Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (2017) Alan K. Rode
University Press of Kentucky
Hardcover, 681 pages
(includes photos, filmography, notes, bibliography, and an index)
If you’re a fan of classic movies, you’ve probably seen at least one film directed by Michael Curtiz. That film is usually Casablanca (1942), but you’ve likely seen others without realizing it. Perhaps The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City (1940), The Sea Hawk (1940), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), Young Man with a Horn (1950), White Christmas (1954), and many others. These films only scratch the surface. Even if we limit ourselves to these eight films, they’re all very different from each other. You’ve got romance, adventure, swashbucklers, biopics, musicals, a western, drama, melodrama, film noir… Curtiz directed so many films and so many different types of films that you couldn’t stick a label on him. He was a cinematic chameleon. You could watch a Curtiz film and not even realize you’d watched a Curtiz film (if you even knew who he was). But the people who worked with him sure knew who he was, and they never forgot it.
Alan K. Rode takes the reader through a colorful journey of Curtiz’s early days in his native Budapest, where he was drawn to the Hungarian film industry. Soon, Curtiz began making his own films, eventually leaving Hungary to pursue projects in Austria, a place where American films (and interests) were growing in popularity. People began to notice Curtiz’s work, including Jack Warner of Warner Bros., who proclaimed, “We’ve got to get this man to Hollywood!”
Which he did, but not without difficulty. Although Curtiz had made nearly 70 films in Europe, Hollywood was an entirely different experience for him. He couldn’t speak the language, he didn’t understand the U.S. justice system (with which he would have run-ins), and he certainly couldn’t have anticipated the forces of nature that were Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis, two men who helped Curtiz rise to greatness, but nearly drove him to madness in the process.
The cast and crew on any Curtiz picture soon learned that after the charm of his butchered English wore off, his temper and tyrannical nature could be devastating. Also devastating was Curtiz’s lack of concern for safety on some of his productions. A spectacular accident during the filming of the flood in Noah’s Ark (1928) injured several members of the cast and crew, and to this day it’s not clear whether or not someone died as a result. (Records of injury and accident on Hollywood sets at the time were sketchy at best.)
Despite his often brutish behavior, some actors (John Garfield, Claude Rains) got along quite well with Curtiz while others (Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and a long list of others) despised him. Curtiz wasn’t exactly a man to be admired at home, either. The book details the casual, almost dismissive manner in which Curtiz treated those closest to him, including his wife Bess Meredith, a woman greatly responsible for much of the director’s success. Yet Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film is primarily that: the man we see making the films. Regardless of his temper and shenanigans, film is what drove Curtiz; he couldn’t live without making them. This is his - and their - story.
Many (including one gentleman I briefly engaged with online) have dismissed Curtiz as a “minor” director, a director who only made “popular movies and not art,” a man not-to-be-named in the pantheon of auteurs. I don’t really care about the auteur theory; I care about good films and Michael Curtiz made some damn good films. I would challenge anyone to name another director from the same era who made as many good films for this long in so many different genres. Warts and all, Michael Curtiz deserves his due as a great director and Rode’s book proves it.
Rode manages a tremendous balance between the creation of each film, stories of its cast and crew, the steps Curtiz took to make good (and sometimes great) films, the obstacles he faced (often put in place by Warner and Wallis), and their evaluation. Rode’s writing style is unobtrusive and conversational, like talking to the author himself (which I’ve had the pleasure to do). The research and scholarship is exceptional, including a filmography which is nothing short of staggering. (I only wish that all of Curtiz’s early films were available to watch.) Whether you want to skip around reading about your favorite Curtiz movies or read the book from cover to cover, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film is a book no fan of movies should be without.