Michael Curtiz

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Michael Curtiz
Michael Curtiz
Born Kertész Kaminer Manó[a]
(1888-12-24)December 24, 1888[1]
Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary)
Died April 10, 1962(1962-04-10) (aged 75)
Hollywood, California, US
Other names Mike
Citizenship American (after 1933)
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 (born Manó Kaminer, December 24, 1888 – April 10, 1962) was a Hungarian American film director.

He had early credits as Mihály Kertész and Michael Kertész. He directed more than 50 films in Europe and more than 100 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. On February 8, 1960, for his contributions to the motion pictures industry, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6640 Hollywood Boulevard.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

Curtiz was born Manó Kaminer[b] to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1888 (then Austria-Hungary), where his father was presumably an architect and his mother an opera singer.[1][c] Curtiz most likely had a conventional middle-class upbringing, and after graduating high school studied at Markoszy University, followed by the Royal Academy of Theater and Art, in Budapest, before beginning his career.[d]

Career in Europe[edit]


Curtiz became attracted to the theater when he was a child in Hungary. He built a little theater in the cellar of his house when he was 8 years old, where he and five of his friends would reenact plays. They set up the stage, with scenery and props, and Curtiz would direct them.

After he graduated college at age 19, he took a job as an actor with a traveling theater company where he began working as one their traveling players.[5] From that job, he became a pantomimist with a circus for a while, but then returned to join another group of traveling players for a few more years. They played Ibsen and Shakespeare in various languages, depending on what country they were in. They performed throughout Europe, including France, Hungary, Italy and Germany, and he eventually learned five languages.[5] He had various responsibilities:

We had to do everything—make bill posters, print programs, set scenery, mend wardrobe, sometimes even arrange chairs in the auditoriums. Sometimes we traveled in trains, sometimes in stage coaches, sometimes on horseback. Sometimes we played in town halls, sometimes in little restaurants with no scenery at all. Sometimes we gave shows out of doors. Those strolling actors were the kindest-hearted people I have ever known. They would do anything for each other.[5]


He worked as Mihály Kertész at the National Hungarian Theater in 1912.[6]:5 That same year he directed Hungary's first feature film, Ma és holnap (Today and Tomorrow) which he followed with another film Az utolsó bohém (The Last Bohemian). He was also on the Hungarian fencing team at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm.[7]:163

In 1913 Curtiz began living in various cities in Europe to work on silent films. He first went to study at Nordisk studio in Denmark, which led to work as an actor and assistant director to August Blom on Denmark's first multi-reel feature film, Atlantis (1913).[8]

Movie poster, 1924

After World War I began in 1914, he returned to Hungary where he served in the army for a year, before he was wounded fighting on the Russian front.[9][8] He was then assigned to make fund-raising documentaries for the Red Cross in Hungary.[8] In 1917 he was made director of production at Phoenix Films, the leading studio in Budapest, where he would remain until he left Hungary.[10]:173 However, none of the films he directed there survived intact, and most are completely lost.[10]:173

By 1918 he had become one Hungary's most important directors,[8] having by then directed about 45 films.[7]:163 But following the end of the war, in 1919, the new communist government nationalized the film industry, which made him decide to return to Vienna to direct films there.[8]

Curtiz then briefly worked at UFA GmbH, a German film company, where he learned to direct large groups of costumed extras, along with using complicated plots, rapid pacing, and romantic themes.[7] His career truly started due to his work for Count Alexander Kolowrat (known as Sascha) with whom he made at least 21 films for the Count's film studio, Sascha Films. Among those were the Biblical epics, Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (1924) (titled Moon of Israel in the U.S.).[8] He also made Red Heels (1925) and The Golden Butterfly (1926),[1] and once directed Greta Garbo in Sweden before she came to Hollywood.[11]

I was laid in the aisles by Curtiz's camera work...[by] shots and angles that were pure genius.

Jack L. Warner, after watching Moon of Israel[12]:136

Moon of Israel, was shot in Vienna with a cast of 5,000 extras.[7]:163 Paramount Pictures in the U.S. bought the rights to the film in order to compete with Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. But Moon of Israel caught the attention of Jack and Harry Warner, and Harry went to Europe in 1926 just to meet Curtiz and watch him work as director.[e]

The Warners were impressed that Curtiz had developed a unique visual style which was strongly influenced by German Expressionism, with high crane shots and unusual camera angles. The film also showed that Curtiz was fond of including romantic melodrama "against events of vast historical importance, for driving his characters to crises and forcing them to make moral decisions," according to Rosenzweig.[12]:136 He offered Curtiz a contract to be a director at his new film studio in Hollywood, Warner Brothers, where he would direct a similar epic that had been planned, Noah's Ark.[8][14] By the time Curtiz accepted Warner's offer, he was already a prolific director, having made sixty-four films in countries including Hungary, Austria, and Denmark.[15]:3

Career in the U.S.[edit]


He arrived in the United States in the summer of 1926.[16]:63 and began directing at Warner Brothers under the anglicised name "Michael Curtiz". Although he was an experienced filmmaker, now age 38, Warners assigned him to direct a number of average quality films, the first being The Third Degree (1926).[1]

When I first came here I was called on to direct six or seven pictures a year. I never turned down a single story. That was my schooling. I worked hard on every one of them. That is how you learn.

Michael Curtiz[17]

Learning English quickly was an immediate handicap, however, since he had no free time. When Jack Warner gave him the film to direct, Curtiz recalls, "I could not speak one word of English."[17] It was a romantic story about jail life and gangsters in Chicago, a place he had never been to about American underworld figures he had never met.[11]

To gain some direct experience about the subject, Curtiz convinced the Los Angeles sheriff to let him spend a week in jail. "When I came out I knew what I needed for the picture," he said.[17]

Curtiz firmly believed that investigating the background of every story should be done first and done thoroughly before starting a film.[17] He said that whenever someone asked him how he, a foreigner, could make American films, he told them that "human beings are the same all over the world. Human emotions are international."

Curtiz never gave second-hand treatment to an assignment once it was accepted. He went ahead and graced plot and character with fluid camera movement, exquisite lighting, and a lightning-fast pace. Even if a script was truly poor and the leading players were real amateurs, Curtiz glossed over inadequacies so well that an audience often failed to recognize a shallow substance until it was hungry for another film a half-hour later.

author William Meyer[10]:174

He treated his first films in the U.S. as a learning experience:

The only things that are different in different parts of the world are customs...But those customs are easy to find out if you can read and investigate. Downtown there is a fine public library. There you can open a book and find out anything you want to know.[17]

Although the language barrier made communicating with the cast and crews a hardship, he continued to invest time in preparation. Before he directed his first western, for example, he spent three weeks reading about the histories of Texas and the lives of its important men.[9] And he found it necessary to continue such intensive studying of American culture and habits in preparation for most other film genres.[9]

The Third Degree, available at the Library of Congress, made good use of Curtiz's experience in using moving cameras to create expressionistic scenes, such as a sequence shot from the perspective of a bullet in motion.[1] The film was the first of eight that Curtiz would use Dolores Costello as its star.[1]

1928 Curtiz film

Warners had Curtiz direct three other mediocre stories to be sure he could take on larger projects, during which time he was able to familiarize himself with Warners' methods and work with the technicians, including cameramen, that he would be using in subsequent productions.[12]:137 As biographer James C. Robertson explains, "In each case Curtiz strove valiantly, but unsuccessfully to revitalize unconvincing scripts through spectacular camera work and strong central performances, the most noteworthy features of all those films."[12]:137

It was during this period that Warner Brothers began experimenting with talking films. They assigned two, part-silent and part-talking pictures for Curtiz to direct: Tenderloin (1928) and Noah's Ark (1928), both of which also starred Costello.[14] Noah's Ark included two parallel stories, one recounting the biblical flood, and the other a World War I-era romance.

The climactic flood sequence was considered "spectacular" at the time, notes historian Richard Schickel,[18]:31 while biographer James C. Robertson said it was "one of the most spectacular incidents in film history."[4]:16 However the re-issue of the film in 1957 cut an hour off the original two-hour fifteen-minute film.

The critical success of these films by Curtiz contributed to Warner Brothers becoming the fastest-growing studio in Hollywood.[1]


In 1930 Curtiz directed Mammy (1930), Al Jolson's fourth film after being in Hollywood's first true talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927). During the 1930s Curtiz directed on average at least four films each year.

The most obvious aspect of Curtiz's directorial signature is his expressionistic visual style, and its most obvious feature is its unusual camera angles and carefully detailed, crowded, complex compositions, full of mirrors and reflections, smoke and fog, and physical objects, furniture, foliage, bars, and windows, that stand between the camera and the human characters and seem to surround and entrap them.

biographer Sidney Rosenzweig[6]:157

Although rare for Warners, the studio produced two horror films that Curtiz directed, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), both in color with numerous atmospheric scenes filmed on the studio's back lot.[1] The look of Doctor X was unique in that besides being in color it had less grain than other color films as it used the new Technicolor process.

Another breakthrough film came in 1932 with 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), starring little-known actors Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in one of their earliest films.[19] MGM head Louis B. Mayer saw the film and was impressed enough by Tracy's acting that he hired him on to MGM's roster of stars.[20]:221

But it was not until 1935 that Curtiz's career really took off.[21]:63 When the early 1930s had Warners struggling to compete with studio giants like MGM, which was releasing blockbuster costumed hits like Queen Christina (1933), with Greta Garbo, Treasure Island (1934) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), they decided to take a chance and produce their own costumed drama.

Until then, it was a genre they had assumed could never succeed during the years of the Great Depression. But in March 1935 Warners announced it would produce Captain Blood (1935), a swashbuckler action drama based on the popular novel by Rafael Sabatini, and that Curtiz would direct.[21]:63 It would star a then unknown extra, Errol Flynn,[11] alongside little-known Olivia de Haviland.[22]

Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

The film was a major success with positive critical reviews. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and, despite not being nominated, Curtiz received the second-greatest number of votes for Best Director, solely as a write-in candidate. It also made major stars out of both Flynn and de Haviland, and it elevated Curtiz to being the studio's leading director.[21]:63

He continued the successful genre of adventure films starring Flynn, often alongside de Haviland, that included The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), a depiction of the British Light Brigade during the Crimean War.[23] The film, another Oscar-winner, sold even more tickets than Captain Blood, and reinforced Curtiz's status as the studio's top director.[21]:64 It was followed by The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), the most profitable that year,[21]:64 winning three Academy Awards and being nominated for Best Picture.[24] It is number 12 on Rotten Tomatoes' list of best rated films.[25]

Flynn and de Haviland in Dodge City (1939)

That being their third Curtiz film together, Flynn and de Havilland continued to star in other hugely successful films under his direction, including the true-life story,The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), co-starring Bette Davis.[26] Davis starred in a Curtiz film in most years during the 1930s.[21]:73 Because of Curtiz's high film productivity, Warners created a special unit for his pictures, which then allowed him to manage two film crews. One would work with him during actual filming, while the other would work on preparing everything for the next picture.[27]

John Garfield was among Curtiz's discoveries, with his debut in Four Daughters (1938), followed by a co-starring role in its sequel, Four Wives (1939). Curtiz discovered Garfield, a stage actor, by accident when he came across a discarded screen test he gave, and thought he was very good. But Garfield had assumed he failed the screen test and was already heading back to New York in disgust. Curtiz then went to Kansas City to intercept the train, where he pulled Garfield off and brought him back to Hollywood.[11] Garfield also later co-starred in Curtiz's The Sea Wolf (1941).

In Four Daughters, Garfield co-starred with Claude Rains, who would star in ten Curtiz movies over his career, with six of those during the 1930s.[1] Garfield and Rains "were brilliant together in this unjustly neglected Curtiz classic," says biographer Patrick J. McGrath about Four Daughters.[28] Garfield considered it his "obscure masterpiece."[28] Reviews praised his roll: "Perhaps the greatest single occurrence having to do with Four Daughters on reading the critics appears to be the debut of John Garfield, a brilliant young actor recruited from the Broadway stage."[29] Similar approval came from the New York Times, which called Garfield's acting "bitterly brilliant...one of the best pictures of anybody's career."[29] Garfield and Rains co-starred the following year in Curtiz's Daughters Courageous (1939).

Edward G. Robinson (l) with Curtiz, during filming of Kid Galahad (1937)

The popularity of actor James Cagney was boosted after he starred in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), marking the first time he was nominated for an Oscar and the high point in Cagney's gangster roles.[1] It was his most profitable film role to date, where he played the part of a hoodlum who redeems himself.[21]:64 [30] Curtiz was also again nominated, solidifying further his status as the studio's most important director.[21]:64

The following year, Curtiz directed Sons of Liberty (1939), starring Claude Rains, in an Oscar-winning biopic which dramatizes the Jewish contribution to America's independence.[21]:44 Curtiz also elicited some of the finest work from Edward G. Robinson in Kid Galahad (1937), where Robinson played a tough and sardonic, but ultimately soft-hearted, boxing manager.[31] It co-starred Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.[1]

Three westerns directed by Curtiz also starring Flynn were Dodge City (1939),[32] Santa Fe Trail (1940),[33] and Virginia City (1940).[34][35]


The 1940s would continue to see releases of other critically-acclaimed films directed by Curtiz, including The Sea Hawk (1940), Dive Bomber (1941), The Sea Wolf (1941), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), This Is the Army (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), and Life With Father (1947).

Scene from Dive Bomber (1941)

Curtiz's twelve-film collaboration with Flynn ended after the World War II film, Dive Bomber (1941), due to personality conflicts.[36] The film was released a few months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, which made the film timely and well received by the public. It was also one of Warner's biggest hits of 1941, and rated as the sixth most popular film that year.[37] No other pre-Pearl Harbor picture matched the quality of its flying scenes.[38] Film columnist Louella Parsons wrote that "Dive Bomber again makes us glad we are Americans protected by a Navy as competent as ours.[38]

Great care had to be taken to film at the active naval base in San Diego, especially for aerial sequences. Curtiz shot every foot of Dive Bomber with Navy assistance and under strict navy scrutiny.[39] To create realistic shots, he mounted cameras on the Navy's planes to achieve "amazing point-of-view shots," taking viewers inside the cockpit during flight. He also mounted cameras underneath the wings of planes to dramatize take-offs from the Enterprise, an aircraft carrier launched a few years earlier.[38] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave it a good review:[40]

The Warners have photographed this picture in some of the most magnificent technicolor yet seen... masses of brilliantly colored planes, ranked in impressive rows about an air base or upon the huge flight decks of carriers, and roaring in silver majesty, wing to wing, through the limitless West Coast skies. Never before has an aviation film been so vivid in its images, conveyed such a sense of tangible solidity when it is showing us solid things or been so full of sunlight and clean air when the cameras are aloft. Except for a few badly matched shots, the job is well nigh perfect.

The Sea Hawk (1940) was one of 1940’s biggest hits, starring Errol Flynn in the role of an adventurer in the mold of Sir Francis Drake.[41] Flora Robson played Queen Elizabeth I, and Claude Rains acted as the Spanish ambassador, whose job it was to mislead the Queen who rightly suspected the Spanish armada was about to invade England. Some critics felt the story was equivalent to actual events then taking place in Europe, describing it as a "thinly veiled diatribe against American isolationism on World War II's brink."[42] Film columnist Boyd Martin, for one, noticed the similarities:

The parallel of the dreams of empire indulged in by King Philip of Spain and those apparently momentarily enjoyed by Hitler is so obvious that it will not escape detection even by the youngest film follower who reads his newspaper and goes to see the film...In having been supplied with a parallel, Mr. Curtiz rides his Sea Hawk neck and neck with contemporary history.[43]

With Michael Curtiz' magnificent 1941 version of The Sea Wolf...full justice was for once done to London's text... with the aid of models, newly introduced fog machines, and a studio tank, the film hauntingly captured an eerie malevolent atmosphere, brooding and full of terror... From its economic opening scenes...to its powerful climax...it gripped consistently. Throughout, Curtiz provided object lessons in the use of sound—the groaning timbers of the ship, creaking footsteps, the wind—and closeups.

Charles Higham and Joel Greenburg
from Hollywood in the Forties.[44]:281

Edward G. Robinson starred in his second film directed by Curtiz in 1941, The Sea Wolf.[45] He portrayed the rampaging, dictatorial captain of a ship in an adaptation of one of Jack London's most famous novels. Robinson said the character he portrayed "was a Nazi in everything but name," which, Robinson noted, was relevant to the state of the world at that time.[46][1] John Garfield and Ida Lupino were cast as the young lovers who attempt to escape his tyranny. Some reviews described the film as one of Curtiz's "hidden gems...one of Curtiz's most complex works."[47]

Robinson was impressed by Garfield's intense personality, which he feels may have contributed to his death at age 39:

John Garfield was one of the best young actors I ever encountered, but his passions about the world were so intense that I feared any day he would have a heart attack. It was not long before he did.[46]

The following year Curtiz directed the musical biopic,Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a film about singer, dancer and composer, George M. Cohan.[48] It starred James Cagney in a role totally opposite from the one he played four years earlier in Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Where the earlier film became a career high point for Cagney's portrayals of a gangster, a role he played in many earlier films, in this film, an overtly patriotic musical, Cagney demonstrates his considerable dancing and singing talents.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942)

His bravura performance earned him his only Academy Award as Best Actor. For Warner Brothers, it became their biggest box office success in the company's history up to that time, nominated for nine Academy Awards and winning four. The success of the film also became a high-point in Curtiz's career, with his nomination as Best Director. The film has been added to annals of Hollywood as a cinematic classic, preserved in the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[8]

That same year Curtiz directed Casablanca (1942), a World War II-era romantic drama that many consider to be the most popular motion picture from Hollywood’s golden age, and is today considered a classic.[1][49] Among its stars were Humphrey Bogart, playing an expatriate living in Morocco, and Ingrid Bergman, who was trying escape the Nazis. The film is widely considered to be one of the finest films ever made,[1] receiving eight Academy Award nominations and winning three, including one for Curtiz as Best Director.[1]

This is the Army is still the freshest, the most endearing, the most rousing musical tribute to the American fighting man that has come out of World War II...buoyant, captivating, as American as hot dogs or the Bill of Rights...a warmly reassuring document on the state of the nation. It is, from beginning to end, a great show.

Bosley Crowther, New York Times[50]

Another patriotic Curtiz film was This Is the Army (1943), a musical adapted from the stage play with a score by Irving Berlin.[51] As America was engaged in World War II, the film boosted the morale of soldiers and the public. Among its nineteen songs, Kate Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" was one of the highlights of the film.[52] As a result of the film's numerous popular and generic elements, such as ground and aerial combat, recruitment, training, and marching as well as comedy, romance, song, and dance, it was the most financially successful war-themed film of any kind made during World War II.[50]

During this period he also directed the World War II propaganda film Mission to Moscow (1943), a film which was commissioned at the request of president Franklin D. Roosevelt in support of the US and British ally, the Soviet Union, at that time holding down 80% of all German forces as they repelled the Nazi invasion of Russia. The film was mostly well-received by critics and was a success at the box office, but the film soon proved to be controversial after it stirred up strong anti-Communist sentiments. Curtiz took the criticism personally and vowed never again to direct an overtly political film, a promise which he kept.[12]:148

Joan Crawford starred in Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (1945) was based on the novel by James M. Cain.[53] Its star, Joan Crawford, gave one of the strongest performances in her acting career, playing a mother and successful businesswoman who sacrifices everything for her spoiled daughter, played by Ann Blyth. Bette Davis was first offered the part but did not like the idea of playing the part of a mother.

At the time Crawford accepted the part from Warner Brothers, her eighteen-year career at MGM had been in decline.[54] She had been one of Hollywood's most prominent and highest paid movie stars at MGM, but her films began losing money, and by the end of the 1930s she was labeled "box office poison." Rather than remain at MGM and see newer, younger talent draw most of the studio's attention with better roles, she left MGM.[55]

To help Crawford prepare for certain court scenes, Curtiz took her downtown where they spent time visiting jails and watching criminal trials.[56] In photographing her, he used careful film noir camera techniques, a style he learned in Europe, to bring out Crawford's distinctive face, using rich black-and-white highlights.[57] He was aware that Crawford guarded her screen image very carefully, and that she truly cared about quality. And Crawford learned to appreciate Curtiz's genius with the camera.[58] Eve Arden, who was nominated as Best Supporting Actress in the film, said "Curtiz was one of the few directors who knew what he wanted and was able to express himself exactly, even in his amusing Hungarian accent."[58]

starred in Life With Father (1947)

Mildred Pierce was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture. Only Crawford won, for Best Actress, her first and only Oscar.[55] The novel's author, James Crain, gave her a leather-bound copy of Mildred Pierce, which he inscribed: "To Joan Crawford, who brought Mildred to life as I had always hoped she would be, and who has my lifelong gratitude."[59] The film returned Crawford to the ranks of leading stars.

After the success of the film, Jack Warner gave Curtiz two new and exceptional contracts in appreciation, boosting his salary and reducing the number of films he had to direct each year to two.[60]

In 1947 he directed William Powell and Irene Dunne in Life With Father, a family comedy.[61] It was a big hit in the Unites States, being nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Powell. During Powell's career he acted in ninety-seven films, and this was his third and last nomination. One review stated, "He is magnificent in the role, imbuing it with every attribute of pomp, dignity, unconscious conceit and complete loveableness! His is one of the really great screen performances of the year... that crowns a long screen life."[62]


Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950)

By the 1950s Curtiz's productivity had slowed down and he was directing about two pictures per year. However, his films continued to cover a wide range of genres, including biopics, comedies and musicals. Some of the popular and well-received films included Young Man with a Horn (1950), Jim Thorpe -- All-American (1951), The Story of Will Rogers (1952), White Christmas (1954), We're No Angels (1955) and King Creole (1958).

Curtiz directed a number of popular biographical films in the 1950s. Young Man with a Horn (1950), which starred Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day, had Douglas portray the rise and fall of a driven jazz musician, based on real-life horn player Bix Beiderbecke.[63][64] The following year Curtiz directed another biopic, Jim Thorpe -- All-American (1951), which starred Burt Lancaster in the true story of a native American athlete who won more gold medals than any other athlete at the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm.[65] The film received plaudits as one of the most compelling of all sports movies.[66]

Also in 1951, he directed another biopic, I'll See You in My Dreams, with Doris Day and Danny Thomas.[67] The film is a musical biography of lyricist Gus Kahn. It was Day's fourth film directed by Curtiz, who first auditioned her and gave her a starring role in her debut film, Romance on the High Seas (1948). She was shocked at being offered a lead in her first film, and admitted to Curtiz that she was a singer without acting experience. But what Curtiz liked about her after the audition was that "she was honest," he said, not afraid to tell him she was not an actress. That, and the fact that "her freckles made her look like the All-American Girl," he said. Day would be the discovery his boasted about most later in his career.[11]

The Story of Will Rogers (1952), also a biography, told the story of well-known humorist and movie star Will Rogers, played by Will Rogers, Jr., his son.[68] White Christmas (1954), Curtiz's second adaptation of an Irving Berlin musical, was a major box office success, the highest grossing film of 1954. It starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.[69]

Elvis in King Creole

Another musical, King Creole (1958), starred Elvis Presley and Carolyn Jones.[70] When asked to direct Elvis, who was then the "king of rock and roll," Curtiz could only laugh, assuming Elvis wouldn't be able to act. After a few conversations with him, however, his opinion changed: "I began to sit up and take notice," Curtiz said, adding, "I guarantee that he'll amaze everyone. He shows formidable talent. What's more, he'll get the respect he so dearly desires."[71] During filming, Elvis was always the first one on the set. When he was told what to do, regardless of how unusual or difficult, he said simply, "You're the boss, Mr. Curtiz."[71]

The script, the music, and the acting all came together to produce a remarkable picture, the likes of which Elvis never matched in his career.[72] It received good reviews: Variety magazine declared that the film "Shows the young star [Presley] as a better than fair actor".[73] The New York Times also gave it a favorable review: "As for Mr. Presley, in his third screen attempt, it's a pleasure to find him up to a little more than Bourbon Street shoutin' and wigglin'. Acting is his assignment in this shrewdly upholstered showcase, and he does it, so help us, over a picket fence."[74] Presley later thanked Curtiz for giving him the opportunity to show his potential as an actor; of his thirty-three films, Elvis considered it his favorite.

The final film that Curtiz directed was The Comancheros, released six months before his death from cancer on April 10, 1962. Curtiz was ill during the shoot, but star John Wayne took over directing on the days Curtiz was too ill to work. Wayne didn't want to take co-director credit.

Later years[edit]

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".[16]:191 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".[16]:332 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.

Directing style[edit]

He spoke terrible English; his English was always a joke on the set. But the dialog in his films is wonderfully given and directed.

film historian, David Thomson[75]

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".[6]:6-7 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".[16]:183-184

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.[6]:158 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.[6]:158

Working with colleagues[edit]

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.[16]:188He 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 demeanor: 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".[16]:126 Curtiz was not popular with most of his colleagues, many of whom thought him arrogant.[6]:7 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."[16]:124 Nevertheless, Bette Davis made five more films with him even after he called her a "goddamned nothing no good sexless son of a bitch" while filming The Cabin in the Cotton.[76] 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]:190

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 never forgot Curtiz's saying "bring on the empty horses" to mean "bring out the horses without riders," so much so that he used it for the title of his memoir.[77] But not all actors who worked under Curtiz were as amused by his malapropisms. Edward G. Robinson, who Curtiz directed in The Sea Wolf, had a different opinion about language handicaps by foreigners to Hollywood:

They could fill a book. Even if I did not suspect you'd heard them all, I long ago decided that I would not bore myself or you with Curtizisms, Pasternakisms, Goldwynisms, or Gaborisms. Too many writers have made a cottage industry of reporting the misuse of the English language by Hollywood people.[46]

Personal life[edit]

Around 1918 he married actress Lucy Doraine and they divorced in 1923. He married his second wife, Lili Damita, in 1925 and they divorced in 1926. When he left for the United States, he left behind an illegitimate son and an illegitimate daughter.[16]:122

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.[16]:221

In 1933 Curtiz became a naturalized U.S. citizen.[78] By the early 1940s Curtiz had become fairly wealthy, earning $3,600 per week and owning a substantial estate, complete with polo pitch.[16]:76 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 affairs; Meredyth once left him for a short time, but they remained married until 1961, shortly before Curtiz's death.[16]:121 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.[16]:123


He died from cancer on April 10, 1962, aged 75. At the time of his death he was living alone in a small apartment in Sherman Oaks, California.[11] He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California, near his younger brother, director and special effects artist, David Curtiz.[79][80]

Academy Award nominations[edit]

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 Awards in the category of Best Short Subject (Two-reel), for Sons of Liberty.[81]

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[edit]

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


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[edit]


  1. ^ Other spellings that various biographers have used are Kertész Mihály, Michael Courtice, Michael Kertesz, Mihaly Kertesz, Michael Kertész, and Mihály Kertész
  2. ^ In Hungarian eastern name order Kaminer Manó
  3. ^ In 1905 he Hungaricised his name to Mihály Kertész. In Hungarian eastern name order Kertész Mihály
  4. ^ According to biographer James C. Robertson, because Curtiz had given different accounts about his early life during his career, exact details about his early years have not been confirmed.[4]:5 For example, he said that he once ran away from home to perform in various acts with a circus.
  5. ^ Some sources state that it was Jack Warner, Harry's younger brother, who offered Curtiz a contract. In either case, Curtiz initially wanted to throw him off the set while he was working since visitors made him nervous.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Biography of Michael Curtiz, Turner Classic Movies (TCM)
  2. ^ "Michael Curtiz | Hollywood Walk of Fame". www.walkoffame.com. Retrieved 2016-06-27. 
  3. ^ "Michael Curtiz". latimes.com. Retrieved 2016-06-27. 
  4. ^ a b Robertson, James C. The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz, Routledge (1993)
  5. ^ a b c Kingsley, Grace. "Troupers Know Life: Strolling Players in Europe Lead Life of Romance, Says Curtiz, Warner Director", Los Angeles Times, Sept. 25, 1927, p. 15
  6. ^ a b c d e f Rosenzweig, Sidney. Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982. ISBN 0835713040
  7. ^ a b c d Vasvári, Louise Olga, ed. Portuges, Caterine. "Curtiz, Hungarian Cinema, and Hollywood," Comparative Hungarian Cultural Studies, Purdue Univ. Press (2011)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Biography of Michael Curtiz, Encyclopedia Britannica
  9. ^ a b c Gutterman, Leon. "Our Film Folk", The Wisconsin Chronicle, April 30, 1954, p. 6
  10. ^ a b c Wakeman, John. ed. World Film Directors: 1890-1945, H. W. Wilson Company (1987)
  11. ^ a b c d e f The Tennessean (Nashville), April 12, 1962, p. 57
  12. ^ a b c d e Pontuso, James F. Political Philosophy Comes to Rick's: Casablanca and American Civic Culture, Lexington Books (2005)
  13. ^ Graham, Sheilah. "Hollywood Today," The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) Sept. 29, 1946, p. 31
  14. ^ a b Noah's Ark movie trailer (1928)
  15. ^ Leonard, Suzanne; Tasker, Yvonne, Fifty Hollywood Directors, Routledge (2015)
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Harmetz, Aljean. Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of "Casablanca". Orion Publishing Co, 1993. ISBN 0297812947
  17. ^ a b c d e Gunson, Victor. "Hard-to-do Films Best Training School for Directors, Declares Michael Curtiz", The Journal News, New York, Sept. 27, 1946
  18. ^ Schickel, Richard, and Perry, George. You Must Remember This: The Warner Brothers Story, Running Press (2008)
  19. ^ 20,000 Years In Sing Sing (1932)- movie trailer
  20. ^ Higham, Charles. Merchant of Dreams, Donald I. Fine, Inc., N.Y. (1993)
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gerstner, David A., and Staiger, Janet. Authorship and Film, Psychology Press (2003)
  22. ^ Captain Blood (1935), original trailer
  23. ^ Charge of the Light Brigade Trailer
  24. ^ The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Trailer
  25. ^ "Top 100 Movies Of All Time". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 31, 2014. 
  26. ^ The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) Official Trailer
  27. ^ "Rush Work on Three Pictures: Special Unit is Formed For Famed Director Michael Curtiz," Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), August 12, 1939, p. 9
  28. ^ a b McGrath, Patrick J. John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and on Stage, McFarland (1993) pp. 28-29
  29. ^ a b "Critics Acclaim 'Four Daughters'", The Culver Citizen, October 19, 1938, p. 9
  30. ^ Angels with Dirty Faces - Trailer
  31. ^ Kid Galahad (1937) - Trailer
  32. ^ Dodge City - Trailer
  33. ^ Santa Fe Trail (1940)- Official Trailer
  34. ^ Virginia City (1940) Official Trailer
  35. ^ "AFI CATALOG". afi.com. Retrieved 19 April 2016. 
  36. ^ Dive Bomber (1941) Official Trailer
  37. ^ "Film money-makers selected by Variety: 'Sergeant York' Top Picture, Gary Cooper, Leading Star." The New York Times, December 31, 1941, p. 21.
  38. ^ a b c Welky, David. The Moguls and the Dictators, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press (2008) pp. 314-316
  39. ^ Ames Daily Tribune, (Ames, Iowa), September 20, 1941, p. 12
  40. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "Dive Bomber (1941) Review." The New York Times, August 30, 1941. Retrieved: September 4, 2009.
  41. ^ The Sea Hawk, original theatrical trailer (1940)
  42. ^ Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1990, p. 653
  43. ^ Martin, Boyd. "Modern Parallel Found in 'The Sea Hawk'", The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), August 11, 1940, p. 24
  44. ^ Beck, Robert. The Edward G. Robinson Encyclopedia, McFarland (2002)
  45. ^ The Sea Wolf (1941) - Official Trailer
  46. ^ a b c Robinson, Edward G. All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography, Hawthorn Books, N.Y. (1973) p. 218
  47. ^ Lyttelton, Oliver. "The Essentials: 5 Of Michael Curtiz’s Greatest Films", Indiewire, April 10, 2012
  48. ^ Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) Official Trailer
  49. ^ Casablanca (1942) - Movie Trailer
  50. ^ a b Eberwein, Robert. The Hollywood War Film, John Wiley & Sons (2010) p. 48
  51. ^ This Is The Army (1943) -Original Trailer
  52. ^ "Kate Smith sings "God Bless America" in This is the Army (1943)
  53. ^ Mildred Pierce (1945) - Trailer
  54. ^ "Mick Garris on Mildred Pierce"
  55. ^ a b Hay, Peter. MGM: When the Lion Roars, Turner Publishing, (1991) pp. 194-198
  56. ^ "Hard-to-do Films Best Training School for Directors, Says Curtiz", The Evening Independent (Massillon, Ohio), Oct. 1, 1946, p. 11
  57. ^ Solomons, Gabriel. World Film Locations: Los Angeles, Intellect Books (2011) p. 16
  58. ^ a b Davis, Ronald L. Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad, Univ. Press of Mississippi (2006) p. 97
  59. ^ Hare, William. Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style, McFarland (2003) p. 133
  60. ^ Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, Henry Holt and Company (1988) p. 422
  61. ^ Life With Father (1947) - trailer
  62. ^ Parry, Florence Fisher. "William Powell's Superb Father Day Makes Him Candidate for an Oscar", The Pittsburgh Press, August 31, 1947, p. 33
  63. ^ Young Man with a Horn 1950) - Trailer
  64. ^ Thomas, Tony. The Films of Kirk Douglas. Citadel Press, New York, 1991, p. 64; ISBN 0-8065-1217-2.
  65. ^ Jim Thorpe: All American (1951) - trailer
  66. ^ Review of Jim Thorpe - All American, Turner Classic Movies
  67. ^ I'll See You in My Dreams (1951) Official Trailer
  68. ^ The Story of Will Rogers (1952) title sequence
  69. ^ White Christmas (1954) - trailer
  70. ^ King Creole (1958) - Trailer
  71. ^ a b Johnson, Hazel. UPI, The Daily Notes (Canonsburg, Pennsylvania), April 9, 1958 p. 3
  72. ^ King Creole: Paramount 1958, Elvispresley.com
  73. ^ Victor, Adam, The Elvis Encyclopedia, p. 287 .
  74. ^ Howard Thompson (July 4, 1958). "Actor With Guitar". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2011. 
  75. ^ David Thomson discussing Michael Curtiz, TCM Tribute to Michael Curtiz
  76. ^ Quirk, Lawrence J. Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis. New York, NY: Penguin, 1990. ISBN 0-451-16950-6
  77. ^ Bring on the Empty Horses, Amazon books
  78. ^ Kingsport Times (Kingsport, Tennessee), April 27, 1941, p. 26
  79. ^ "Michael Curtiz (1886 - 1962) - Find A Grave Memorial". www.findagrave.com. Retrieved 2016-06-27. 
  80. ^ "David Curtiz (1893 - 1962) - Find A Grave Memorial". www.findagrave.com. Retrieved 2016-06-27. 
  81. ^ "New York Times: Sons of Liberty". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-05-16. 

External links[edit]