Casablanca is my all-time favorite film but its director, Michael Curtiz, rarely gets much credit for its success. His reputation is that of a journeyman with a good eye. In the impressive and entertaining new book Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (University Press of Kentucky) author Alan K. Rode illustrates why Curtiz has been undervalued for so many years. In addition to his stupefying output (180 feature films, 70 in his native Hungary and 110 in Hollywood) he lived and breathed moviemaking, to the detriment of his family and the despair of many coworkers who considered him a brute.
Like Fritz Lang, he never understood the need for his cast and crew to take time out for lunch. He slept only four hours a day and spent the rest of his time on his feet. There is no shortage of evidence that Curtiz could be a despot, but for every nasty story there is an anecdote from an actor who respected and learned from him. He was famous for mangling the English language, yet he improvised new scenes with his actors on a regular basis and—in almost every case—improved the movies they were making.
From reading Rudy Behlmer’s indispensable book Inside Warner Bros., I knew that Warner Bros. production chief Hal Wallis turned apoplectic when he saw Curtiz’s dailies, which ate up precious footage with “artistic” camera moves and compositions. Rode explores their relationship and reveals that it was multifaceted; away from the studio they were friendly.
There is another, more troubling, side to Curtiz’s character: he was, in the words of one associate, a “sex maniac.” He loved and admired his wife, veteran screenwriter Bess Meredyth, and relied on her for ideas to improve each one of his pictures. Yet he cheated on her throughout their marriage and denied responsibility for children he fathered over many years’ time, both in Europe and America. (His stepson John Meredyth Lucas got along with him, for the most part, and provides some of the book’s keenest insights and anecdotes.)
Because the Warner Bros. production files are so extensive, and Rode did his own independent research, this book also serves as a virtual diary of Curtiz’s filmmaking career. Rode refers to him as an “anti-auteur,” as he would take on almost any assignment the studio handed him, be it a musical, a western, a soap opera or a swashbuckler. He often filled in for ailing directors and helped to finish pictures that were behind schedule or simply in need of his expertise. Weighing in at 704 pages (including notes and an index) this hefty volume provides the story behind such varied films as Doctor X, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Kid Galahad, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Four Daughters, Dodge City, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, This is the Army, Life with Father, White Christmas, and King Creole, to name just a few. Rode singles out such unappreciated films as Mountain Justice and Roughly Speaking and lavishes attention on two of the director’s best Warner releases, The Sea Wolf and The Breaking Point.
I can’t imagine a more thorough account of any director’s life and work. This biography is especially valuable because Curtiz has gotten short shrift from critics and historians. Alan K. Rode has devoted years to this endeavor and it shows. I devoured this book and give it my highest recommendation.
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