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Michael Curtiz Directed More Than Just Casablanca


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This thread was triggered by a Ben M. conversation on the air a few days ago in which, while paying a brief tribute to director Michael Curtiz, he said "He did a little thing called Casablanca." No other Curtiz films were mentioned.

 

It was so sickeningly predictable that only Casablanca would be mentioned regarded Curtiz's 49 year career as a director, with at least 175 film credits. This isn't just Ben M. that does this. It's everybody! You would think it was the only thing he had done.

 

Yes, Casablanca is a great film, probably (make that undoubtedy) the most popular black and white film of all time. Even non buffs of the Golden Era of Hollywood know (and have possibly even seen) this one.

 

But allow a Curtiz fan here (without doubt Warners' greatest and most versatile director of the '30s and '40s) to mention the fact that Curtiz was a studio house director who could meet the challenge of any film genre and was responsible for a good number of outstanding films aside from the film in which Bogart did not say, "Play it again, Sam."

 

Curtiz directed James Cagney to the only Oscar of his career (Yankee Doodle Dandy) and did the same thing with Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce). He also helped to make stars of both Errol Flynn (Captain Blood) and John Garfield (Four Daughters).

 

And that's just for starters.

 

Other noteworthy films in the career of this Hungarian director who was a great dramatic visualist (often working hand in hand with his favourite cinematographer Sol Polito) included:

 

1929 Noah's Ark

 

1932 Dr. X

 

1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum

 

1936 Charge of the Light Brigade

 

1938 Adventures of Robin Hood (co-directed with William Keighley)

 

1938 Angels With Dirty Faces

 

1939 Dodge City

 

1940 The Sea Hawk

 

1941 The Sea Wolf

 

1947 Life With Father

 

1950 The Breaking Point

 

And that is just a tiny fraction of his output.

 

Now Curtiz had a reputation for mangling the English language and being a demanding, insensitive son of a **** on the set with many of his actors. But while Flynn may have hated him to the point of being pulled off him one day after attacking him on the set, there were a few other actors who enjoyed the experience of working with him (John Garfield and Alan Ladd, for example).

 

And David Niven added to the Curtiz legend by telling an anecdote that occurred during the making of Charge of the Light Brigade when the director, in desiring riderless steeds, hollered out for all to hear "Bring on the empty horses." Niven even made that line the title of one of his books.

 

Another Curtiz anecdote during the making of Charge I like even better. There was a moment in which the director over heard Flynn and Niven laughing together about him because of his English language mangling.

 

Curtiz's response, "You bastards think I know f**k nothing. Well, I want you to know I know F**K ALL!"

 

Now that's funny!

 

But, aside from the Curtiz stories, what really counts and how he finally should be judged is by the overall excellence of much of the product in which he was involved. I gave a list of highlights (by my taste, at least) of his career above.

 

There is a lot more to Michael Curtiz than just Casablanca.

 

michael-curtiz.jpg

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Curtiz is my favorite director for two reasons. First, he was remarkably versatile in the types of films he successfully directed. Second, he had an incredible record for getting natural performances out of his actors.  I would love to have been able to watch him work particularly in some of those amazing intimate sequences that have impressed me so much. I know I've mentioned this one before, but to me a textbook example of Curtiz making a silk purse out of what might otherwise have been a sow's ear was the 1952 remake of THE JAZZ SINGER.  The late-night library scene between Danny Thomas and Mildred Dunnock is a superb example of bringing actors down to a level of reality and sensitivity so that even a piece of schmaltz like that can engender admiration. And Steiner's music is also an important factor during that scene.  In fact, Mike and Max worked on an incredible 30 pictures together.

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Michael Curtiz is a major Golden Age director.

He's famous for Casablanca and all of those Errol Flynn movies, but I have my own list of Curtiz favorites:

 

1) Angels with Dirty Faces: For me the best Warner Brothers gangster film of all time. Starring Warner Brothers' two great male stars-- James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Pat O'Brien cinches for all time the role of the sensitive priest. And James Cagney walks the definitive last mile.

 

 

2) The Walking Dead: This is Boris Karloff's greatest performance as a Frankenstein type monster without makeup. With this movie Karloff created the genre of the convict who was sentenced to die but was either brought back to life or could not be killed. Karloff repeated this theme with variations throughout his career in the 30s and 40s. And then Lon Chaney Jr picked it up as well.

 

Karloff is more expressive obviously in this role than he could ever be with all that Frankenstein makeup. This is a horror- gangster film, which has some hauntingly beautiful cinematography by Hal Mohr ( Captain Blood and The Wild One).

 

 

3) Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney-- great musical and biopic that needs no introduction.

 

 

4) Bright Leaf starring Gary Cooper with Pat Neal and Lauren Bacall--This film is often remembered for all the wrong reasons and has been raked over by the critics for being over melodramatic for the obvious reasons, but I love this movie.

 

 

5) King Creole starring Elvis Presley-- the movie that should have launched Elvis into a serious film career that would have challenged the memory of James Dean. The casting in this movie is fabulous-- Walter Matthau as the gangster, Carolyn Jones as the gangster's Moll, Dean Jagger is the long-suffering father and Vic Morrow as Elvis' no good friend.

 

Elvis reaches the height of his career in this movie with his singing and acting.

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+1 on KING CREOLE Princess.  That and JAILHOUSE ROCK( on last night) are the top two out of the only FIVE Elvis movies I thought were ever WORTH a damn.

 

But, I always liked the story about Curtiz that David Niven tells in his book, BRING ON THE EMPTY HORSES---

 

They were shooting a scene for some swashbuckler and Curtiz thought the fencers needed some urging to look more thrilling, and kept yelling for them to "LUNGE!"  He yelled that over and over several times, and with his thick Hungarian accent, all the actors and extras thought he was yelling "LUNCH"  and walked off the set to go HAVE lunch, leaving Cutiz stomping and cursing in a rage.  :D

 

 

Sepiatone

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But, I always liked the story about Curtiz that David Niven tells in his book, BRING ON THE EMPTY HORSES---

 

They were shooting a scene for some swashbuckler and Curtiz thought the fencers needed some urging to look more thrilling, and kept yelling for them to "LUNGE!"  He yelled that over and over several times, and with his thick Hungarian accent, all the actors and extras thought he was yelling "LUNCH"  and walked off the set to go HAVE lunch, leaving Cutiz stomping and cursing in a rage.  :D

 

 

Sepiatone

 

Thanks for the anecdote, Sepia. A correction, though. The source of that story is Sherry Jackson, regarding the time she worked with Curtiz in 1950's The Breaking Point (playing John Garfield's daughter).

 

She reported the following in an interview a few years ago:

 

 

I do recall something funny. We were out on location at Balboa Park by a big launch. A pivotal scene. Curtiz was waiting for just the right light to shoot. Happily it arrived, and he majestically grabbed the loudspeaker horn and in his trademark broken English announced, “EVERYBODY GO TO LAUNCH!” And the whole company broke for lunch! Hysterical. Poor Michael – screaming to no avail...We were gone.

 

I really liked Curtiz, and he liked me. We worked three times together

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Curtiz is my favorite director for two reasons. First, he was remarkably versatile in the types of films he successfully directed. Second, he had an incredible record for getting natural performances out of his actors.  I would love to have been able to watch him work particularly in some of those amazing intimate sequences that have impressed me so much.

 

Yes, Ray, for a director who had a reputation as being a terror with many of his actors, Curtiz was behind the camera when a great many of them did outstanding work. Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (I like this performance even more than his Oscar win in Yankee Doodle Dandy), Garfield in Four Daughters and The Breaking Point, Edward G. Robinson (and pretty much the entire cast) in The Sea Wolf, Bogart, Bergman and Claude Rains in Casablanca.

 

And think of that performance, too, that he got from neophyte Flynn as Captain Blood. Flynn was intimidated by Curtiz's shouting during the making of the film. Producer Hal Wallis saw Flynn's nervousness in the early rushes and asked Curtiz to work with him more, to go a little easier. Well, look at the final results. A star was born.

 

Curtiz would also help to make a film star of Doris Day, telling her to never take acting lessons but just be herself on screen. They worked well together in a number of her earliest films, and there is a naturalness in her early screen work that is quite remarkable considering her acting inexperience.

 

When it comes to those intimate scenes to which you made reference, some of the best are on display, I feel, in Daughters Courageous, a little remembered 1939 followup to Four Daughters with much the same cast. Claude Rains does some of his best screen work, in my opinion, as an irresponsible father of a family, returning home to them for the first time after 20 year of world travels. Watching Rains's small scenes, some set in a little kitchen, with any one of John Garfield, May Robson or Fay Bainter, for example, in this film is a joy. Priscilla Lane was clearly a limited actress but she did some of her most winning stuff under Curtiz's direction in this film.

 

daughterscourageous1939_103_678x380_1118

 

A fine, lovely little scene between Rains and Garfield from Daughters Courageous.

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Michael Curtiz is a major Golden Age director.

He's famous for Casablanca and all of those Errol Flynn movies, but I have my own list of Curtiz favorites:

 

1) Angels with Dirty Faces: For me the best Warner Brothers gangster film of all time. Starring Warner Brothers' two great male stars-- James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Pat O'Brien cinches for all time the role of the sensitive priest. And James Cagney walks the definitive last mile.

 

Not only the performances but the dramatic visuals of a Curtiz film (assisted here masterfully by cinematographer Sol Polito) stay with you. Cagney's memorable last mile walk, along with the lingering question: Did Rocky turn yellow or did he fake it for the kids?

 

angels+last+mile.jpg

 

Sol Polito's contributions to Curtiz films should never be underestimated. Curtiz knew the visual look that he wanted and he worked intimately with Polito in order to achieve it (undoubtedly taking suggestions from the cinematographer in the process).

 

Among the other Curtiz-Polito films: most of the big Flynn films, including Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, The Sea Wolf, and Captains of the Clouds (a particularly effective illustration of outdoors Technicolor).

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Tom, I still contend that the story I brought up was from Niven's book and was about something that happened on the set of a shoot in the late '30's or early '40's.

 

I've no doubt that both incidents happened though.

 

Sepiatone

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Tom, I still contend that the story I brought up was from Niven's book and was about something that happened on the set of a shoot in the late '30's or early '40's.

 

I've no doubt that both incidents happened though.

 

Sepiatone

 

Perhaps you're right. It would be great if you could produce a direct source, though, with a quote. We all know that just going by one's memory can often prove to be faulty.

 

Bottom line: it's a great Curtiz anecdote.

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The Sea Hawk remains one of the great black and white treasures of Golden Age Hollywood, in my opinion,  thanks to the eyes of Curtiz and cinematographer Sol Polito:

 

seahawk1.jpg?w=625

 

TheSeaHawk14.jpg

 

TheSeaHawk07.jpg

 

seahawk7.jpg?w=625

 

vlcsnap-2017-01-18-10h56m26s143_zpst00pe

 

vlcsnap-2017-01-18-10h57m17s883_zpsnypjo

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He was a great director.  He worked in every genre' and did excellent work.

I just finished a book about Curtiz and his movies and I really would appreciate it if TCM would devote a month of recognition for Michael Curtiz.  I was absolutely mezmerized at the volume and variety of his work..he might not qualify as a star of the month but there were a lot of the great stars of the 30's and 40's that owed their fame and career to him, he certainly contributed to their success and I might add, success for Warner Brothers.

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