One of the most prolific directors in the history of the cinema, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz thrived in the studio system as the top helmsman at Warner Bros. Studio in the 1930s and 40s. Tirelessly hammering out four or five films a year, Curtiz relentlessly tackled both low-budget pictures and more prestigious Oscar-baiting fare, all the while proving amazingly adept at creating lavish results on minimal budgets in a wide variety of genres. Autocratic and overbearing to the extreme, Curtiz clashed constantly with his actors, and his most famous player, Errol Flynn, finally refused to work for him after 12 pictures, including swashbuckler classics like "Captain Blood" (1935) and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938). Yet for all his unsympathetic treatment of performers, Curtiz had a knack for detecting and fostering unknown talents, including Flynn, John Garfield - whom he introduced in "Four Daughters" (1938) - and Doris Day, among others. His highly developed visual approach combined with his technical mastery could elevate the most mundane material, and three of his finest films - "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942), "Casablanca" (1942) and "Mildred Pierce" (1945) - made a virtue of melodrama and sentimentality. Though he reached the culmination of his creative powers with "The Breaking Point" (1950), Curtiz entered a financially successful period with more crowd-pleasing pictures like "White Christmas" (1954) and "King Creole" (1958). Having tapped out with "The Commancheros" (1961), Curtiz was nonetheless a tireless director who left behind a rich legacy, some of which displayed the very best Hollywood had to offer.
Born on Dec. 24, 1888 in Budapest, Hungary, Curtiz was raised in a moderately middle class home by his architect father and his opera singer mother. After making his stage debut as a child in one of his mother's operas, Curtiz ran away from home at 17 to join the circus, where he performed as a juggler, acrobat and mime. He later attended Markoszy University and the Royal Academy of Theater and Art in Budapest. After completing his studies, he joined the Hungarian National Theatre, where he eventually worked as an actor and director. In 1913, he spent six months working on his craft in Denmark, where he was the assistant director on August Blom's "Atlantis" (1913), before returning to Hungary to briefly serve in the army during World War I. He went back to filmmaking in 1915 and left Hungary four years later after the industry became nationalized, eventually settling in Vienna. There he directed a number of movies for Sascha Films, including the biblical "Sodom und Gomorrha" (1922) and "Moon of Israel" (1924). He also made "Red Heels" (1925) and "The Golden Butterfly" (1926) before catching the attention of Warner Bros. studio head, Jack Warner, who brought Curtiz over to the United States.
Curtiz's first U.S. film, "The Third Degree" (1926), was a romantic drama that revealed a mastery of the moving camera in its flashy expressionistic sequences, at one point presenting the action from the perspective of a lethal bullet. It also marked the first of eight collaborations with Dolores Costello, one of the studio's few established female stars. Warner Bros. thrust Curtiz into its attempts at sound innovation, and two part-talkies "Tenderloin" (1927) and "Noah's Ark" (1928), both starring Costello, achieved considerable popularity and garnered millions at the box office. "Noah's Ark" was also notable for having John Wayne cast as an extra during the flood scene. In 1930, Curtiz directed no less than six Warner talkies, but the studio's attempt to partially introduce color that year in the director's commercially successful Al Jolson vehicle, "Mammy," fell short of expectations. As Warner Bros. became the fastest-growing studio in Hollywood, so too did the director's fortunes. With "The Cabin in the Cotton" (1932), Curtiz helped deliver the first of Bette Davis' malicious Southern belles, while "20,000 Years in Sing Sing" (1933) presented her in a more sympathetic light as the girlfriend of noble Spencer Tracy, who sacrifices his life for the murder she committed.
Curtiz went on to helm two of the studio's rare excursions into horror, "Dr. X" (1932) and "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), both all-color and exhibiting the influence of Lang and Murnau in their vividly atmospheric scenes. Despite his early penchant for Swedish naturalism, Curtiz followed in the footsteps of the great German studio directors, transporting his audiences to distant lands while all the time remaining on the back lots of Hollywood. He began his 12-film collaboration with Errol Flynn, who was often paired with Olivia de Havilland, in "Captain Blood" (1935). Together, both director and actor became synonymous with the swashbuckler genre, which reached its zenith with "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) - a film so popular that Flynn was inextricably tied to the character Robin Hood for the rest of his career. The pair worked together again on "The Sea Hawk" (1940), though by this time their relationship had become gravely strained, mainly due to Curtiz's autocratic and sometimes demeaning behavior. They collaborated again on "Dodge City" (1939), which marked the first of three big-budget Westerns, and continued with perhaps their best, "Virginia City" (1940). After rounding out the Old West trilogy with "Santa Fe Trail" (1940, Curtiz directed Flynn in the mediocre "Dive Bomber" (1941). By this time Flynn had had enough of working with Curtiz and effectively ended their prolific association.
One actor who apparently did not mind the director's imperious ways was Claude Rains, who appeared in 10 Curtiz films, including three sentimental small-town soapers, "Four Daughters" (1938), and its two sequels "Daughters Courageous" (1939) and "Four Wives" (1939). These films also introduced actor John Garfield to the public. He also elicited some of the finest work from both Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, the former giving a bravura performance as the tough and sardonic, ultimately soft-hearted boxing manager of "Kid Gallahad" (1937), and providing perhaps an even richer portrayal as the intellectual, rampaging captain of "The Sea Wolf" (1941), the quintessential adaptation of the Jack London novel. As for Cagney, Rocky Sullivan in "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938) represented a high point from the actor's gangster oeuvre, and his Academy Award-winning turn as George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942) stands at the very pinnacle of his career. Certainly a high-point in Curtiz's career as well, the overly patriotic musical earned the director an Oscar nomination for Best Director and entered the annals of Hollywood as a cinematic classic.
Though Curtiz's prodigious output slowed some during the 1940s, his films often reflected the efficiency of the studio system at its best, and "Casablanca" (1942), the classic that earned him his only Oscar as Best Director, was a shining example of what could go right in that setting. Originally scheduled as a low-budget melodrama starring Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, "Casablanca" acquired some cachet when Warner Bros. upgraded it to major-budget status, and brought in Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the leads. The supporting actors were all first rate, led by Rains as Vichy police chief Louis Renault, Paul Henreid as resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson, playing that haunting melody again for Rick - the character in which Bogie, more than in any other, established his iconographic screen persona. Longtime Curtiz screenwriting collaborators Julius and Philip Epstein, fresh from scripting the director's "Mission to Moscow" (1943), worked alongside Howard Koch on a script that was reportedly only half done before shooting began, with the famous scene between Bogie and Bergman at the end allegedly being written the night before it was filmed. Though initially a mild box office success, "Casablanca" grew in stature to become a Hollywood classic widely considered to be one of the finest films ever made.
"Casablanca" was a tough act to follow, and while the war film "Passage to Marseille" (1944) rounded up some familiar suspects like Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre, it fell far short of its precursor. There still remained the wonderful noir classic, "Mildred Pierce" (1945), which earned Joan Crawford a Best Actress Oscar, but after that film's success, consensus had it that the master fell victim to the sheer volume of his output. People continued going to his movies, and in fact some of his biggest moneymakers were ahead. "Night and Day" (1946), a sanitized biopic of Cole Porter (Cary Grant) that paled in comparison with "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and the optimistic "Life with Father" (1947) were both upbeat fare that enjoyed healthy box office. The Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye vehicle "White Christmas" (1954) turned out to be the biggest commercial success of his career, which was made for Paramount soon after he ended his 28-year run with Warner Bros. Curtiz went on to direct more than 20 more pictures, including his excellent film noir, "The Breaking Point" (1950), his last collaboration with John Garfield, and the Elvis Presley vehicle, "King Creole" (1958), which The King cited as his personal favorite of his many films. He continued churning out picture after picture like "The Hangman" (1959), "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1960) and "Francis of Assisi" (1961), though by this point it was clear that his best days were behind him. In the saddle nearly to the end, Curtiz died of cancer on April 10, 1962, just six months after the release of his final film, "The Commancheros" (1961), a well-paced actioner with John Wayne as a Texas Ranger out to bring in a gang illegally supplying liquor and guns. Though he may not have demonstrated an easily identifiable style, Curtiz left behind an impressive body of work possessing an incredibly consistent narrative energy.