Oscar Profile #450: Michael Curtiz

Born December 24, 1896 in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary), Mano Kaminer was born into a Jewish family with two brothers and a sister. His father was a carpenter, his mother an opera singer. A born actor-director, he built a theater in the basement of his house when he was 8, performing in plays he improvised with five of his friends.

Working with a traveling theatrical company from the age of 19, Kaminer changed his name to Mihaly Kertesz when he began working for the National Hungarian Theatre in 1912. That same year he directed Hungary’s first feature film, Today and Tomorrow in which he had the leading role. He followed that with a second film, The Last Bohemian and was part of the Hungarian fencing team at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. By 1918, the year he married first wife, actress Lucy Doraine (1898-1989). They divorced in 1923, two years before he was brought to Hollywood by Jack Warner where he again changed his name, this time to Michael Curtiz.

Briefly married to actress Lili Damita (1904-1994), Curtiz would marry prolific writer and Academy founding member Bess Meredyth (1890-1969) in 1929, adopting her 10-year-old son, future writer John Meredyth Lucas. Although separated twice, they would remain married until his death.

Curtiz quickly established himself as Warner’s go-to director all types of films ranging from epics (Noah’s Ark) to musicals (Mammy) to melodramas (Bright Lights, Alias the Doctor) to horror films (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum). By 1935, he had become one of Hollywood’s most eminent directors. Although not officially an Oscar nominee that year, he was a write-in candidate for Captain Blood, coming in second to winner John Ford (The Informer).

With two films in contention for the 1938 Best Picture Oscar (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Four Daughters), Curtiz received two nominations for Best Director for Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters, an accomplishment that has occurred only one other time when Steven Soderbergh was nominated for two 2000 films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning for the latter.

Nominated again for 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, he won for 1943’s Casablanca and subsequently directed Joan Crawford to an Oscar for 1945’s Mildred Pierce.

Curtiz’s prolific career continued with such films as Life with Father, Young Man with a Horn, The Breaking Point, Force of Arms, Trouble Along the Way, The Egyptian ,White Christmas, We’re No Angels, The Helen Morgan Story, The Proud Rebel, King Creole, A Breath of Scandal, Francis of Assisi and The Comancheros, working almost until his death in 1962 at the age of 75.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley

Although William Keighley is co-credited as director, he was fired early on for not giving the film’s action sequences the right impact. Curtiz, took over despite his now stormy relationship with star Errol Flynn, now married to Curtiz’s ex-wife Lily Damita. Flynn was upset with Curtiz for causing the deaths of 25 horses on the set of 1936’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. The horse Olivia de Havilland rides as Maid Marian was later sold to Roy Rogers who renamed him Trigger, his co-star in films and on TV for many years thereafter. Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles and Eugene Pallette co-star.

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz

This perennial 4th of July treat was only the second film in which star James Cagney displayed his singing and dancing skills on film, the first was in 1933’s Footlight Parade. The scene in which Cagney as George M. Cohan says goodbye to Walter Huston as his dying father so moved Curtiz that he wept during the filming. This was in part due to Curtiz’s own life story in which he was only able to bring his mother to Hollywood. His father, two brothers and his sister all died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Cagney was 11 years older than Rosemary DeCamp who played his mother.

CASABLANCA (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz

Released in New York in October 1942, the film’s Hollywood release was held up until January 1943 to coincide with the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin conference in Casablanca at that time. The film with the most quoted dialogue in film history improves with every viewing. Humphrey Bogart s the cynical bar owner, Ingrid Bergman as his former lover, Paul Henreid as her husband and Claude Rains the police chief head a cast that features Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson and Joy Page in vivid supporting roles. Play it Sam, play “As Time Goes By” as Ingrid Bergman says to Dooley Wilson.

MILDRED PIERCE (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz

Curtiz and star Joan Crawford hated each other at the start of the film which would earn her the only Oscar of her career. Tensions eased after he agreed to only curse in Hungarian and she agreed to wear her aprons loosely instead of having her dressmaker fit them to her. The Malibu beach house which appears in the key opening sequence and in several others was owned by Curtiz. It was built in 1929 and was destroyed in January 1983 when it collapsed into the Pacific Ocean after a week of heavy storms. Ann Blyth, who played Crawford’s spoiled daughter, maintains to this day that she never saw the Crawford of Mommie Dearest fame.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954), directed by Michael Curtiz

The most popular of the many films Curtiz made after ending his contract with Warner Bros., the holiday favorite starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen is a semi-remake of 1942’s Holiday Inn. Four years later he directed the most successful pop singer since Crosby, Elvis Presley in King Creole and was in discussion to direct him in two other films but those discussions fell through. Instead, he ended his career directing Sophia Loren in A Breath of Scandal, Bradford Dillman and Dolores Hart in Francis of Assisi and John Wayne in The Comancheros.

MICHAEL CURTIZ AND OSCAR

  • Captain Blood (1935) – write-in candidate who came in second – Best Director
  • Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) – nominated – Best Director
  • Four Daughters (1938) – nominated – Best Director
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) – nominated – Best Director
  • Casablanca (1943) – Oscar – Best Director

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