even darker side of Curtiz and some of the sordid complications in his private life. The director, fueled by caffeine and several packs of cigarettes per day, might shoot a dozen takes, scream obscenities at everyone, then duck into a dressing room for some quick sex with an actress or script girl. If today’s #MeToo movement existed a century ago, Curtiz’s repulsive treatment of women would have ended his career at the time talking pictures began. During the 1947 shoot of “Life With Father”, which co-starred a young Elizabeth Taylor, Curtiz had an affair with Taylor’s then-married mother. Throughout his life, he juggled multiple mistresses and ignored several children he fathered in Europe. And In 1955 he was arrested in a seedy hotel on L.A.’s  Skid Row, charged with voyeurism for paying to watch an African American couple have sex.

Despite his scandalous behavior which was seldom kept secret, Curtiz remained devoted to his wife during their 33-year marriage. Bess Meredyth was a prolific screenwriter since 1911 and also a very successful producer. She often worked with Curtiz at home, improving screenplays he was directing at the studio. Their relationship was tender and close but, as she aged, Meredyth became a semi-invalid who lavishly spent money as fast as Curtiz could earn it. She outlived her husband by seven years.

Curtiz finally parted company with Warner Brothers in the early 1950’s and had only sporadic successes thereafter, at Paramount, Fox and MGM.  Among the high-  and lowlights:  1954’s “White Christmas” and “The Egyptian”; 1955’s “We’re No Angels” with Bogart; Elvis Presley’s “King Creole” in 1958;  and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 1960. His final picture, “The Comancheros”, with John Wayne and Lee Marvin, was shot the following year.  Curtiz, suffering from cancer and a broken leg, was seriously ill during production, barely civil to the crew and clearly near the end of his life. He died at home in his Sherman Oaks apartment on April 10, 1962. 

There is no mystery why Michael Curtiz’s funeral was sparsely attended: he was a brilliant director but a dreadful human. Despite extraordinary creative skills, artistic success and a long, profitable career, he was insulting, mean and unpleasant to co-workers for most of his life. He would have been amused to know that among those carrying his casket, along with Cary Grant, Alan Ladd and Danny Thomas, was the only person in Hollywood as nasty as he was, the man who owned him and bedeviled him for 30 years—Jack Warner.



  1. Ginny Cox says:

    Well done. For film buffs this review is a must read, then go buy the book. I do wish the accompanying photos had been captioned. I recognized most of the faces but not all. Looking forward to more from Mr. Hughes.

  2. Richard S Davis says:

    I just ordered “Noah’s Ark” off Amazon – my curiosity drove me to it. “Cabin in the Cotton” is a fave, and “The Breaking Point” is at least the equal of “To Have and Have Not”, albeit very different movies covering roughly the same territory.

  3. Terrific job – by both Alan and Sean. I worked with Curtiz and the book (and this article) capture the essence of the man perfectly. A great artist and a total asshole. Fascinating!

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