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Michael Curtiz, One of the Great Film Directors

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Another terrific contribution by TomJH. Until I checked on Curtiz's filmography, I hadn't realized just how many of his movies I've seen, nearly two dozen. I had no idea that he'd directed three of my all time favorites, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Marked Woman, and---total contrast---Sybil Jason's Little Big Shot.


It's funny how some directors like Hitchcock or Scorcese seem more "noticeable" than others for one reason or another, whereas unless you're a serious film critic like TomJH, the names of most directors can often get forgotten by the time the movie is five minutes old. I've probably seen Mildred Pierce a dozen times and can recite almost every key line of the movie, but I couldn't have named Curtiz as the director on a bet. Ditto Angels With Dirty Faces, Flamingo Road and countless others. I really need to start paying more attention.

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> {quote:title=TomJH wrote:}{quote}

> 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.

Same here...I also read that factoid years ago.

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> {quote:title=TomJH wrote:}{quote}Thanks, clore, for that bit of additional news regarding that Casablanca plane. Do you mean that Ilsa and Victor didn't even get away? ;)


Maybe they folded the plane into a cardboard box and sent them by FedEx.


I hope they poked in some air holes.

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Dear TomJH--you just keep amazing us film fanatics with your extraordinary knowledge--and fabulous pix!



Also, did you notice in both THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and DR. X there were two identical scenes involving "girlie magazines."



In the first one, Glenda Farrell waltzs into the police department and she goes up to one cop buddy and says: "How's your sex life?" And she finds him reading a magazine with a bizarre female on the cover with a frizzed, Afro hairdo!



In DR. X, one of the detectives is looking over the reading material of one of the suspects, a scientist, and finds the volume is actualy concealing an identical magazine--also showcasing a woman with an Afro hairdo and flat-chested body. One can only wonder at Michael Curtiz' private choice of erotica--because the two female cover girls were in no way attractive or sensual looking!



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*Michael Curtiz and His Cinematographers*


I've always assumed that the men on a film set with whom Curtiz must have worked the closest were his cinematographers. In any event, the results of these collaborations in his films have often been stupendous.


Here is a selection of a few moments of director Curtiz and his directors of photography:


*The Mad Genius (1931)*




John Barrymore made to look positively Luciferian




Cinematographer: Barney McGill, Art Director: Anton Grot


*Captain Blood (1935)*






Cinematographers: Ernest Haller, Hal Mohr; Art Director: Anton Grot


*Casablanca (1943)*






Director of Photography: Arthur Edeson, Art Director: Carl Jules Weyl


*Mildred Pierce (1945)*






Director of Photography: Ernest Haller, Art Director: Anton Grot


As wonderful as this work is, Michael Curtiz's favourite cinematographer was Sol Polito, with whom he worked on numerous occasions. Here are a few shots that Curtiz and Polito were able to produce together:


*Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)*






Art Director: John Hughes


*Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)*






Art Director: Carl Jules Weyl


*Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)*




The breath taking opening of the film: the street set, by which Curtiz immediately establishes the poverty background of the film's main protagonist, who will grow up to be a gangster.






Art Director: Robert Haas


*Sea Wolf (1941)*




Art Director: Anton Grot


*Captains of the Clouds (1942)*




Art Directors: Ted Smith, Casey Roberts


And now a special mention to one of the great visual joys of black-and-white photography, courtesy Michael Curtiz and Sol Polito:


*Sea Hawk (1940)*




















Art Director: Anton Grot



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Do you mean that Ilsa and Victor didn't even get away?


It would be a shame if they didn't, after Major Strasse was killed.


I found it interesting that Conrad Veidt was the highest-paid actor in the film, and himself the villain and all ...


Edited by: Dothery on Oct 7, 2012 2:35 PM

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Dothery, I didn't know that about Conrad Veidt. I guess he had a good agent. I hoped he enjoyed the money while he could since he would be dead of a heart attack within months of Casablanca's premiere.


I've now got a question for you and any other Casablanca buffs because it's something that I've always been curious about. The film was a 1942 production, having its US premiere, according to the IMBd, in New York City on November 26, 1942. Yet it would win its awards as best picture and director for the following year, 1943.


Would anyone know why that NYC presentation didn't make it qualify for the 1942 Academy Awards? Were there rules that the film had to play in, say, Los Angeles, first, in order to qualify? In regard to that, I see that there was second premiere of it in January, 1943. I'm not quite certain how a film can have more than one premiere.




This is a photograph of Curtiz in the middle, with screen writer Casey Robinson on the left and producer Hal Wallis on the right. Curtiz and Wallis were friends off the set but Wallis was often in charge of Curtiz's films and there would frequently be genuine friction between them during the production of a film.


Curtiz like to shoot a film in camera, meaning that he would have limited shots of a particular scene for an editor to do anything with afterward. Therefore, the scene would usually wind up being Curtiz's vision of it. Now Warners was usually an economy-minded studio but there were times when they were shooting a big production and extra takes would then be acceptable. Wallis would go a little crazy with Curtiz in regard to that, especially if his vision of a scene as producer wasn't quite the same as the director's.


Still, Curtiz got assigned to a lot of the major expensive Warners productions (think of those Flynn costumers). Even though the Hungarian could be a pain in the butt to head office at times they still knew they had a gifted man in control on the set. His films made money, at least up until about the time of Mildred Pierce, and as long as that was the case, that bottom line would dictate to Jack Warner in his decision making.


It was a real coup for Errol Flynn, after making all those money makers with Curtiz, that he had enough pull with Warners top brass to finally have Curtiz removed from his films. That spoke a lot to Flynn's star power at the time because no matter what Errol personally thought of Curtiz, the two had still been making beautiful music at the box office.


Back to Casablanca. Hal Wallis had been highly instrumental in the day-to-day decision making regarding the production of that film, while Jack Warner had essentially been no where in sight while the cameras were rolling. It was, after all, just another film, as far as JL and everyone was concerned.


That's why when the Academy Award for best picture was announced on Oscar night, Wallis was shocked to see Warner rush to the stage in order to personally accept the award. Casablanca had been Wallis' baby and there was a smiling JL taking all the credit. This caused a major rift between the two men and soon afterward Wallis would sign a long term contract with Paramount.

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I'm repeating what I read on Wikipedia, which stated that the film was released in LA to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa & capture of Casablanca. The general release in January was coordinated with the meeting in Casablanca of Roosevelt & Churchill.


Take it for whatever that's worth ( I know a lot of people distrust Wikipedia. I find it a good source of basic info.)

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Would anyone know why that NYC presentation didn't make it qualify for the 1942 Academy Awards? Were there rules that the film had to play in, say, Los Angeles, first, in order to qualify?


I'm not sure if it was the case then, but for years a film had to play in both LA and NYC by December 31 in order to qualify for the Oscars given out for that year.

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*I'm not sure if it was the case then, but for years a film had to play in both LA and NYC by December 31 in order to qualify for the Oscars given out for that year.*


I believe that they did have to play in both cities for ONE WEEK to qualify.

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Well, thanks for the guesses on Casablanca's non-qualification for the '42 Oscars.


I have a few images here of Michael Curtiz on the set of some of his films:




Captain Blood. Curtiz talking to Errol Flynn on the trial set. The "judges" are assembled, with the director's crew behind him. Clearly this is going to be a shoot. I've always felt that Flynn's edginess, probably a reflection of what he was feeling here on the set, really adds to his effectiveness in the scene.




Charge of the Light Brigade. Curtiz and Flynn going over the script, as David Niven looks on. This is the film that gave birth to the "Bring On the Empty Horses" book title for Niven.




Angel With Dirty Faces. Curtiz in conference with James Cagney















Angels again. Curtiz is sort of smiling but I'm not certain that he isn't concerned that Billy Halop really wants to launch that pie in his direction.


In relation to this, an anecdote from James Cagney on making this film: The Bowery Boys, known as the Dead End Kids when we made Angels with Dirty Faces in 1938, had been throwing their weight around quite a bit with directors and other actors at the time. It developed that I was to have a little off screen encounter with them. Our opening scene in the film takes place in the basement of a deserted building. . . . According to the script my . . . line was "Come here, suckers," and I lead them over to the door on which is carved "Rocky Sullivan," put there when I was a kid. The kids must look at this with respectful awe because of my rough reputation and say, "You're Rocky Sullivan?"


We shot the scene but just before I said "Come here, suckers" Leo Gorcey said, "He's psychic," thereby throwing the rhythm of the scene right out the window, souring the whole thing very nicely. So in the next take just before I said "Come here, suckers," I gave Leo Gorcey a stiff arm right above the nose - bang! His head went back, hitting the kid behind him, stunning them both momentarily. Then I said, "Now listen here, we've got some work to do, so let's have none of this goddamned nonsense. When we get on, we're pros - we're doing the job we're asked to do. Understood?"


"Yeah," they said. One of the kids turned to Gorcey and said, "Who the hell you think you got there - Bogart?" I learned later that Bogie had incurred their disfavour on a film they'd done together and they expressed their displeasure by taking his pants off. But in our picture, once they had learned that their jumping me would be troublesome for them, we got along fine."




Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Curtiz is presumably providing directions but he almost looks as though he's preparing to genuflect before the Queen of the Lot, Bette Davis















Casablanca. Curtiz discusssing the upcoming scene with Ingrid Bergman on the bazaar set

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Hi Tom, I have a little piece of information regarding Curtiz and how difficult it was for him at times to be understood by his actors and crew that I thought I would share it here.


This is from an interview I found a few months ago that was done on the actress Sherry Jackson. She played the youngest daughter of Harry and Lucy Morgan in the film "The Breaking Point" (1950).



In the interview Sherry was asked to share some of her memories she had of making the film. Here is one of her memories regarding Curtiz.



*"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!"*



She did state she really liked Curtiz and he liked her. (Maybe he was nice to child actors!) She worked with Curtiz two more times in "TroubleAlong the Way" (1952) and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1960)



She also shared in the interview a couple more memories she had regarding two of the "principles" in the film but I will save that for another day and / or thread.






Edited by: Lori3 on Oct 8, 2012 12:21 AM

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Thanks very much for the anecdote about Curtiz, Lori. It's always fun to hear stuff like this.


Language issues or not, Curtiz and Garfield were a beautiful combination in The Breaking Point.



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About Jimmy Cagney: I loved his autobiography; "Cagney on Cagney," I think it was titled. In it he describes his early years learning to fight, and acquiring so much street wisdom. He talks about some guy harassing him in a stadium after a game and Jimmy listening to him sound off, and then telling the man how stupid he was to be doing that standing with his back to a concrete stairway.


Cagney was a great friend of George Brent's, and in their last years, whenever Cagney was in town, he would meet the rest of the Warner's alumni who were still alive, and they'd have lunch. Everybody got too old or died and that was the end of the meetings at the Jolly Roger in Lomas Santa Fe.

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> {quote:title=clore wrote:}{quote}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.

> Yes, the entire scene was shot on a Warner Bros. soundstage, except for the shot of the airplane revving its engines -- that was a real aircraft at the Van Nuys Airport.


The plane in the scene's background was indeed small and two-dimensional -- painted plywood --surrounded by midgets dressed as ground crew to exaggerrate the distance.

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*The plane in the scene's background was indeed small and two-dimensional -- painted plywood --surrounded by midgets dressed as ground crew to exaggerrate the distance.*


Good thing it was foggy at that Casablanca airport, eh? And poor Major Strasser, getting shot for nothing. No one was going to get off the ground that day. ;)

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Hi Tom. Just thought I would share this regarding Curtiz's film "The Breaking Point" 1950.


I "tweet" info to appropriate people ( people who tweet about old classic films and actors) the info regarding my petition.


I just sent one out tweet to someone who wrote out the following on twitter.


"A little blown away by THE BREAKING POINT with John Garfield and Patricia Neal which I just watched for the first time tonight."


Maybe if the internet and / or if twitter was around in 1950, the film along with it's star and director wouldn't be so forgotten today?


This film over the last year has been getting a lot of attention and praise, and re-discovered if you will especially by the Film Noir Foundation.


You should be proud because you were the first one "here" to point out to all of us that this film by Curtiz needed another and closer look.


Was the film "The Breaking Point" the last film Curtiz directed for Warner Bros?




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*Was the film "The Breaking Point" the last film Curtiz directed for Warner Bros?*


No, Lori, Curtiz didn't part from Warner Brothers until 1954. His remaining films with the studio afterward, however, lacked distinction.


Maybe Garfield and Curtiz brought out the best in each other. In any event there is a quote from Curtiz that I saw in Wikipedia, and he sounded rather bitter, "You are only appreciated as long as you carry the dough into the box office. They throw you into the gutter the next day."


I rather suspect that there were a lot of Hollywood employees that would agree with that sentiment. The reality is, though, that just as Warner Brothers' overall film product declined in quality after the '40s, so, too, did Curtiz's work. The director had always had a close relationship (both inside and outside the studio) with producer Hal Wallis and all of the director's greatest classics at the studio had been made with him. Virtually all those Warners films that I listed in the original posting were produced by Wallis up to Casablanca. Every one!


After Wallis left Warners, coincidence or not, Curtiz's output was less impressive. There were exceptions, of course, such as the glorious Mildred Pierce and the equally memorable Breaking Point. But the sense of artistic decline, for whatever reason, was still evident.


Again, filmmaking is a collaborative effort and one concern that I have had about this thread is that *I appear to be giving ALL the credit to Michael Curtiz as director*. Which, of course, was clearly not the case. Not when you have an intelligent producer like Hal Wallis watching all the shots and making suggestions to Curtiz, or, of course, the great cinematographers and stage hands, the wonderful stars, the art directors, and geniuses like Steiner and Korngold creating their musical magic as well.


Wallis, for example, along with Jack Warner, overruled the Hungarian director who DIDN'T want Errol Flynn to be cast as Captain Blood. And it was Wallis who urged Curtiz to ease up on Flynn on the set of that film and help the inexperienced actor to relax more. It was also Wallis that ruled out some more frilly costumes on Flynn that Curtiz had him wearing.


BUT, Michael Curtiz was a HUGE contributor to the overall vision of his films, and they would have been markedly different (and, I suspect, inferior) if they had not had him at the helm.



Curtiz with his Oscar for Casablanca. This was almost the last time that the director worked with Hal Wallis as producer at Warners. After Wallis left the studio, coincidence or not, Curtiz's work, with only a few exceptions, became less interesting.

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*My favorite director. No need to cite films or genres. But I will say that Max Steiner scored 33 films for Michael Curtiz. A match made in heaven!!*

Your favourite director, Ray. I can see that you didn't need this thread to make you appreciate this Hungarian import's contribution to cinema.

And you brought up the valuable subject of musical composers with which Curtiz, as well as the other directors at Warners, so greatly benefited. With composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the incredibly prolific Max Steiner scoring these productions it was almost like having an extra ace in the hole for Curtiz and the others with that kind of musical accompaniment to work on the emotions of an audience.

How much lesser impact would Curtiz's Dodge City have without that epic sounding Steiner score? And the depth of the orchestrations that a genius like Korngold brought to Robin Hood or The Sea Hawk or The Sea Wolf can never be underestimated.

Ray, you are far more of a expert than almost any of us here on this subject matter (acknowledging that musicalnovelty is out there too), but it's my understanding that Steiner didn't even want to use that old standard "As Time Goes By" for Casablanca. Well, then, "stuck" with a song he didn't want, just look at all the brilliant, at times, subtle variations that he utilized with that number throughout the entire Casablanca score.

And, let's face it, Steiner's music and his variations on As Time Goes By, aren't they a major reason why so many viewers today look back upon that film as one of the GREAT romantic treasures of American films?


Max Steiner

Again, Curtiz was a truly great, neglected director, but he seems just that much greater with a producer like Hal Wallis, a cinematographer like Sol Polito, and composers like Steiner and Korngold all assisting him in the final product that we see on the screen.
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Curtiz -- My favorite director, hands down. It kills me that we keep hearing about

Hitchcock as "Director Extraordinaire" with barely a mention of Curtiz when what Hitchcock

did was re-do the same movie a zillion times. Curtiz was a genius and could work in any genre (well, maybe not comedy!) The films he created are on everyone's "Best Classic Films" list. I could care if he made the actors crazy -- Actors always resent the director and this one made all of them (Cagney, Bogart, Davis, Flynn, Crawford, etc.) look marvelous.

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That's the thing about Curtiz, lydecker. Since he did such outstanding work in so many genres, I strongly suspect that most filmgoers will find something of his for them to cheer. Romantics will love Casablanca, adventure fans will go for the Flynn films, western fans have some of the most elaborate with his big "A" productions, horror buffs have Mystery of the Wax Museum, while those in love with film noir melodrama regard Mildred Pierce with a special affection, as do gangster fans with one of the best, Angels with Dirty Faces.


Only those strictly into comedies will find little to cheer about in Michael Curtiz's films. The man had a remarkable career.

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