His superb studio films couldn’t be more celebrated, but the filmmaker himself has been close to completely ignored. All that, however, is about to change.
After years of neglect and even scorn, Michael Curtiz, the director of “Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “White Christmas” and well over 100 more, is finally getting some respect.
“Michael Curtiz: A Life in Films,” a thoroughly researched, 681-page biography by Alan K. Rode, has just been published and a collection of critical essays, “The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz,” is coming later this year.
And starting Friday night with a double bill of the justifiably beloved “Casablanca” (which even critic Andrew Sarris, no Curtiz partisan, admitted was “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory”) and “Kid Galahad,” the UCLA Film & Television Archive is putting on a two-month, 21-film tribute to the filmmaker at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.
The series runs the gamut from Curtiz’s acknowledged Hollywood classics (the three-strip Technicolor “Robin Hood” is especially gorgeous on the big screen) to the only film to survive from the director’s extensive silent career in his native Hungary, the recently restored “The Last Dawn” (1917).
Just as exciting is a chance to see the enormously entertaining work in lesser-known films like “Four Daughters,” “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” and “The Sea Wolf” that Curtiz did across the widest variety of genres.
No one understood studio filmmaking better than Curtiz, and the sheer amount of work he did was staggering. The prototypical contract director, he made 94 films during his decades at Warner Bros., earning an impressive five director nominations (he won for “Casablanca”) during an eight-year stretch.
That facility, the ability to bring energy and focus to westerns, horror films, swashbucklers, biblical dramas and musicals starring everyone from Bing Crosby to Elvis is key to why Curtiz isn’t celebrated.
Proponents of the auteur theory — of whom Sarris was the most prominent — posited not only that the director was the author of a film but that the best ones (think Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford) had an individual style and personal philosophy that could be traced from film to film. What Curtiz, whom biographer Rode calls the anti-auteur, had instead was an unerring instinct for story and an unstoppable drive to throw himself completely into the telling.
Melodrama did not frighten this filmmaker. Unafraid of brazen emotion, he wholeheartedly embraced it. If you’re too wrapped up in a film to wonder who directed it, Curtiz was likely in charge.
You never got the sense Curtiz felt some kinds of films were more important than others. Never slumming, he committed himself to standard detective yarns such as “The Kennel Murder Case” with William Powell as Philo Vance and “The Case of the Curious Bride” (“King of Pre-Code” Warren William as Perry Mason) as much as he did to more prestigious ventures.
Both on camera and off, Curtiz wanted things always to be moving. Hurtling cars and trains and propulsive people figure prominently in his films, even the dark factory smoke in “Female” moves purposefully across the screen rather than just evaporating lazily into thin air.
Someone who was likely easily bored and reportedly needed only four hours sleep, Curtiz only wanted to be doing, doing, doing, which led to difficult situations with his cast and crew. It’s not just that the director believed lunch breaks were for wimps. Rode notes that Curtiz’s “demonic work ethic approached savagery” and working conditions on his sets are said to be one of the reasons the Screen Actors Guild was formed.
Even stars often had problems with Curtiz. James Cagney is quoted by Rode saying, “Mike was a pompous bastard who didn’t know how to treat actors, but he sure as hell knew how to treat a camera.” And Curtiz’s quality of unquestioning belief in the unfolding story paradoxically got uniformly strong performances out of his principals.
Ten different actors received Oscar nominations for their work on his films, and two of them, Joan Crawford for “Mildred Pierce” and Cagney for “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” received the only Oscars of their long careers. If you are in a classic mood, those two films are excellent places to start on a Curtiz spree.
As an ambitious restaurant entrepreneur and the single parent of a wretch of a daughter, Crawford suffers as only Crawford can in James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce,” a woman, the trailer insists, “who left her mark on every man she met.”
Much more lighthearted, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a four-square biopic about the legendary dancer and showman George M. Cohan, animated by a hyper-energetic Cagney performance as a man who danced down the White House stairs into film history.
Of the lesser-known Curtiz films, the most fun might be “Mad Genius,” starring John Barrymore as a crazed ballet impresario who holds the screen effortlessly whether he is dispensing cocaine or bogus romantic advice.
In a similar pre-code frame of mind is “Female.” It starred Ruth Chatterton as a decisive titan of industry who used the handsome men in her company as boy toys, dismissing them with bonuses when she got bored. When a school chum asks, “Is it old-fashioned to want to be decent?,” the unmoved Chatterton merely shrugs. Also featuring strong acting is Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf,” with John Garfield squaring off against Edward G. Robinson’s maniacal Wolf Larsen, who’d rather “reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
And don’t miss “20,000 Years in Sing Sing,” featuring Spencer Tracy in one of the best of his young-tough roles as a charismatic con whose romance with Bette Davis gets way complicated.
Perhaps the best of the lesser-known Curtiz films showing at UCLA is the emotional “Four Daughters.” A dramatic romance with a rich appreciation of character, it showcases a tortured Garfield in an Oscar-nominated antihero role that launched his career.
“I put all the art into my pictures the audience can stand,” Curtiz, whose problems with English were legendary, once said. To see this fine series is to understand exactly what he meant.
“Michael Curtiz: A Life in Films”
Where: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood.
When: Through March 17
Tickets: $9 general admission
Info: (310) 206-8013 or www.cinema.ucla.edu
All screenings at 7:30 p.m.
Friday – “Casablanca,” “Kid Galahad”
Saturday – “Female,” “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain”
Jan. 12 – “The Last Dawn,” “A Million Bid”
Jan. – “Doctor X,” “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” “The Kennel Murder Case”
Feb. 3 – “20,000 Years in Sing Sing,” “The Mad Genius”
Feb. 9 – “Mildred Pierce,” “Flamingo Road”
Feb. 17 – “The Unsuspected,” “Romance On the High Seas”
March 3 – “The Proud Rebel,” “Four Daughters”
March 9 – “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Case of the Curious Bride”
March 17 – “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Sea Wolf”