We used to think we knew what a film director was. First, it was someone who hardly existed; then, a mighty egotist; later a professional in charge of a factory product. Next, he or she was raised to the status of auteur, artist, or genius. And now…well, directors have to be all things. So it’s valuable to note the insouciant flexibility of Michael Curtiz, the Captain Renault (that’s Claude Rains in Casablanca) of movie directors.
Six writers were paid for script work on Casablanca, and in total they received $47,281. The producer, Hal Wallis, took away $52,000; Humphrey Bogart received $36,667; and for loaning Ingrid Bergman for the picture, her proprietor David O. Selznick got $25,000. No one on the Warner Brothers project received as much as its director, Michael Curtiz—he made $73,400. Although he was in charge of what may be the most treasured film ever made in Hollywood, there was still confusion at his studio whether his name was spelled “Curteese,” “Curtess,” or even “Curtis.” Some people never quite grasped Curtiz’s English, wrapped up as it was in his flamboyant Hungarian accent. He had also once borne the name Mihály Kertész, and before that Emmanuel Kaminer. At Warner Brothers in the flux of war and displaced persons, the names on contracts or letters of transit could get confused.
An orthodoxy was laid down in 1968 by Andrew Sarris, in his influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968, that Curtiz ranked in the “Lightly Likable” category of directors, among the blithe beneficiaries of the studio system. Still, he had one enduring masterpiece, Sarris thought, “the happiest of happy accidents, and the most decisive exception to the auteur theory.” This was Casablanca, the movie that Noah Isenberg says we’ll always have.
Lightly or not, Curtiz could get very emotional about his pictures; he was known for crying. He had objected to casting Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, because he wanted Barbara Stanwyck. But then Crawford did a screen test—she had just been dropped by her studio, MGM, and she needed to make a comeback. The right desperate look was in her eyes. The tough Hungarian director wept, and she was on her way to a personality Oscar, like the one James Cagney had won for Yankee Doodle Dandy, another Curtiz picture.
Is there a unifying force in Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mildred Pierce, probably the best-known Curtiz films? They are all in black and white. All three came from Warner Brothers and run between ninety minutes and two hours. Casablanca is a wartime love story about commitment; Yankee Doodle Dandy is an intoxicated biopic in which the legend of the Broadway producer and composer George M. Cohan turns into the dynamic myth of Jimmy Cagney himself; Mildred Pierce is a noir about the wretched ordeal of being a mother. In all three films we’re asked not to notice the style so much as ride on it. In Casablanca, when Rick reencounters Ilsa (because Sam has played the forbidden song, “As Time Goes By”), he charges across the café floor and stops short on seeing her. The fury in his face fights the lush melody. You could say that this effect depends on the writing and cutting, as well as on the vivid faces. All true, but when Curtiz filmed, he had the imperative of editing in his head already. He made us feel, in the way he shot each scene, that our attention was vital. He trusted this credo of the system—don’t be boring.
Artistic integrity meant less to Curtiz than continuing to work. He did the pictures assigned to him, without much complaint and with little thought of interfering with the scripts. At Warner Brothers, he might make four films a year. Before that, in Europe, he had done seven or eight. But Sarris assessed him in a single paragraph. As Alan K. Rode puts it in Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, he “made so many pictures he ended up being taken for granted.”
The driving force in Curtiz’s films was a belief that the many skills in studio collaboration could handle just about any story that fell within the positivism of Hollywood in that era. It was a unity based in pure versatility, to the point of creative self-effacement. It’s hard now to find keynote personal touches in Curtiz’s films—perhaps they were all ironed out by the system. But in movies crammed with characters, like Casablanca or The Adventures of Robin Hood, there is no hint of confusion. Supporting actors are never neglected. Curtiz became a model director at Warner Brothers in part because he could shoot action sequences with assurance in an age when action often mattered more than character or plot.
During the war years he directed eighteen feature films, plus a twenty-minute Technicolor short called Sons of Liberty, in which Claude Rains played Haym Salomon, a Polish Jew who helped fund the American Revolutionary War. The public loved this gesture; it won the Oscar for best short subject. Rode says it’s very dated now, but it’s a reminder that Casablanca was made by a gang of refugees from Europe, many of them Jewish and with relatives lost in the Holocaust. The survivors kept cool about their stories of good luck and bad, and in Casablanca Victor Laszlo’s concentration camp experience is rendered as an elegant scar on Paul Henreid’s brow.
There’s a more general point to this story. Rode’s magnificent biography comes too late for him to have interviewed many of those who worked with Curtiz, but still he has spared nothing in tracking people down as far afield as Budapest. Curtiz was born there in 1886 to Jewish parents, a carpenter and an opera singer. As a boy he constructed a toy theater in his home where he could arrange cardboard figures in plays, with lighting and sound effects. He wanted to be an actor and studied at the Budapest Royal Academy of Theater and Art before serving a year in World War I, during which he was wounded on the Russian front. He and Claude Rains were the only leading figures associated with Casablanca who had seen combat. (Bogart was in the navy, but it’s unlikely he saw action.)
Though Kertész—as he started calling himself in 1905—is regarded as a founder of Hungarian cinema, few of his early films survive. But it’s clear that he became an admired figure, a sardonic actor, and a ladies’ man as handsome as a matinee idol. He married one actress, Lucy Doraine, and had a lengthy affair with another, Lili Damita, before he married Bess Meredyth, a screenwriter who served as a useful adviser but took to her bed in despair because of his passing affairs and forgotten illegitimate offspring.
Rode doesn’t present Curtiz as an especially pleasant or considerate man. He behaved as if movies were more important than anything else. Inclined to lose his temper, Curtiz relentlessly stayed on schedule and budget. He was also a natural melodramatist, capable of making stereotypes feel fresh and delightful. In Budapest, he was a contemporary of Alexander Korda; they were both entertaining survivors and hard-nosed opportunists.
After the war, Curtiz moved to Vienna and made several films in German. Vienna was a center of influence on filmmaking. The Austro-Hungarian atmosphere of amused cynicism and bittersweet romance marked Curtiz’s work there. He was seldom sentimental or forgiving in his pictures. In the photograph on the cover of Rode’s book he looks like a worldly figure from The Third Man, with a shady past and a mocking remark on the tip of his tongue. His urbanity and wit would serve him well in Hollywood. No matter how much Curtiz mangled the English language, he maintained an authority over his feisty, opinionated stars—Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Errol Flynn, and John Garfield, not to mention Bette Davis, probably the toughest of the bunch.
He arrived in America in 1926 and soon went to work for Warner Brothers. There he befriended the production chief Hal Wallis: they played polo together and shared a ruthless, businesslike attitude toward stories and stars. Just as he had promised the studio, Curtiz turned his hand to anything: he did horror pictures (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum); he handled the only screen pairing of Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing; and he directed Al Jolson in Mammy. Decades later he got on very well with Elvis Presley on King Creole. He launched a handsome Australian novice, Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and the ecstatically boyish The Adventures of Robin Hood. Curtiz said he was an ideal director for these studies in valiant leadership, with the star’s bold grin and virtuoso swordplay, since he had fenced for Hungary in the 1912 Olympics. This was an invention, but maybe he believed it himself.
Robin Hood feels under serene control. The truth was more complicated. It was Cagney who was first cast as Robin, but then he got into a contract dispute with the studio, and Flynn was called in. The film, shot in Technicolor, promised to be the most expensive picture Warner Brothers had yet made, and Curtiz was dismayed when the direction job was given to William Keighley, a journeyman. But Keighley failed at the big action scenes. So Curtiz was assigned, and his reputation was enhanced for rescuing a big project. His Robin Hood is still the classic version of that legend. He understood that Flynn moved with a grace and élan that matched the surging musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The set-piece sword duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is closer to a Fred Astaire routine than a reliable depiction of how men fought in the twelfth century.
Before he made Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, Curtiz was already established as the top director at the studio, famous for his versatility. He was also regarded warily because of his taste for beautiful shots and scenes. The professionals at Warner Brothers thought he was unduly European, steeped in German expressionism and inclined to ignore plot for sheer style. Orson Welles once remarked that Curtiz had “no idea about dialogue, but a very, very good visual sense…. You can’t imagine how Hungarian he was.” Jack Warner scolded Curtiz on Four Daughters: “If you will stop all that superfluous roaming camera, Mike, you will make a great picture, as you always have.”
Did Warner miss Curtiz’s cunning? A reputation for stylish shots should not obscure his acute judgment of plot. Curtiz knew how to light and shoot Joan Crawford when she first appeared in Mildred Pierce, on the waterfront at night, close to suicide, with a line of shadow falling on her brow. That was new for Crawford. Maybe it was the cinematographer, Ernie Haller, who came up with it (Haller’s 185 credits also include Captain Blood and Gone with the Wind). But it could also have been Curtiz’s eye. If you study his films, they waste no time, they are invariably good-looking, but they are also greedy for action, whether in a duel or a glance. One will not find a scene in any of his films in which the dialogue or the acting seems like the clunky work of a man whose English could be comical. Possibly Curtiz contrived his accent as adroitly as he composed close-ups.
A feature of Noah Isenberg’s engaging study of Casablanca is his acknowledgment of the cast and crew’s expertise. So much care was put into the film’s lighting, set design, montage, and secondary performances that the audience in its innocence may have mistaken this Burbank North Africa for the real thing. (In fact Casablanca was liberated by Allied troops just as the picture opened.) But it was sheer make-believe passing as tough realism; wartime compromises and anguish were masked behind a noir flourish. Curtiz lost close relatives in Auschwitz, people who never got their letters of transit. But he knew not to go too deep in that direction.
Isenberg’s book is not as rich as his earlier study of Edgar Ulmer, but it is an ideal introduction for new generations and for those who don’t know Aljean Harmetz’s more complete Round Up the Usual Suspects (1992). Both Harmetz and Isenberg dispel the myth that Casablanca was just a happy accident and that no one understood where the story was going or knew who should star in it. Producer Hal Wallis had always wanted Bogart as Rick. Ilsa was the only part in doubt—she might have been played by Hedy Lamarr or Michelle Morgan. But time proved that Bergman was the right, immaculate choice.
Stories still circulate that Bergman didn’t know during shooting whether she was going to stay with Victor or go with Rick. This was studio romance, and a way of comparing the insouciance of the film’s characters with the nerve and fatalism of studio filmmaking. It would actually have been impossible under the Production Code for Ilsa to drop her husband. The studio knew where it wanted to go, and a group of craftsmen understood how to get there. Maybe Curtiz didn’t care much about the story. He put the momentum of the project above all else and never risked uncertainty. There are no mistakes in Casablanca. It’s a clue to the longevity of the film that, despite the hideous dilemmas and horror of war, this version of Casablanca feels like an exciting place to be.
By 1968, filmgoers were ready to believe in the politique des auteurs, the theory that directors were the unique creators of their films. The idea naturally had a French label, for young French writers (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer) had first articulated the case for the genius of such directors as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirk. No one did more to develop that theory in the US than Sarris, who in The American Cinema made an ambitious attempt to rescue Hollywood films from professional anonymity.
The Warner Brothers where Curtiz flourished for so long, however, did not believe that directors were heroes or artists. Curtiz was the studio’s top director, but Warner Brothers had a team of professionals who took on the offered assignments. They included Raoul Walsh (a great hero to the French, and the director of The Roaring Twenties and White Heat), Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), Vincent Sherman (The Hard Way, a remarkable story of sibling rivalry, starring Ida Lupino), Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest, Black Legion), Irving Rapper (Now, Voyager), Alfred E. Green (Dangerous, which won Bette Davis her first Oscar), and William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola). There were only two directors at the studio with an unquestioned personal style: Busby Berkeley and Howard Hawks. Berkeley did erotically unrestrained musicals with troops of beautiful women. Hawks was there just a few years, but long enough to make two masterpieces: To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, ostensibly noir adventures but imbued with Hawks’s mastery of screwball comedy and his sultry idealizing of flirtation.
Sarris had justifiable heroes, directors insistent on their own style. Hawks, John Ford, and Hitchcock were industry survivors, but a number of directors were never comfortable with the impersonal smoothness that the studios demanded (what Julius Epstein, a writer on Casablanca, called “slick shit”). Many of those mavericks were eventually cut loose from the herd: Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Max Ophüls, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Jean Renoir, even D.W. Griffith.
Nothing detracts from the wayward achievements of those men, but nothing should stop us from appreciating directors like Michael Curtiz either. Today, mainstream American cinema has too few directors whose manner is recognizable as soon as a film starts. But there are Curtizian careers if we care to notice them. Many viewers have taken immense pleasure from searching long-form television series like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. The first was created by David Chase and the second by Vince Gilligan; it was they who organized the series and the men and women who contributed to them. But the directors who worked on these shows, like Tim Van Patten or Michelle MacLaren, remain relatively unknown.
MacLaren did eleven episodes of Breaking Bad (more than anyone else). She also has directed four episodes of Game of Thrones, two of Better Call Saul, one of Westworld, and two of The Deuce. That’s about thirty-eight hours of film since 2009—the equivalent of nineteen movies. No feature film director today comes close to that work rate. Van Patten has done twenty episodes of The Sopranos, eighteen of Boardwalk Empire, and three of The Wire. I’m not sure these directors wish to be picked out, for they belong to an ethos of team spirit. They know that in modern television the contributions of stars, screenwriters, and showrunners dominate our experience.
The auteur theory was right for its time, but it’s fading away. The studio system of the 1930s and 1940s valued directors for their efficiency and for the way they understood what was expected of them. In the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed necessary for Sarris and others (myself included) to praise thematic ambition at the expense of mere competence. But that earlier uniformity had been responsible for what we now call the golden age of American cinema. It’s a tribute to Alan Rode’s book, through all its unstinting research and admiration for its subject’s life, that it endorses Curtiz’s willingness to do anything he was asked to and do it in high gloss.
He directed 181 films in fifty years of work. Aside from the films already mentioned, he also made Night and Day (a deranged biopic in which Cary Grant plays a sanitized Cole Porter), Life with Father (a treasured family hit, starring William Powell), Jim Thorpe—All-American (with Burt Lancaster as Thorpe), and White Christmas (Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney). That 1954 picture was a success at the box office and still plays during the holiday season. Many of the Jews who succeeded in Hollywood took delight in adapting to the Christmas spirit. It was part of their survivor instinct and an example of the way talented immigrants embraced the film industry’s mixture of optimism and cynicism. Curtiz gave us, among many other memorable characters, Captain Renault, maybe the most beloved figure in Casablanca, and a tribute to cynical panache. Like Renault, Curtiz usually landed on his feet and scooped up the winnings. Was he an auteur? No, far better than that.