Sunday, December 24, 2017

Born Today December 24: Michael Curtiz


Famed Hollywood director Michael Curtiz was born Manó Kaminer into a "lower middle class" Jewish family in Budapest, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the capital of Hungary).  His father was a carpenter and his mother was trained as an opera singer.  He became enamored of the theater when he was just a small child probably due to his mother's career (he reportedly first graced a stage with her); so much so that he said that he built a little theater the basement of the family apartment house when he was 8 and directed his friends is re-enactments of popular plays.  He followed high school with studies at university, which he then followed with studies at the Royal Academy of Theater and Art in Budapest.  At the age of 19 he joined a traveling theater group; he spent a small stint working at a circus before returning to another traveling theater group that worked in multiple countries.  This occasioned Kaminer, who had Hungarianized his name to Mihály Kertész, to learn several foreign languages that included most of the major European tongues (he was said to speak at least five languages fluently--though heavily accented).  While working with the group, he was basically a jack of all trades and eventually worked his way up to theatrical director.  By 1912, he was working as a director at the National Hungarian Theater.  In that same year, he had the distinction of directing Hungary's first feature film Ma és holnap (Today and Tomorrow) in which he also acted.  He had, however, made his film directing debut earlier in the year with the short Az ezüst kecske.  [As a side note: amongst his many life accomplishments, he represented Hungary in fencing during the Olympic games of 1912].  The film bug had him and he began actively seeking film work, settling and studying in Denmark and wound up as an assistant director on Denmark's very first multi-reel film Atlantis (the film runs for around 2 hours, and was directed by Danish film pioneer August Blom).  This world of new found film success came to a rude and abrupt end with the out-break of World War I; he soon found himself serving in the Hungarian army for a year before being wounded on the Russian front.  He was then assigned to make fund raising documentaries for the Red-Cross; he later admitted that he had met with a lucky fate that so many others had not.  By 1917, he was the head director at the leading Hungarian film studio Phoenix--it was for all intents and purposes a national studio and he remained in this position right up until he decided to relocate to Austria after the war and the communist take over of his country.  Sadly almost no portion of any film that he directed while there survives (only a few scant fragments remain--such a sad shame, he literally directed dozens of films there during the period of 1917 & 1918).  One of these films, The Wolf (1917), he penned himself,  and constitutes the first of a small handful of films that he self-penned (curiously he is given a writing credit on the the now infamously lost Drakula halála aka Dracula's Death in 1921).  And, while on the subject of horror films, it is worth mentioning that one of the last films that he had a hand in directing in Hungary was the now very lost Alraune, a kind of Frankenstein/Golem/magic conjured like monster film [it involves mandrake sex...] that was eventually released in 1919 (looks as though the credits on IMDb have been strengthened out--they were previously a mess).  The first film that I can find that he directed after arriving in Austria is Boccaccio in 1920.  While in Austria (and Germany) he honed his directorial skills; by the time that he directed the epic Sodom und Gomorrha (which has been called his Intolerance) in 1922, he had become adept at handling large crowds of extras on elaborate sets. 

Film still from Sodom und Gomorrha preserved at Austria Filmarchiv showing the throng of actors involved in this Biblical epic. 

In fact, he became a bit of an "epic specialist" while in Austria; one such large project managed to harken back to his own Jewish ancestry at a time when things were increasingly becoming difficult for Jewish artists in country and in Germany.  Die Sklavenkönigin (better known in the English speaking world as The Moon of Israel) was his exodus epic and sported a huge cast of thousands.  It was a film that got the attention of studios and film makers in the U.S., for better or worse--the rights were bought by Paramount to attempt to compete with DeMille's 1923 Ten Commandments. It was this film that got him an offer to direct for the newly formed Warner Bros. in the U.S., though the growing menace against Jews must certainly have played a big part of his European departure.  

1924 English poster for Curtiz's exodus epic made for Count Alexander Kolowrat's Sascha-Film in Austria.

In 1926, Curtiz journeyed to the U.S. and set up shop at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California.  The first film that he made for them was The Third Degree starring "The Goddess of the Silent Screen" herself, Dolores Costello (it also features Jason Robards Sr. and survives with only a degraded print, unrestored at the Library of Congress); he made this film without knowing word one of English (Curtiz's trouble with English became infamous in Hollywood, so much so that many were called "Curtizisms").  The first film that Curtiz made that worked on that had sound from the time of filming was the 1928 Tenderloin, it was a partial silent is now thought lost (Warner's had worked in some post, post-production [meaning added after the films were released] sound by the Vitaphone system that they owned into Curtiz's two previous silent films made for them).  His next film for Warner's was to be their big biblical epic (part of what Curtiz was hired for afterall...) and was as close to full sound as a Warner film got at the time; the 2 hour and 15 minute Noah's Ark told the story of the great flood with a frame story from World War I--the sound was not Vitaphone, but rather the Western Electric Apparatus (this is the first film that Curtiz made for Warner's that has survived intact, and the only one to be restored).  All four of the films Curtiz made in 1929, all full sound affairs, are thought lost.  Curtiz was, it turns out, the perfect director for films made in the early 1930's (what we today call "pre-code" films).  This portion of his film catalog alone is ripe for plumbing the depths.  He made several of my personal favorite films from the 1930's; two of them stand out on their own not because they are horror films, but because they were made with what is popularly called 2-Strip Technicolor-the earliest "Technicolor" process-and the most stable color process up to that time.  The first was Doctor X (1932) starring Lionel Atwill and newly minted scream queen Fay Wray.  The other was The Mystery of The Wax Museum  (1933) starring the same two actors, adding the plucky Glenda Farrell to the cast (the film had a black and white version as well, the color version was thought lost for good until a copy turned up in the late 1960's--after Curtiz's death).  He also directed The Kennel Murder Case in 1933 with William Powell and Mary Astor.  

Of course, Curtiz would go on to direct one the most famous films that Hollywood would ever produce: Casablanca in 1942.  After the point, most his films are/were barely talked about.  Though his directing career would decline, he did go on to direct films in several genres that stand the test of time.  Among them are:  Night and Day  with Cary Grant, Mildred Pierce, the 1952 remake of the The Jazz Singer and White Christmas in 1954 (ironic given his Jewish background and that he was born on Christmas Eve as reckoned by the western, or Roman, calendar).  He is also credited with discovering Doris Day. The last film that he directed was the John Wayne western The Comancheros in 1961.  Curtiz died on the 10th of April in 1962 after a battle with cancer.   He was 73.  He is buried at the Glendale location of Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Whispering Pines section--his younger brother David, an assistant director and special effects artist, joined him there the following month).  

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