Michael Curtiz

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Michael Curtiz
MichaelCurtiz.jpg
Michael Curtiz
Born Kertész Kaminer Manó
(1886-12-24)December 24, 1886
Budapest, Austria-Hungary
Died April 10, 1962(1962-04-10) (aged 75)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Other names Michael Courtice
Michael Kertesz
Mihaly Kertesz
Michael Kertész
Mihály Kertész
Kertész Mihály
Occupation Director
Producer
Actor
Writer
Years active 1912–61
Spouse(s) Lucy Doraine (1918–1923; divorced)
Lili Damita (1925–1926; divorced)
Bess Meredyth (1929–1962; his death; 1 child)

Michael Curtiz (December 24, 1886 – April 10, 1962) was a Hungarian American film director.1 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, The Sea Wolf, Angels with Dirty Faces, Casablanca (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director), Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, and White Christmas. He thrived in the heyday of the Warner Bros. studio in the 1930s/40s. He was less successful after the 1940s, when he attempted to move from studio direction into production and freelance work, but continued working until shortly before his death.

Life

Early life

Curtiz was born Kertész Kaminer Manó2 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 debate: he was fond of telling tall tales about his early life, 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. In reality, Curtiz 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 1912.3

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, eventually produced in 1928. His second marriage, to another actress, Lili Damita, lasted from 1925 to 1926. When he left for the United States, he left behind at least one illegitimate son and one illegitimate daughter.4

Career in the US

Curtiz arrived in the United States in 1926 (according to some sources on the fourth of July, but according to others in June).5 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 1930s, he 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-1930s, he began the 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.6 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.7 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.8

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 U.S.9

Later years

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".10 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".11 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.

Death

His final film, The Comancheros, was released six months before his death from cancer on April 10, 1962, aged 75. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Working with colleagues

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.12 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".13 Curtiz was not popular with most of his colleagues, many of whom thought him arrogant.14 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".15 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".16

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.citation needed

Criticism

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".17

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".18 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.19 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.20

Academy Award nominations

Year Award Film Result
1935 Best Director (as Write-in candidate) Captain Blood John FordThe Informer
1938 Best Director Angels with Dirty Faces Frank CapraYou Can't Take It With You
Best Director Four Daughters
1942 Best Director Yankee Doodle Dandy William WylerMrs. Miniver
1943 Best Director Casablanca Won

Curtiz also won an Academy Award in the category of Best Short Subject (Two-reel), for Sons of Liberty.21

Six of Curtiz's films were nominated for Best Picture: Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1943), and Mildred Pierce (1945). Of these, only Casablanca won Best Picture.

Directed Academy Award performances

Year Performer Film Result
Academy Award for Best Actor
1935 Paul Muni Black Fury (Write-in candidate) Nominated
1938 James Cagney Angels with Dirty Faces Nominated
1942 James Cagney Yankee Doodle Dandy Won
1943 Humphrey Bogart Casablanca Nominated
1947 William Powell Life with Father Nominated
Academy Award for Best Actress
1945 Joan Crawford Mildred Pierce Won
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
1938 John Garfield Four Daughters Nominated
1942 Walter Huston Yankee Doodle Dandy Nominated
1943 Claude Rains Casablanca Nominated
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
1945 Eve Arden Mildred Pierce Nominated
1945 Ann Blyth Mildred Pierce Nominated

AFI

The American Film Institute ranked Casablanca #3 and Yankee Doodle Dandy #98 on their list of the greatest American movies. The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce were nominated for the list.

Selected Hollywood filmography

Notes

  1. ^ Obituary Variety, April 18, 1962.
  2. ^ see Hungarian Wikipedia hu:Kertész Mihály, which means that Kertész is his family name
  3. ^ Rosenzweig, p. 5.
  4. ^ Harmetz p. 122.
  5. ^ Rosenzweig, p. 6 states July 4; Harmetz p. 63 states June.
  6. ^ Harmetz, p. 76.
  7. ^ Harmetz, p. 121.
  8. ^ Harmetz, p. 123.
  9. ^ Harmetz, p. 221.
  10. ^ Harmetz, pp. 191, 332.
  11. ^ Harmetz, p. 332.
  12. ^ Harmetz p. 188.
  13. ^ Harmetz p. 126.
  14. ^ Rosenzweig p. 7.
  15. ^ Harmetz p. 124.
  16. ^ Harmetz p. 190.
  17. ^ Harmetz, pp 183-84.
  18. ^ Rosenzweig, pp. 6-7.
  19. ^ Rosenzweig, p. 158.
  20. ^ Rosenzweig, pp. 158-159.
  21. ^ "New York Times: Sons of Liberty". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-05-16. 

References

  • Harmetz, Aljean. Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of "Casablanca". Orion Publishing Co, 1993.
  • Rosenzweig, Sidney. Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982.

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