Michael Curtiz (December 24, 1886 – April 10, 1962) was an Academy award winning Hungarian-
American film director. He had early credits as Mihály Kertész and Michael Kertész. He directed more
than fifty films in Europe and more than one hundred in the United States, many of them cinema classics,
including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, Dodge City, The Sea Hawk, Angels with Dirty
Faces, Casablanca, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and
White Christmas. He thrived in the heyday of the Warner Bros. studio in the 1930s and '40s.
Curtiz was born Kertész Kaminer Manó to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary (then Austria-Hungary).
He claimed to have been born December 24, 1886. Both the date and the year are open to doubt: he was
fond of telling tall stories about his early years, including that he had run away from home to join the
circus and that he had been a member of the Hungarian fencing team at the 1912 Olympic Games, but he
seems to have had a conventional middle-class upbringing. He studied at Markoszy University and the
Royal Academy of Theater and Art, Budapest, before beginning his career as an actor and director as
Mihály Kertész at the National Hungarian Theater in 1912.
Details of his early experience as a director are sparse, and it is not clear what part he may have played in
the direction of several early films, but he is known to have directed at least one film in Hungary before
spending six months in 1913 at the Nordisk studio in Denmark honing his craft. While in Denmark,
Curtiz worked as the assistant director for August Blom on Denmark's first multi-reel feature film,
Atlantis. On the outbreak of World War I, he briefly served in the artillery of the Austro-Hungarian
Army, but he had returned to film-making by 1915. In that or the following year he married for the first
time, to actress Lucy Doraine. The couple divorced in 1923.
Curtiz left Hungary when the film industry was nationalised in 1919, during the brief Hungarian Soviet
Republic, and soon settled in Vienna. He made at least 21 films for Sascha Films, among them the Biblical
epics Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (1924). The latter, released in the US as Moon
of Israel, caught the attention of Jack Warner, who hired Curtiz for his own studio with the intention of
having him direct a similar film for Warner Brothers -- Noah's Ark, which was eventually produced in
1928. Curtiz's second marriage, to another actress, Lili Damita, lasted from 1925 to 1926. When he went
to America, Curtiz left behind at least one illegitimate son and one illegitimate daughter.
Curtiz arrived in the United States in 1926 (according to some sources on the fourth of July, but according
to others in June). He took the anglicised name "Michael Curtiz". He had a lengthy and prolific
Hollywood career, with directing credits on over 100 films in many film genres. During the 30s, Curtiz was
often credited on four films in a single year, although he was not always the sole director on these projects.
In the pre-Code period, Curtiz directed such films as Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X (both shot in
two-strip Technicolor), and The Kennel Murder Case.
In the mid-30s, he began the highly successful cycle of adventure films starring Errol Flynn that included
Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938),
Dodge City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk and Santa Fe Trail (1940).
By the early 1940s Curtiz had become fairly wealthy, earning $3,600 per week and owning a substantial
estate, complete with polo pitch. One of his regular polo partners was Hal B. Wallis, who had met Curtiz
on his arrival in the country and had established a close friendship with him. Wallis' wife, the actress
Louise Fazenda, and Curtiz's third wife, Bess Meredyth, an actress and screenwriter, had been close since
before Curtiz's marriage to Meredyth in 1929. Curtiz was frequently unfaithful, and had numerous sexual
relationships with extras on set; Meredyth once left him for a short time, but they remained married until
1961, shortly before Curtiz's death. She was Curtiz's helper whenever his need to deal with scripts or
other elements went beyond his grasp of English, and he often phoned her for advice when presented with
a problem while filming.
Prime examples of his work in the 1940s are The Sea Wolf (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce
(1945). During this period he also directed the pro-Soviet propaganda film Mission to Moscow (1943),
which was commissioned at the request of president Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to aid the wartime
effort. Other Curtiz efforts included Four Daughters (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Life With
Father (1947), Young Man with a Horn and The Breaking Point (1950).
While Curtiz himself had escaped Europe before the rise of Nazism, other members of his family were not
as lucky. His sister's family were sent to Auschwitz, where her husband died. Curtiz paid part of his own
salary into the European Film Fund, a benevolent association which helped European refugees in the film
business establish themselves in the US.
In the late 1940s, he made a new agreement with Warners under which the studio and his own production
company were to share the costs and profits of his subsequent films. These films did poorly, however,
whether as part of the changes in the film industry in this period or because Curtiz "had no skills in
shaping the entirety of a picture". Either way, as Curtiz himself said, "You are only appreciated so far as
you carry the dough into the box office. They throw you into gutter next day". The long partnership
between director and studio descended into a bitter court battle.
After his relationship with Warners broke down, Curtiz continued to direct on a freelance basis from
1954 onwards. The Egyptian (1954) (based on Mika Waltari's novel about Sinuhe) for Fox starring Jean
Simmons, Victor Mature and Gene Tierney. He directed many films for Paramount, including White
Christmas (1954), starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye; We're No Angels (1955), starring Humphrey
Bogart; and King Creole (1958), starring Elvis Presley. His final film, The Comancheros starring John
Wayne, was released six months before his death from cancer on April 10, 1962. He is interred in the
Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Curtiz was always extremely active: he worked very long days, took part in several sports in his spare
time, and was often found to sleep under a cold shower. He was dismissive of actors who ate lunch,
believing that "lunch bums" had no energy for work in the afternoons. The flip side of his dedication was
an often callous demeanour: Fay Wray, who worked under him on Mystery of the Wax Museum, said that,
"I felt that he was not flesh and bones, that he was part of the steel of the camera". Curtiz was not
popular with most of his colleagues, many of whom thought him arrogant. He reserved most of his venom
for subordinates rather than his stars, frequently quarreling with his technicians and dismissing one extra
by saying, "More to your right. More. More. Now you are out of the scene. Go home". Bette Davis refused
to work with him again after he called her a "goddamned nothing no good sexless son of a bitch"; he had
a low opinion of actors in general, saying that acting "is fifty percent a big bag of tricks. The other fifty
percent should be talent and ability, although it seldom is". Nevertheless, he did not offend everyone: he
treated Ingrid Bergman with courtesy on the set of Casablanca, while Claude Rains credited him with
teaching him the difference between film and theater acting, or, "what not to do in front of a camera".
Curtiz had a lifelong struggle with the English language and there are many anecdotes about his failures.
He bewildered a set dresser on Casablanca by demanding a "poodle", when he actually wanted a puddle
of water. David Niven liked Curtiz's phrase "bring on the empty horses" (for "bring on the horses without
riders") so much that he used it for the title of the second volume of his memoirs.
Aljean Harmetz states that, "Curtiz's vision of any movie... was almost totally a visual one", and quotes
him as saying, "Who cares about character? I make it go so fast nobody notices".
Sidney Rosenzweig argues that Curtiz did have his own distinctive style, which was in place by the time of
his move to America: "high crane shots to establish a story's environment; unusual camera angles and
complex compositions in which characters are often framed by physical objects; much camera movement;
subjective shots, in which the camera becomes the character's eye; and high contrast lighting with pools of
shadows". This style was not purely visual, but had the effect of highlighting the character's relationship
to his environment; often this environment was identified with the fate in which the character was
trapped. This entrapment then forces the "morally divided" protagonist to make a moral choice. While
Rosenzweig accepts that almost every film involves such moral dilemmas to some extent, it is Curtiz's
directorial decisions which place the element center stage in his films, albeit at an emotional rather than
an intellectual level.
View Michael Curtiz's filmography, courtesy of Internet Movie DataBase. The following video is from Michael Curtiz's last film, The Comancheros with John Wayne.
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