“I often think I would have been so happy to be Michael Curtiz,” Steven Soderbergh said in a 2006 New York Times interview, thinking back to the era of studio-contract filmmaking that flourished in the mid 20th century and one of its most accomplished practitioners. “That would have been right up my alley… making a couple of movies a year of all different kinds, working with the best technicians. I would have been in heaven just going in to work every day.”
And there is little doubt that the Hungarian-born Curtiz did indeed go to work every day as he directed over 170 films in a career spanning 55 years, the bulk of which he spent at Warner Bros. His filmography includes everything from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Mildred Pierce to White Christmas and, of course, the legendary Casablanca.
However, Curtiz rarely gets the sort of recognition one would expect considering the sheer impact of his behemoth filmography. As film critic Kenneth Turan noted in a recent Los Angeles Times article, the tides may be changing for Curtiz, helped by Alan K. Rode’s new biography “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film” and a collection of essays, “The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz,” released just yesterday.
Born Manó Kaminer in 1886, Curtiz was attracted to theater and performance early on. After graduating college he worked as an actor in a traveling theater company for a few years before settling down at the National Hungarian Theater in 1912, at which point he also started directing movies — and competed in the 1912 Olympics on the Hungarian fencing team, because there are some people in the world who seem specially designed to make the rest of us feel like underachievers.
Largely motivated by political upheavals in his native Hungary, Curtiz bounced around Europe building up an impressive resume of everything from light comedies to biblical epics, learning the art of film as well as impressive technical skills, like wrangling small armies of extras. Some of these European exports caught the eyes of Jack and Harry Warner, who offered Curtiz a job directing for their studio. Curtiz eventually accepted. The legend goes that he arrived in New York City on July 4th and was taken aback by all the festivities until the chauffeur clued him in.
As one can imagine for a veteran workaholic who used to fence competitively, Curtiz, by all accounts, was something of a strong character. As such, your mileage may vary on some of his advice. But while you may be able to take issue with some of his methods, it’s really hard to argue with his results.
Observation and Subtlety
“The whole motion-picture business,” Curtiz commented in an extensive profile in the July 1947 issue of Redbook magazine, “is observation, plus a good memory, imagination, a bag of technical tricks — and some luck.”
In the same article, he talks about the development of Casablanca, then already the jewel in the crown of his career. Developed from an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, Curtiz admitted that “at first, I did not know what to do with it.” It was only in the context of the war, and what he (a World War I veteran himself) saw as “the seriousness of espionage”: “Algiers, Tunis, and Casablanca were part of my life. We European-born Americans know too well the peril of loose talk.”
“I wanted to preach a little in behalf of America,” he later continues:
“Everyone hates a theatrical preacher […] but I felt that if I could make America conscious of the fact that ‘A Slip of the Lip May Sink a Ship,’ or if I could make America realize the importance of a slogan such as ‘He Died Because You Talked,’ I had something. I set out to make a gay and entertaining picture that would subtly warn America against enemy espionage.”
He also brings up another important tip:
Have a Good Title
“I decided, first, to call my picture ‘Casablanca’,” Curtiz recalled, also noting that the studio didn’t like that at all:
“‘The audience will think you are advertising a Mexican beer,’ they told me. I said, ‘Well, Casablanca at least has intrigue and mystery.’”
Curtiz had not even the slightest inkling that FDR would end up choosing Casablanca as the setting for a historic conference around the time of the film’s release. “That’s what I mean by luck,” Curtiz commented. “It was the ‘break’ of a lifetime so far as our picture was concerned.”
Film Love Scenes Hungry
“When an actor is hungry, he is also a little ornery. That is when he can best play a love scene. A great lover needs a streak of meanness. Without lunch he is a better lover.”
Or so Curtiz claimed in an interview published in the November 17, 1946, issue of The Washington Post. “Hungry love is beautiful love — on the screen,” he added, commenting that “the hungry lover snarls like a tiger. The well-fed [lover] purrs. I prefer the tiger.”
In practice, this wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds — Curtiz wasn’t starving his actors, just scheduling love scenes for just before lunch or at the end of the day.
From technicolor to television, Curtiz was at the forefront of accepting change in the industry. On technicolor, Curtiz said in the Redbook magazine interview, “I find it faster, easier and more effective. For technical reasons it is not necessary to slow up and interrupt the action as often as it is in black and white.”
Some years later, on a trip to New York to scout for talent and inspiration, Curtiz visited a television studio. He was approached by a young Don Murray, who introduced himself to the Hollywood icon.
“I came here to learn about television, to learn from you,” Curtiz reportedly said. Later, Curtiz elaborated his thoughts on television to the columnist Earl Wilson:
“The solution in one word[…] is ‘amalgamate.’ The big studios say I am wrong. Personally, I say they are wrong. They will be forced to change their minds.”
Out-Diva the Diva
“When I started the tests on ‘Mildred Pierce,’ I heard my star was very difficult. So I say, okay Crawford, Curtiz will be more difficult.”
After a week of battling it out over things like costumes and makeup, the dust settled, and Curtiz and Joan Crawford developed a relationship of mutual professional respect, and Crawford ended up taking home the Oscar.
Don’t Go For Resemblance
In the mid-1940s, Curtiz directed Roughly Speaking, adapted from the best-selling autobiography of novelist Louise Randall Pierson, who also served as technical adviser on the film. When Curtiz told Pierson he would like Rosalind Russell to play her, Pierson protested that she and Russell looked nothing alike. Curtiz replied that that was exactly the point:
“How much better if the people do not look like the real people. Then you are not confined by what the real person was like, what the real person’s reaction was. You create a new character who happens to be in the same situation.”
What We Learned
The studio pipeline system under which Curtiz flourished may be a thing of the past, but many of Curtiz’s operating principles are still relevant. While the studio pipeline is often remembered like a giant factory, churning out star vehicles like clockwork, interviews and remembrances of Curtiz reveal a man who loved movies, period. A man who gave his all — quite frequently to the exasperation of his coworkers — to every film he did, from swashbuckler to war epic to biopic.
Curtiz might have been big news in his day — “Hollywood’s undisputed master of the magic lantern” — but regarding the kinds of films he made and the genres he worked with (that is, pretty much all of them), there is little elitism to be found. And there is, perhaps, yet another lesson to be learned in that.