Tuesday, November 22

The Directors: Michael Curtiz

He was one of the most prolific directors Hollywood ever had. One of the great workhorses, his output, especially in Hollywood's Golden Age, is simply incredible. Though his last film was in 1961, there would be precious few today who are unaware of quite a cache of his films.  You may not know he directed them and some of you may not have heard of him, but you know the films.

Jack Warner personally hired him at Warner Bros to be one of his stock contract directors but it could be said that Curtiz rose above all of them... in output, content, star power and often control.  He was steady and reliable but could be as temperamental as some of those entitled actors he worked with and always gave as much as he got in that regard.  He was a taskmaster, a force to be reckoned with. After he had proved his mettle, it became clear that if he didn't get his way, he was always ready to walk.  

He first worked in silent films in Europe and was able to flourish in any genre.  His specialty, perhaps, was action movies and is certainly as responsible for swashbuckler movies at WB as anyone. Well, Curtiz and Errol Flynn. More on that relationship as we go on.  Curtiz stood with all those old tough-guy directors and their manly stories and yet he helmed a number of musicals and loved musical-biographies.  He took credit for discovering Doris Day, a star of four of his films.  Within the industry he was known as a visual director, a technical aesthete, renowned for his use of complex compositions when setting up scenes and high-contrast lighting.  

He would work for 28 years at WB, quite an accomplishment in itself because Warner wasn't the easiest man to get along with either.  But the director seemed to pretty much have the mogul where he wanted him. When Curtiz got into it with his actors (a frequent occurrence) and they would run to Warner, Curtiz usually came out the winner. I think you get the picture.

He was born in Budapest in 1888 to a carpenter and an opera singer.  His mother instilled in him a love of the arts.  Curtiz said they were very poor.  He lived most of his young life with his parents and several siblings in a small, cramped apartment. Listening to his mother sing provided most of his happiest moments during those times. Happiness also reined on him when he began putting on little plays for neighborhood chums.  He took pride in being a triple threat as writer, director and actor.  So strong was his passion that the family always thought he'd wind up doing something artistic.

He studied theater arts before making his stage debut in 1906. Armed with six years of learning and eager to fly, he and the nascent Hungarian film industry became inseparable as he morphed from actor to director.  After serving in the military, he returned to Hungary to direct many silents before communists took over the industry.  Curtiz fled to Germany and worked steadily there until Warner contacted him in 1926 about coming to America.  Once in the States, he learned that his father and all his siblings perished at Auschwitz.  His beloved mother would join him in Hollywood.

It is rare in any of these pieces that every movie the subject makes will be highlighted or even mentioned.  The sheer output of Curtiz's films would preclude that everyone gets mentioned or even if they do it might be brief.  We will get through his first nine years at WB and mention nary a film, most of which were silents and B films.

In 1935 he was assigned to direct Captain Blood and life would never be the same for Michael Curtiz.  The same could be said for its title star, Errol Flynn.  Before we end our visit to the 1940s at the end of next month, you will get your fill of Flynn.  The duo made 12 films together, most of them also featuring Olivia de Havilland. For the record, those films were The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Perfect Specimen, Four's a Crowd, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dodge City, Virginia City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Santa Fe Trail, The Sea Hawk, Dive Bomber and It's a Great Feeling.  All the swashbuckling, derring-do and athleticism of the star and the swagger and temperament of the director made these films enormously popular at the box office. Some were more popular than others, of course, but Captain Blood and Robin Hood were through-the-heavens. If Curtiz had just directed these Flynn pictures and gotten out, he'd still be fondly remembered.  But more were to come.

Errol Flynn with Curtiz

He and Flynn had a contentious relationship. They had moments early-on of being nice to one another but more often it was fireworks. Arguments were fierce on film sets, there were occasional threats of making it physical and they usually ended a film with one or both saying never again. Each pleaded with Warner to forego another partnership but they usually lost their bid. Each had been married to fiery actress, Lili Damita, and some say that was a source of problems.  I tend to think it had more to do with work ethics.  We have Curtiz as the boss, of course, but Flynn was the WB goose that laid the golden eggs.  Curtiz was enormously disciplined and possessed an efficiency that he didn't want messed with. Flynn was very laissez-faire, undisciplined and proned to childish behavior and messing with people's heads.  He didn't much care whether his films got made or not.   It's no wonder these two clashed.  They did have a serious falling-out in the late 40s and never spoke again.

Curtiz would work with Bette Davis seven times and it was another occasionally explosive relationship.  Davis often ate her directors alive but the strong ones like Curtiz and Willie Wyler gave it back to her in spades.  Curtiz also worked eight times with Bogart and it wasn't always rosy either. Much as one may like him, Bogie wasn't always the easiest person to get along with.  We'll discuss their best collaboration after one more paragraph.

He took a serious liking to sensitive, tough guy, John Garfield, whom he also claims he discovered for the film  Four Daughters (1938) about four marriageable sisters.  It was so popular that Curtiz, sans Garfield, made more about the sisters as they grew older: Daughters Courageous and Four Wives, both 1939.  Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) was one of Curtiz's best Jimmy Cagney films, about a priest trying to keep a hood from corrupting some street kids. Bogart was in this one, too.
Did they make the best American film ever?

Come 1942 and Curtiz would again work with Bogart and Cagney, in separate films, in two of the best of the director's career.  In some folks' opinions, Casablanca (1942), is the best American film ever made. Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid inhabited roles once earmarked for Dennis Morgan, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan. It did end up with a stunning cast, particularly of character actors, and its vaunted reputation certainly comes as a result of iconic, repeatable lines and an equally iconic song. The film would provide the director with his only Oscar and the picture would win as well.

Cagney would win best actor in 1942 for his turn as legendary Broadway showman, George M. Cohan, in Yankee Doodle Dandy. I always enjoyed the fictionalized bio of the great entertainer.  For years I watched it occasionally for Cagney's bravura performance, the sight and sounds of my beloved Joan Leslie and ok, I got a little goose-bumply over those patriotic songs. I haven't seen it in ages. It was a sensational year for Michael Curtiz.

Three years and several so-so features later, Curtiz directed Mildred Pierce.  One of the best film noirs ever made didn't start out so well because Curtiz fought against Joan Crawford having the title role. Davis and Stanwyck and a number of others had turned it down, which they must have questioned after Crawford won the Oscar. You read all about Mildred here before but in case you didn't or want a revisit, here's your chance.

After the success with Yankee Doodle boy, Curtiz must have thought it was time to bring us another musical genius, that of Cole Porter, in 1946s Night and Day.  As I said recently, it was highly fictionalized and heterosexualized but still a success with the public.  Curtiz tapped William Powell and Irene Dunne to star as a fuss-budget financier and his steadfast wife in the turn-of-the-century comedy, 1947s Life with Father... a charming little piece of nostalgia, well worth your time.  The same year Claude Rains (still hanging around from Casablanca) was a radio mystery host who has young women in his life mysterously disappearing in the overlooked noir, The Unsuspecting.  It's worth your time as well.

The first two Doris Day films were Romance on the High Seas (1948), her debut, and My Dream is Yours (1949).  Both were colorful but banal.  Also in 1949 was Flamingo Road, a trashy southern tale about a carnival dancer (Crawford) being stalked by the town's maniacal sheriff (Sydney Greenstreet).  It isn't hailed as one the greats but try it with a tub of popcorn.

Not all happy on Young Man with a Horn

It was back to Day again, who joined Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall in the fictional story of trumpeter Bix Beiderbeck (here renamed Rick Martin), in Young Man with a Horn (1950).  With some noirish overtones it undertook the life of a brilliant musician who just wanted to play music under the radar while being married to a high society lesbian. Great cast (that didn't particularly see eye-to-eye) and a compelling story.

I've discussed The Breaking Point (1950) in pieces I did on its three stars... Garfield, Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter.  Based on Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, it is not the story one knows from the Bogart-Bacall film of that name.  It concerns a happily married boat captain down on his luck who begins an affair and takes up illegal activities to make ends meet.  Good stuff.

Curtiz did love his biographies.  Two came out in 1951... the most popular, in some quarters the best sports movie ever made, is Jim Thorpe, All American, with Burt Lancaster, the story of a Native American stripped of his medals in the Olympics due to a technicality.  Second was I'll See You in My Dreams, an unabashedly sentimental story of songwriter Gus Kahn and his loving wife Grace.  It was the director's last pairing with Day and is one of the first movies I ever saw.  

Curtiz ended his long WB contract with four clunkers and then took on a behemoth, The Egyptian (1954), at 20th Century Fox.  It was a troubled production from the beginning and he must have wished he'd never left his former home.  That same year at Paramount, he undertook another musical and one for which he is as well-known as he is for Casablanca.  You'll have the chance to see it again soon, as you have every year.  And what is it?  Well, White Christmas, of course. Are you dreaming?

In 1955 he worked with Bogart for the last time in We're No Angels, a film that tickled my funny bone.  Bogie in a comedy! Costarring with Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov, they are a trio of escaped convicts who hide out in a kindly family's home with wacky results.  

Then came two more musical bios.  The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956) costarred Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey and Ernest Borgnine (who sings!) as squabbling songwriters De Sylva, Brown and Henderson.  It's not great, certainly not up to Curtiz's usual flair, but it does contain some fun songs and a sizzling Sheree North performance.  The Helen Morgan Story (1957) wasn't great either but I never thought it deserved the lambasting it's always received. Ann Blyth, closing out her movie career, and Paul Newman, beginning his, were a fetching duo.
With Elvis and Dolores Hart on King Creole set

Curtiz was reunited after many years with de Havilland in an unusually sensitive Alan Ladd western, The Proud Rebel (1958) and that same year steered Elvis Presley in the best film the singer ever made, King Creole, if not the only truly good film he made. Curtiz closed out his long career with a pretty good John Wayne western, The Comancheros (1961), although it was hardly of the caliber of the director's great films.

Michael Curtiz worked right up to the end. He died of cancer in 1962 in Hollywood.  He was 75 years old.

He was a tough old bird, for sure.  He knew what he wanted and generally conceded he knew how to get it as long as he got his way. Despite directing 10 actors to Oscar nominations, he was not terribly popular with the acting community.  But he certainly can be remembered for giving us some of the most popular movies in the 20th century.

Next posting:
a good 40s movie 

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