Michael Curtiz

A Life in Film


An apocryphal anecdote that encapsulates Michael Curtiz's obsessiveness with filmmaking reputedly occurred during The Sea Hawk (1940). Curtiz was shuttling back and forth topside on a large replica ship that rose from the floor of a huge Warner Bros. sound stage. As the director peered through his viewfinder and strode around the confined space, the actors scurried out of harm’s way with the exception of an older man who had a bit part as a minister. After repeatedly dodging the pacing Curtiz, the flustered thespian stepped backwards off the ship and landed with a sickening thud on a mattress pad at the bottom of the stage floor. Curtiz glanced downward, then whirled around and clipped off in his distinctive Hungarian accent: “Get me another Minister!”

Michael Curtiz directed more acclaimed movies in different styles and genres than any other film director.  He directed 180 films; a staggering output that outstrips the legendary John Ford and exceeds the combined careers of George Cukor, Victor Fleming and Howard Hawks. Nominated five times by the Motion Picture Academy as Best Director and winning for Casablanca, Curtiz helmed rousing adventures, westerns, musicals, spectacles, drama, comedies, horror, war, crime, mystery and film noir. He shaped the earliest days of silent cinema in Europe as he acted, produced and directed scores of films in Budapest, Vienna and France before arriving at Warner Bros. in 1926.  An artist with an incandescent mania for filmmaking, Curtiz slept a fitful few hours each night with his time off set usually spent either talking and thinking about movies. The irreverent actor Peter Lorre observed that Curtiz ate pictures and excreted them. The life of Michael Curtiz was a figurative feast of work.

No other film director possessing his credentials has been accorded less historical respect. Contemporary cineastes and writers serially overlooked Curtiz or spurned him as a vocational mechanic of the studio system who was not a auteur. Neither neglect nor dismissal alters the fact that the work of Michael Curtiz has had a more enduring influence on American popular culture than that of any other filmmaker. Along with the timeless romanticism of Casablanca, succeeding generations revere Yankee Doodle Dandy every Fourth of July and White Christmas during the Yuletide season. Few directors elicited better portrayals from their actors. There were ten Oscar nominated performances realized under his guidance despite the professed loathing of his directorial temperament by Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Cary Grant along with lesser satellites in his tumultuous orbit. Although his on-set clashes have been copiously chronicled, Curtiz’s discovery and mentorship of Walter Slezak, Errol Flynn, John Garfield, Doris Day, Ann Blyth and Peggy Lee among others has gone virtually unnoticed. Beyond the stereotype of a tyrant in jodhpurs who ranted in broken English, Michael Curtiz possessed many admirers as well as detractors. His marriage to screenwriter Bess Meredyth was one of Hollywood's most enduring creative partnerships while his deliberately obscured personal life has been, until now, largely unreported upon.

Six years in production, supported by archival research conducted in Europe and the Americas including numerous interviews of family members and colleagues, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film will be the long awaited story of Hollywood’s most prolific director of classic films.