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…
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