Michael Curtiz (born Mano Kaminer, December 24, 1886 – April 10, 1962) was a Hungarian American film director. He had early credits as Mihaly Kertesz and Michael Kertesz. 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.
Curtiz was born Mano Kaminer to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary (then Austria-Hungary). In 1905 he Hungaricised his name to Mihaly Kertesz. He claimed to have been born December 24, 1886. Both the date and the year are open to debate: he was fond of telling tall tales about his early life, including that he had run away from home to join the circus and that he had been a member of the Hungarian fencing team at the 1912 Olympic Games. In reality, Curtiz had a conventional middle-class upbringing; he studied at Markoszy University and the Royal Academy of Theater and Art, Budapest, before beginning his career as an actor and director as Mihaly Kertesz at the National Hungarian Theater in 1912.
Details of his early experience as a director are sparse, and it is not clear what part he may have played in the direction of several early films, but he is known to have directed at least one film in Hungary before spending six months in 1913 at the Nordisk studio in Denmark honing his craft. While in Denmark, Curtiz worked as the assistant director for August Blom on Denmark's first multi-reel feature film, Atlantis. On the outbreak of World War I, he briefly served in the artillery of the Austro-Hungarian Army, but he had returned to film-making by 1915. In that or the following year he married for the first time, to actress Lucy Doraine. The couple divorced in 1923. Curtiz left Hungary when the film industry was nationalised in 1919, during the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic, and soon settled in Vienna. He made at least 21 films for Sascha Films, among them the Biblical epics Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkonigin (1924). The latter, released in the US as Moon of Israel, caught the attention of Jack L. Warner, who hired Curtiz for his own studio with the intention of having him direct a similar film for Warner Brothers, Noah's Ark, eventually produced in 1928. He married his second wife, Lili Damita, in 1925; they divorced in 1926. When he left for the United States, he left behind at least one illegitimate son and one illegitimate daughter.
Curtiz arrived in the United States in 1926 (according to some sources on the fourth of July, but according to others in June). He took the anglicised name "Michael Curtiz". He had a lengthy and prolific Hollywood career, with directing credits on over 100 films in many film genres. During the 1930s, he was often credited on four films in a single year, although he was not always the sole director on these projects. In the pre-Code period, Curtiz directed such films as Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X (both shot in two-strip Technicolor), and The Kennel Murder Case. In the mid-1930s, he began the successful cycle of adventure films starring Errol Flynn that included Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk and Santa Fe Trail (1940).
By the early 1940s Curtiz had become fairly wealthy, earning $3,600 per week and owning a substantial estate, complete with polo pitch. 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 sexual relationships with extras on set; Meredyth once left him for a short time, but they remained married until 1961, shortly before Curtiz's death. 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.
Prime examples of his work in the 1940s are The Sea Wolf (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945). During this period he also directed the World War 2 propaganda film Mission to Moscow (1943), 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. Other Curtiz efforts included Four Daughters (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Life With Father (1947), Young Man with a Horn and The Breaking Point (1950).
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 US.
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". 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". 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.
His final film, The Comancheros, was released six months before his death from cancer on April 10, 1962, aged 75. (Curtiz was ill during the shoot, and star John Wayne directed the film on those days when Curtiz was too ill to work. Wayne refused to take a co-director credit, insisting that Curtiz be given sole credit for the film.) He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
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. He 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 demeanour: 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". Curtiz was not popular with most of his colleagues, many of whom thought him arrogant. 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". 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. 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".
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 liked Curtiz's phrase "bring on the empty horses" (for "bring on the horses without riders") so much that he used it for the title of the second volume of his memoirs.
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".
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". 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. 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.
Curtiz also won an Academy Award in the category of Best Short Subject (Two-reel), for Sons of Liberty.
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.
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.The Charlatan (1917) with Gyula Csortos and Lenkeffy Ica
The Mad Genius (1931) with John Barrymore and Marian Marsh
The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) with Richard Barthelmess and Bette Davis
Doctor X (1932) with Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill
Goodbye Again (1933) with Warren William and Joan Blondell
20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933) with Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell
The Kennel Murder Case (1933) with William Powell as Philo Vance
Jimmy the Gent (1934) with James Cagney and Bette Davis
British Agent (1934) with Leslie Howard and Kay Francis
Front Page Woman (1935) with Bette Davis and George Brent
Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone
Four Daughters (1938) with John Garfield and Claude Rains
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart
Dodge City (1939) with Errol Flynn and Bruce Cabot
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn
Santa Fe Trail (1940) with Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan
Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart
The Sea Hawk (1940) with Errol Flynn and Alan Hale, Sr.
The Sea Wolf (1941) with Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield
Captains of the Clouds (1942) with James Cagney and famed fighter pilot Billy Bishop
Casablanca (1942) with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman
Mission to Moscow (1943) with Walter Huston
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) with James Cagney and Walter Huston
Mildred Pierce (1945) with Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth
Night and Day (1946) with Cary Grant as Cole Porter
Life with Father (1947) with William Powell, Irene Dunne and Elizabeth Taylor
Romance on the High Seas (1948 film); Doris Day's movie debut
The Breaking Point (1950) with John Garfield and Patricia Neal
I'll See You in My Dreams (1951), a biographical film of composer and lyricist Gus Kahn, with Doris Day and Danny Thomas
The Jazz Singer (1952), a remake with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee
White Christmas (1954) with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney
The Egyptian (1954) with Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Gene Tierney
We're No Angels (1955) with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov
King Creole (1958) with Elvis Presley and Walter Matthau
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960) with Eddie Hodges, Tony Randall and Patty McCormick
The Comancheros (1961) with John Wayne and Stuart Whitman