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Michael Curtiz, One of the Great Film Directors


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Michael Curtiz was one of the great film directors. Period.

To those who remember him today he is largely a footnote, as the director of Casablanca. Some may also recall that he directed a number of Errol Flynn's costume adventure films. But Curtiz was much more than that. He brought a fast paced excitement and dramatic German expressionistic visual flair to much of the best of his work at Warner Brothers that for many people, whether they credit this director or not, has come to represent that studio for them. Curtiz's artistic contributions to Warner Brothers during the '30s and '40s cannot be underestimated.

Curtiz had as much of an influence upon the best that Warners had to offer during those two decades as did its great stars, producers like Hal Wallis and Jerry Wald, composers like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and the man on top of them all, Jack Warner.

There were, of course, many other fine directors at Warners, William Dieterle, Lloyd Bacon, Roy Del Ruth, and the great Raoul Walsh among them. But Curtiz was, in retrospect, Warners' major studio director, certainly during the 1935 to 1945 period.

While Hitchcock is remembered for his suspense thrillers, Ford primarily for his westerns, and Hawks for his screwball comedies and macho adventure films, Michael Curtiz was a studio director who had a career that encompassed and brought a greater depth of excitement to almost every film genre, ranging from film noir melodramas to musicals, westerns to horror films, costume adventures to film adaptions of literature or stage plays.

Curtiz was at the helm of the films that made major stars of Errol Flynn and John Garfield, as well as directing Doris Day in her film debut. He directed both James Cagney and Joan Crawford when they won the sole Oscars of their lengthy careers. He was also the "go to" guy for Jack Warner and Hal Wallis in 1937 when they felt that the most expensive film in their studio's history until that time needed more punch and excitement than it was receiving from the assigned director, and so replaced him with Curtiz.

Yes, there are certainly aspects to Curtiz's personality that did not endear him to many people. He was a tempermental, hard driving task master despised by many of the stars with whom he worked (though not all, Garfield and Day liked working with him). To many Curtiz carried the sharpest whip in a studio renowned for its factory atmosphere.

Curtiz, a Hungarian, also mangled the English language, prompting both laughter and frustration at times with those having to deal with him on the set. The manner of his request for some riderless horses on one film location would later be used as the title of a collection of Hollywood reminiscences by David Niven, Bring On the Empty Horses.

The one film genre in which Curtiz would have limited success would be comedy. The director, intense and preoccupied with filming a scene the way he wanted it done (often causing friction with his producers) was not known for possessing a sense of humour. But then Warner Brothers during the '30s and '40s will never be remembered for its comedies either.

It was a studio known for its melodramas and costume adventures, and that was Michael Curtiz. In fact, Curtiz in so many ways represents Warners during the Golden Era. That studio would not be the studio that we remember it for being today if it had not had the services of this Hungarian-born firebrand of a director.

The following is a selection of some of Curtiz's most noteworthy films:

 

*Noah's Ark (1928)*

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The first big hit of Curtiz's career at Warners, a lavish silent epic, part Biblical tale and part WWI "modern" parable, with talkie sequences later added (those sequences reportedly directed by Roy Del Ruth). The film became notorious for a massive (and still extraordinarily impressive) flood sequence in which three extras may have been drowned (according to Hollywood legend, at least). Curtiz, when warned before the flood sequence that the extras lives could be at risk apparently responded, words to the effect "They'll have to look out for themselves."

*Doctor X (1932)*

*Mystery of the Wax Musuem (1933)*

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Warner Brothers' two major attempts at entering into the '30s horror sweepstakes, which were such a success at Universal Studios, were both handed to Curtiz. Filmed with the intense on the set heat that accompanied the two-strip Technicolor process, these films, while flawed, still entertain. Doctor X, at times the grimmer of the two which also adopts a slightly comical air (primarily via Lee Tracy's fast talking newspaper reporter) has one genuinely ghoulish moment in which the villain, adopting a disguise, repeatedly proclaims, much to his own delight, "Synthetic flesh!"

Wax Museum, once considered to be a lost film, has the further benefit of Lionel Atwill's great performance as the wax sculptor mastermind, in a role recreated by Vincent Price two decades later in Warners' House of Wax remake. Fay Wray, the movies' most famous screamer during the '30s, fully demonstrates her ability to do just that in both films. In a later interview, while discussing Wax Museum, Wray would say, "Curtiz, you know, was the nastiest of directors, concerned with lighting and shadows, ignored me most of the time. But he once lit into Glenda (Farrell) and she shouted right back at him and the crew applauded."

*Captain Blood (1935)*

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With the success of the previous year's Count of Monte Cristo and MGM's Mutiny on the Bounty in production, Warners put Curtiz in charge of their entry into costume adventure with a film that remains one of the most famous of the genre. Curtiz brought a vibrance and visual flourish to the sweep and role of ancient galleons, as well as a genuine sense of oppression to the slave sequences. Warners was always a studio more concerned with social injustices than the other studios, and that even applied to a film of escapism such as this one.

Curtiz may have brow beaten and intimidated Australian newcomer Errol Flynn on the set but he also helped to make him an overnight star. As a result, much as Flynn may have intensely disliked working with the autocratic director in numerous costume follow-ups, the world became his oyster for a few years, as well. Captain Blood was also an important film for young Olivia de Havilland, co-starred here with Flynn for the first time. With the success of this film, Curtiz's name rose to even greater heights on the Warners lot.

*Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)*

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Every penny shows on screen for this, Warners' answer to Paramount's 1935 hit, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. An extremely handsome, lavish adventure, set in India and the Crimea, and climaxing with a recreation of the 1854 battle at Balaclava, as immortalized by Tennyson's poem. The film's most famous sequence, the charge, was partially directed by second unit man, Breezy Eason, as well as Curtiz, and remains in every sense a classic of cannon exploding, man and horse falling thundering fury. Errol Flynn would later call it the toughest film that he ever made. It also resulted, by use of "the running W, " in the cruel death of many of the horses used in the charge sequence. Flynn would report the barbaric treatment of the horses to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

*Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)*

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Regarded by many as the model Hollywood swashbuckler by which others are to be measured, a joyous costume fairy tale, with vibrant Technicolor brilliantly enhancing the lavish costumes and sets. A perfect cast of actors brought their roles to life, with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Oscar-winning operatic musical score providing magnificent accompaniment.

Curtiz was brought into the production after two months of shooting by director William Keighley, who had filmed the forest scenes, as well as the archery tournament. Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis were concerned, however, that their studio's most expensive production until then was missing a much needed dynamic sense of excitement.

Curtiz would film the castle sequences, and re-shoot some of Keighley's scenes, including the balcony love scene between Robin and Marian. The final duel is pure Curtiz, with looming shadows on the castle columns, as Robin and the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne duel down stone stairs and throughout a good portion of Nottingham Castle, it appears. Basil Rathbone, who had taken up foiling as a hobby, and Errol Flynn, an athlete who knew how to look good, did their own stunt work in this memorable sequence.

In spite of the fact that Robin Hood had two directors, their scenes blend seamlessly with one another to create one of the great motion picture adventure classics.

*Four Daughters (1938)*

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Based on a Fannie Hurst short story, this sentimental soaper is distinguished by Curtiz's smooth direction of a solid cast of actors. Highlight of the film is John Garfield's supporting performance as the brooding outsider unable to fit into the cozy family circle of the Lemp family. Garfield worked well with the director, in a role that would bring him stardom as well as a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Most memorable is his scene at the piano in which he talks about "the fates." It's the realism of Garfield's brooding performance that compensates for the too-perfect-to-be-true wholesomeness of the Lemp family.

*Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)*

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One of the most famous '30s gangster sagas, the familiar story line of two boyhood pals, one becoming a priest, the other a hood, is brought to life by Curtiz's direction and a high-powered cast.

The film opens with a truly magnificent crane shot of a New York City street, slowly scanning the tops of tenement housing, with laundry hanging on the various balconies, before the camera tracks down to street level where you see horse drawn carts and a multitude of people interacting. It's a glorious detail-crammed set (art director Robert Haas' work is breath taking) that they must have worked on for a week to get just right. It's a continuous 30 second shot, with no edits, and it's a perfect illustration of the kind of dynamics that Curtiz and cameraman Sol Polito could bring to a production.

James Cagney in one of his most charismatic performances has great screen rapport with the rambunctious Dead End Kids, even though he didn't get along well with them on the set. This remains the most famous of Cagney's frequent screen pairings with off screen friend Pat O'Brien, and the film proved to be the start of greater things to come for Ann Sheridan.

The film's most famous sequence, of course, comes when Cagney takes his legendary last mile walk to the electric chair. Curtiz is in full control of this sequence, with the slow tempo of the walk, the priest pleading with his gangster friend to fake cowardice for the sake of the delinquent kids idolizing him who he wants to be disillusioned, the look of pure defiance on Cagney's face in a memorable closeup as he faces the executioner, followed by his sudden change in character.

Cagney would receive the New York Film Critics award as the year's best actor, as well as an Oscar nomination. Curtiz would receive a best director nomination for this film, as well as Four Daughters this year, losing to Frank Capra in You Can't Take It With You.

*Dodge City (1939)*

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Again, it was Curtiz that was put in charge of production when Warners decided to cash in upon the return of the western to the screen. If the story is simple minded, the director still brings a sweeping sense of large-than-life dramatics to the production. Along with the opening stagecoach and train race, Curtiz shows great enthusiasm with a cattle stampede, as well as one of the most lavish saloon brawls in screen history, a virtual stunt man's paradise, with bottle smashing and tables crumbling, to be used as partial stock footage in countless other westerns for years to come. This was a Curtiz tour de force action sequence. The first of Curtiz' three westerns with Errol Flynn, it would be a big hit at the 1939 box office.

*Sea Hawk (1940)*

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Curtiz is at the peak of his powers in this Warners effort to provide Errol Flynn with an even more elaborate follow-up of a sea faring nature to the film in which the same director had guided him to stardom. Erich Wolfgang Korngold compliments the film with one of the great musical scores of his career, as Flynn plays Geoffrey Thorpe, an English privateer combating the Spanish, on the high seas as well as in Panamanian jungles.

While the film may suffer from the the cold and stiff Brenda Marshall as leading lady (Olivia de Havilland refused to appear) it benefits from the at-times stunning beauty of Sol Polito's black-and-white photography of Anton Grot's magnificent sets. Just looking at the composition of the shot in which an Indian watches from the Panamanian shore as Thorpe's ship, the Albatross, sails into view is just one of many visual delights to be found in this adventure film that is guaranteed to bring out the excitement of a child in many adult viewers.

If the final duel between Flynn and a spectacularly unathletic Henry Daniel seems too Robin Hood-derived and a little anti-climactic, it is a relatively minor flaw in a swashbuckling jewel of a film. At a time when Hitler was conquering nations in Europe, the film's dialogue references to fighting Spanish tyranny had unmistakable overtones to 1940 newspaper headlines. This was one of Winston Churchill's two favourite films, along with That Hamilton Woman.

*Sea Wolf (1941)*

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Bristling adaption of Jack London's sea adventure, a tale of tyranny on board a ship run by the sadistic Wolf Larsen. Curtiz is again at the peak of his powers in presenting this highly stylized and dramatic adventure, further benefiting from outstanding performances from a superior cast. Edward G. Robinson has one of the highlight roles of his career as Larsen, a brute who enjoys inflicting pain on his shipmate subordinates. There is a complexity to the performance, however, as he is also a sadist clearly in possession of a strong intellect. The script turns his character a symbol of fascism. Curtiz and favourite cinematographer Sol Polito make sure that the camera never stopped swaying, always reminding the audience that the film is set aboard a ship.

*Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)*

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Legendary wartime flag waver, an old fashioned tribute to song-and-dance man George M. Cohan. After off screen accusations of Communism were levelled against James Cagney, the actor decided to make a film to demonstrate his unbridled American patriotism. Allowing him the opportunity to fully demonstrate the joy he felt with his dancing abilities, this film represents the heart of Cagney far more than any of his tough guy roles ever did. Cagney would win an Academy Award for the one film in his career that, far above any other, he would have most liked placed in a time capsule.

*Casablanca (1943)*

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The most famous black-and-white film ever made, an assembly line product from Warners in which all ingredients coalesce into one of the most satisfying film "entertainments" ever produced. Curtiz received his sole Oscar for his masterful orchestration, along with producer Hal Wallis, of this romance in an exotic setting, mixed with wartime propaganda. Great dialogue by the Epstein brothers ("You despise me, don't you, Rick?" Peter Lorre at one point asks, to which Bogart sardonically replies, "If I gave you any thought, I probably would") brings a sparkle to the cliche proceedings, and a never ending source of joy upon repeat viewings.

That Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would work as well as they do as a screen team seems a small miracle, but this is also the film in which Curtiz helps Bogie soften his screen image and be viewed for the first time as a credible screen romantic. There is also the delicious joy of watching Claude Rains as the corrupt police official who has a special rapport with the cynical saloon keeper and anti-hero of this tale.

A film of many legends, not the least of which is its most famous line of dialogue which never actually occurred in the film - "Play it again, Sam."

*Mildred Pierce (1945)*

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Curtiz at another dramatic peak. Melodrama, with a soap opera edge, in true Warners tradition, mixed with the darkness of film noir. This adaption of James M. Cain marked Joan Crawford's first film at Warners and, under Curtiz's guidance (initially the director did not want her in the production) she would win (deservedly so) her one Oscar.

Terrific supporting performances from Zachory Scott (probably the peak of his career as an effete smooth talking scoundrel), Jack Carson and Ann Blyth as Mildred's daughter, of whom Eve Arden memorably says, "Now I know why alligators eat their young." Beautifully, moodily photographed, this film holds up well upon repeat viewings. But then, can't that he said for all the Curtiz films previously listed? Somehow, though, with only a couple of exceptions worth mentioning, the best of Curtiz's career seemed to end with this film.

*Life With Father (1947)*

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Handsome Warners adaption of the long running Broadway smash hit, and Curtiz's most successful film comedy. William Powell excels in an Oscar nominated performance as the domineering head of a turn-of-the-century household. Warners was a studio whose comedies were rarely originally written directly for the screen but were, instead, adaptions of stage properties. This is one of the most famous illustrations.

*Young Man With A Horn (1950)*

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Curtiz returned to form with this insightful exploration into the soul of jazz, based on the tragic life of cornet player Bix Beiderbecke. Kirk Douglas, fresh from his stardom in Champion, has a perfect intensity in the lead role, faking his horn playing expertly to the off screen accompaniment of Harry James. Impressive on location photography in New York City adds to the authenticity of the film, along with the screen presences of former Beiderbecke friend Hoagy Carmichael, and Doris Day, with her rendition of the big band sound.

*Breaking Point (1950)*

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Warner Brothers' second screen adaption of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not with superior character development to the earlier, more famous Hawks-Bogart version. Curtiz helps to explore relationships with a surprising depth that makes for a memorable film experience in the last great film of the director's career. John Garfield, perfectly cast in the role of a fishing boat skipper down on his luck who decides to do business with gangsters, delivers a heart-wrenching performance. Under Curtiz' surprisingly sensitive direction (perhaps the old task master was softening a little in his later years) Garfield brings an even greater vulnerability to his tough guy characterization than before.

Curtiz keeps things moving and when the film has action, at both a racetrack robbery and on board a boat, it is explosive. Above all, though, emotional involvement comes from the viewer's concern for the characters. A truly excellent supporting cast, with special mention going to Juano Hernandez as Garfield's boat mate, as well as the two actresses in the film, Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter. Hemingway considered this the best screen adaption of any of his works.

Following the Breaking Point, the 1950s would, unfortunately, see a decline in the quality of Curtiz's work. He would leave Warners to freelance but his best years as a director were clearly behind him. He would, however, make one more film worth mentioning.

*Proud Rebel (1958)*

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A sensitive, character-driven western about a Civil War veteran and his mute son travelling through the west, settling to help a ranch woman. Alan Ladd delivers one of his best performances but it's his real life son, David, that steals the film with a winning performance. The scene in which the father breaks the news to his son that he had to sell the boy's dog is an emotional highlight in the production. This film would be Olivia de Havilland's first with Curtiz in 18 years. Cancer would claim Michael Curtiz four years later.

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Michael Curtiz (1886-1962)

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Tom, thanks for another heartfelt and informative reprt on a great figure from classic Hollywood, on a par with others you did for Raoul Walsh and Errol Flynn. Like Walsh, Curtiz was one of the all-time great directors to have come out of Hollywood, with a long and varied career. But just one oversight....

 

*It was a studio known for its melodramas and costume adventures, and that was Michael Curtiz.*

 

You're forgetting their gangster films/crime melodramas that helped codify the studio's image and required the male stars they groomed.

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WOW Tom, again an extremely informative and very well written thread. I have said it before and I will say it again, you are a real blessing to these message boards. I am sure I am not the only one who appreciates that you that the time to write such great "articles" on the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood. And you provide us also with such wonderful photos too, which further enhances our reading pleasure.

 

You wrote during the filming of "The Charge of the Light Brigade," the use of "the running W, " resulted in the cruel death of many of the horses used in the charge sequence. Flynn would report the barbaric treatment of the horses to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. My admiration for Mr.Flynn has increased even more. Anyone who takes action to prevent the cruelty of animals is a special person in my books. God Bless Flynn for reporting that cruel practice.

 

Thank you again Tom. I always look forward to reading your threads.

 

Lori

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You're right, Arturo. In my mind I was lumping gangster films in with melodramas when I wrote that but I shouldn't have. I should have specifically mentioned crime films as a hallmark of Warners, as well. And Curtiz' films included a couple of those, including one of the best, Angels with Dirty Faces.

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Thanks very much for your kind words, Lori. I really appreciate the fact that you enjoyed it.

 

I've long been an admirer of Curtiz' work, and have thought that he, like Raoul Walsh, has never been fully appreciated for his contributions to the movies that we love.

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Wow, TomJH, what an absolutely stunning essay you've written on the marvelous and often overlooked director, Michael Curtiz!

 

 

I've certainly noted his credit as "Director" over the decades when I've watched a great movie. CASABLANCA is the main masterpiece I've enjoyed countless times but as a horror fan, his two Technicolor efforts, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and DR. X, really made me appreciate his brilliant work. This man could do ANYTHING!

 

 

Nearly forgot, he also made another all-time classic, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. The whole movie just brims with energy and freshness (especially in the stage numbers) and dynamic vitality.

 

 

Thanks again for providing us with a brilliantly lucid appraisal of this true movie legend.

 

 

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Thank you, princessananka, for your very gracious comments.

 

Since you're a horror fan, I assuming that you're also familiar with another horror film that Curtiz directed for Warners, The Walking Dead. It occasionally turns up on TCM, and I feel is quite effective.

 

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The Walking Dead (1936)

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Thanks, Tom, for reminding me of THE WALKING DEAD, which I haven't seen for a long time. That's another Curtiz movie I've jotted down on my list of other films of his that I need to watch again--thanks to your marvelously detailed essay.

 

 

And, how could I forget MILDRED PIERCE, another bona fide classic. In pictures of Curtiz and star Joan Crawford, they appear to be smiling and friendly, which makes me wonder how much is true that he was a sadist to her and mocked her "big movie star" airs? If he could reportedly call Bette Davis a "No good-for-nothing, sonofabitching *****" on CABIN IN THE COTTON, it makes it possible to think he would do the same to Crawford. Do you have any info on the Curtiz-Crawford relationship?

 

 

Once more, your scholarship on Curtiz is amazing. When did you first notice his genius?

 

 

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Tom, just to keep your wonderful thread on Curtiz going here I thought I would add a couple of pieces of trivia here regarding two of Curtiz's films. (Probably you and others know this already if so, sorry..)

 

First one has to do with the classic "Casablanca." You know right before Rick's band begins to play La Marseillairse, you see Rick (Bogie) nod yes in the direction of the band, and if to say yes go ahead and play it. Well, I guess Curtiz just needed a shot of Bogie nodding his head yes. So Curtiz said to Bogie, "Look over that way and just nod your head for a yes." Bogie asked, "Why am I nodding my head yes?" To which an angry Curtiz said "You actors you have to have a reason for everything you do. Just do it."

 

Another piece of trivia regarding Curtiz is in regards to the film "The Breaking Point." I guess there was a scene where Garfield took a rather long pause before he said his next lines. Curtiz getting frustrated yelled cut, then yelled at Garfield for not knowing his lines. Garfield replied, "I know my lines, I was just acting!"

 

Thanks

Lori

 

Edited by: Lori3 on Oct 6, 2012 7:00 PM

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His movies which are liked so much that we have them in our collection are:

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

British Agent (1934)

Captain Blood (1935)

The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)

Doctor X (1932)

Female (1933)

Four's A Crowd (1938)

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The Key (1934)

The Lady Takes A Sailor (1949)

The Man In The Net (1959)

The Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933)

Trouble Along the Way (1953)

The Unsuspected (1947)

The Walking Dead (1936)

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I like his output. Paul Henreid, however, talks in his autobiography about how he and the other stars had to set him straight about appropriate behavior on the set of Casablanca. He was good with the stars, but was guilty of bullying lesser players who couldn't fight back, loudly and at length. They warned him once that they would walk off the picture if he kept it up. He did it again and they left, arm in arm, Bogart, Henreid, Lorre and Greenstreet. He apologized and didn't do it again.

 

They also played a very dirty trick on him later by wiring his office for sound. But that's another story.

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princessananka, I'm afraid that I'm not the one to ask about the kind of relations that existed between Crawford and Curtiz. I found a reputed Crawford quote on one Crawford website about the director, though:

 

Mike Curtiz was a totally different director. Not subtle, not at all; he wanted scenes to come off like fireworks, and they did but he was smart enough to make the scenes believable. Confrontation was his big thing - not very subtle, but can you image Mildred Pierce without those very dramatic confrontations? No Oscar, baby.

 

http://www.joancrawfordbest.com/c.htm

 

I provided you with the link for that quote because we are all victims of a ton of misinformation on the internet. Still, the quote's description of Curtiz sure sounds like the man's personality, doesn't it?

 

One of the "facts" about Curtiz that seems to circulate throughout large parts of the internet was that he was briefly married to Lil Damita during the '20s, the French actress who later became Mrs. Errol Flynn. Even Robert Osborne repeated this "fact" a few months ago when introducing a Damita film on TCM.

 

Yet I have never seen any kind of documentary evidence to prove that the statement is true. Nor do I know of a single statement ever uttered by Curtiz, Damita or Flynn in even passing reference to the "marriage." Think about it. Flynn despised Curtiz as a man (even though they had a highly fruitful professional relationship). But when he wrote his autobiography he said nothing about the director he had worked with twelve times ever being married (ironically) to his first wife. Does that make sense to you?

 

Well, it certainly doesn't to me. The Curtiz-Damita "marriage" is a perfect illustration, I suspect, of how we can all fall victim to believing a tale as long we we don't really think to question the source of the story. And that applies our own Robert Osborne and the TCM researchers, it would appear.

 

images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTridzX__9c2Edg_d1hDreimages?q=tbn:ANd9GcQwL4homTW6VKQMneJkW1m

 

Lili Damita was once . . . Mrs. Michael Curtiz?

 

I don't believe it for a nanosecond.

 

As for your question about noticing Curtiz's genius, I wouldn't know about that. It was a gradual thing over time for me, recognizing his directorial flourishes in various films and really coming to appreciate them. The first Curtiz film that I loved to watch as a kid was Captain Blood. I simply couldn't get enough of that film (in fact, I still love it) but my initial concentration regarding it was its larger-than-life swashbuckling star. It was later that I started to realize that the making of a star is a collaborative thing (as is everything else in the movies, of course) and that Curtiz as director had one heck of a lot to do with the fact that Errol Flynn came off as well as he did in that star making role.

 

I think that one of the legitimate criticisms of Curtiz as a director, though, was that he was far more interested in shot compositions and dramatic imagery (at which he truly excelled) than he was in characterizations. That doesn't mean that his films are not marked by some fine performances, including a number of actors who were Oscar nominated. It's just that I think that to Curtiz, who didn't have a particularly high regard for actors on the whole, it seemed to be a matter of secondary importance. (As opposed to, say, Raoul Walsh, with whom I rather suspect actors would have preferred to work).

 

Yet some of Curtiz's later films, such as the Breaking Point and The Proud Rebel, do have a certain sensitivity that may be lacking in the best of his early work. I sometimes wonder if Iron Mike became a little more human as the years rolled by (just a guess on my part; I've never read anything to indicate that actors later found him to be any kind of sweetheart).

 

I don't know if Curtiz was responsible for the final shot in The Breaking Point. Whoever it was (and I would give credit to the director until I hear otherwise), deserves credit for one of the more poignant endings that I've seen. And that's really not typical Curtiz, is it? Drama, excitement, yes, but not usually great sensitivity. That's why I wonder if by the time he directed that film in 1950 he might not have been mellowing a bit and turning, as I said, a little more human, rather than that screaming, hard driving drama king that he was previously.

 

By the way, if you haven't managed to see the Breaking Point yet, I can't recommend the film to you enough. Curtiz's last masterpiece, in my opinion.

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Thanks very much, Lori, for sharing those anecdotes about Curtiz.

 

Somewhere (and I apologize here because I can't recall the source) I read that on one of the Curtiz film sets there was a girl who was known for giving her time and favours to just about anyone that wanted them. Apparently Errol Flynn knew that Curtiz was among those that had availed himself of this girl's generosity.

 

With that in mind Flynn then set up the director by telling him that one of the stage hands, or whoever, had caught a veneral disease from one of the girls in the studio. Apparently Curtiz's reaction to the news was, to the effect, "Serves him right, the bum!" When Flynn then mentioned the name of the girl, Curtiz apparently turned pale and rushed off the set.

 

And Michael Curtiz said that Errol Flynn was no actor!

 

With the various tales about Curtiz's mangling of the English language, my favourite comes from the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade. The following is from Bring on the Empty Horses, from one of the greatest raconteurs that Hollywood ever had, David Niven:

 

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge and his Hungarian-accented English was a joy to us all. High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. "Okay," he yelled into a megaphone, "Bring on the empty horses!"

 

Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. "You lousy bums," Curtiz shouted, "you and your stinking language . . . you think I know f--k nothing . . . well, let me tell you, I know F--K ALL!"

 

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Tom wrote: "I think that one of the legitimate criticisms of Curtiz as a director, though, was that he was far more interested in shot compositions and dramatic imagery (at which he truly excelled) than he was in characterizations. That doesn't mean that his films are not marked by some fine performances, including a number of actors who were Oscar nominated."

 

Tom I think you are absolutely right in that with a lot of Curtiz's films it is not only the performance of the actors that is in important but, it was how Curtiz handled the "shots or set-ups" of his actors that brought a lot of emotion and believability to his films.

 

 

He uses beautiful close-ups of Bogie and Ingrid when they first see each other in "Rick's Place" in "Casablanca” showing the true their love they still had for each other.

 

 

He very wisely I believe, always keeps Garfield's character Mickey Borden in "Four Daughters" in the back-ground (e.g. not socializing with the group) at the birthday party and Christmas gathering scenes. This I believes helps the audience realize even more clearly that Mickey Borden really does not belong or fit in with this perfect WASP type of a family. And then the scene when Mickey finally faces the fact that he does not belong in this family and Felix should have married Ann, the close-up on Garfield’s face is heartbreaking, to me at least.

 

 

At the end of “Angels With Dirty Faces” yes we do see a close up of Cagney’s defiant face as he walks towards the chair, but soon all we see are hands holding on the objects, to prevent being put in the chair and he hear only Cagney’s voice, “I don’t want to die, please I don’t want to die.” The audience is left with trying to figure out is Cagney’s character doing this as a favor to his priest friend or is he really a coward after all.

 

 

And of course the last scene in The Breaking Point where the audience is left seeing this little boy alone on he dock, looking for his father not knowing what happened to him is so heartbreaking.

 

 

I just find it very interesting that although Curtiz by all accounts was a very difficult and even at times a “mean” director to work with, he still must have had within him some type of caring or sensitivity to allow him to come up with such emotional “shots” or camera set-ups. He also was, when the scene called for it, able to get very moving and believable performances from the actors he worked with. So maybe he really wasn't’t as tough as he let people believe he was.

 

 

Thanks

 

 

Lori

 

Edited by: Lori3 on Oct 7, 2012 2:40 AM

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Lori, you really have been studying your Curtiz films.

 

Thanks very much for your very perceptive analysis of how the director could convey the emotional feelings of his film characters by his own camera setups, rather than relying upon the actor's performance.

 

And I also agree with you, just looking at that final shot in The Breaking Point alone, that there must, indeed, have been some sensitivity in Curtiz that the tales of him on the set rampaging and screaming do not reflect. Jeffrey Lynn had an anecdote of how the tears ran down Curtiz's face when he told the cast of how he wanted a particular scene of warmth to play in Four Daughters.

 

I've also read that Curtiz's weeping can be heard in the background of the scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy in which Walter Huston (as Cohan's father) dies, because he was so moved by James Cagney's performance. I've never listened to the scene myself to see if that is true but that, at least, is the tale (assuming that the existing audio track is sensitive enough to pick up on it).

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*The wonderful make believe of the movies*

 

casablanca44.jpg?t=1349596338

 

Years ago (I can't recall the source) I read or heard that when they shot the airport scene for the ending of Casablanca that the plane seen in the background here is actually a very small one because of the limitations of the size of the Warners set on which it was shot. Those people that you see at the plane are actually midgets.

 

It's a great story that I love. It would be great, though, if someone else could confirm it with a source because I haven't come across any.

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> {quote:title=princessananka wrote:}{quote}CASABLANCA is the main masterpiece I've enjoyed countless times but as a horror fan, his two Technicolor efforts, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and DR. X, really made me appreciate his brilliant work. This man could do ANYTHING!

I agree...I hadn't realize how many of his films I've seen until I read through this thread. I have to say his horror films in the 30's are definitely underlooked and uderrated in favor of his later, more well-known films like *Casablanca* and *Yankee Doodle Dandy* . What I really like in the three horror films described here is the unrelenting atmosphere ...it's a grim mood of death and decay.

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*Michael Curtiz and His Shadows*

 

Curtiz brought with him to Hollywood his German expressionistic influence. He was a director that loved shadows among his often complex visuals on screen. Cinemagoers came to appreciate his shadows, as well.

 

Here are a handful of examples:

 

madgenius-drugdealing.png?t=1349620304

 

*The Mad Genius (1931)*: a pre-code drug deal

 

captainblood4.jpg

 

*Captain Blood (1935):* a doctor working on a patient, with the soldiers coming that will alter his life

 

chargeofthelightbrigade22.jpg?t=13496204

 

*Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)* with a sense of the exotic

 

adventuresofrobinhood86.jpg

 

*Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)* theatrical drama

 

angelswithdirtyfaces14.jpg?t=1349620557

 

*Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)* with accompanying cries of anguish

 

seahawk36.jpg?t=1349620617

 

*Sea Hawk (1940)* world-conquering ambition

 

"One day this will no longer be a map of the world. It will be a map of Spain," proclaims King Philip at the film's beginning, the implication being that for 1940 movie goers there was now another shadow looming over the world.

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Years ago (I can't recall the source) I read or heard that when they shot the airport scene for the ending of Casablanca that the plane seen in the background here is actually a very small one because of the limitations of the size of the Warners set on which it was shot. Those people that you see at the plane are actually midgets.

 

 

I forget which book I have that noted that, but it also claimed that the prop plane was actually made of cardboard.

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