The unknown director behind one of the most famous movies of all time
Author interview'He had an incandescent mania for filmmaking'

The unknown director behind one of the most famous movies of all time

Critics never took to Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian Jew who directed ‘Casablanca. Film scholar Alan K. Rode’s new book tells us why

A quintet of 'Casablanca' winners: a sleepy Michael Curtiz, Jack Warner (talking, as usual), Hal Wallis (with his Thalberg Award), one of the event’s hosts, Jack Benny, and the screenwriter Howard Koch. (Courtesy/author’s collection)
A quintet of 'Casablanca' winners: a sleepy Michael Curtiz, Jack Warner (talking, as usual), Hal Wallis (with his Thalberg Award), one of the event’s hosts, Jack Benny, and the screenwriter Howard Koch. (Courtesy/author’s collection)

At the 1944 Academy Awards ceremony, Jewish Hungarian director Michael Curtiz scooped best director for “Casablanca,” a movie that evolved into a global cultural phenomenon over the next few decades.

Curtiz’s acceptance speech in Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard was short and sweet: “I am humbly grateful,” he told the audience in his best broken English.

It was a poignant moment. The acceptance speech for perhaps the most well-known film of the 20th century was from a Hungarian Jew who never mastered the English language. After all, many characters who appeared in the film were Jews too, who were fleeing Nazi Europe.

In his recently published biography “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film”  writer and film scholar, Alan K. Rode, argues that what gave “Casablanca” its distinctive character was partially down to Curtiz purposely casting Jewish refugees in the movie.

“‘Casablanca’ wouldn’t have become the movie it became if it weren’t for Curtiz as director,” says Rode, who is currently director-treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation in Los Angeles.

‘Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,’ by Alan K. Rode. (Courtesy University Press of Kentucky)

“It was the apex of the studio system, where everything came together in a very serendipitous moment in Hollywood. And that is why it has stood the test of time,” he adds.

“The movie was emblematic of the silver screen romantic golden age of Hollywood, but Curtiz brought to it an immigrant sensitivity,” says Rode. “You see all of the immigrants who are in the movie trying to get out of the country. Well, many of these actors were Jews who had left Europe fleeing Hitler, who Curtiz personally convinced Warner Bros. to cast.”

Curtiz directed more than 100 movies in the United States over the course of his colorful and checkered movie career. These included American classics such as “White Christmas,” “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “The Jazz Singer,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

However, as Rode points in his latest tome, the director remains virtually anonymous to millions of viewers who enjoy his movies.

This lack of enthusiasm by critics for Curtiz’s oeuvre appears to be a strange anomaly, especially considering other directors from Hollywood’s golden age — such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks —have been lauded with so much critical acclaim.

Rode maintains that Curtiz’s diverse style — which covered Westerns,  musicals, war movies, romances, historical dramas, horror films, tearjerkers, melodramas, comedies, and film noir — ensured the director never quite developed a distinct recognizable brand that could neatly be packaged into the so-called auteur theory school of film, which viewed a director of a movie as the primary creative hand.

“The auteur theory is nonsensical when applied to the [studio system] of Hollywood films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s,” says Rode, pointing out that no director ever has complete control when they are at the behest of a studio system that puts profit above all else.

Many film critics have dismissed Curtiz of simply being a vocational mechanic of the studio system — someone who shot to script and didn’t have a repeatable thematic style.

But Rode believes the director’s talents were multifaceted and knew no boundaries.

“Technically, Curtiz was a virtuoso,” says Rode. “He didn’t see words in a script, but everything in action and pictures. His artistic proficiency tends to be very underrated.”

Alan K. Rode, author of ‘Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film.’ (Courtesy University Press of Kentucky)

Timing too, accounts for Curtiz’s lack of critical acclaim, Rode believes. “Curtiz died in early 1962. This was before the renaissance of the golden age of Hollywood.”

Before moving to Hollywood in 1926, much of Curtiz’s life remains mysterious and undocumented. But this opacity arose primarily because Curtiz insisted that nobody write anything about his personal or family life.

Rode’s latest tome aims to fill in those gaps.

Manó Kaminer was born in the Jewish district of Budapest, soon changing his name — as was common for Hungarian Jews at the time — to the Magyar spelling, Kertész Mihály. He later changed it again when he moved to the US, to the anglophone version, Michael Curtiz.

Curtiz played an enormously important role in the burgeoning movie industry of early 20th century Budapest, which in the years leading up to World War I boasted 37 film companies.

However, it wasn’t long before politics began to impinge on Curtiz’s film making ambitions; notably when the right wing Admiral Miklós Horthy came to power in 1919, following Hungary’s brief flirtation with communism in 1918.

The Hungarian film industry suffered enormously, as the new regime considered cinema to be a decadent form of propaganda run by Jews who were often sympathetic to communists. Thus, any cultural or artistic freedom that Curtiz had enjoyed up until that point completely vanished.

Hal Wallis ensured that Michael Curtiz (far left) was on his best behavior while directing Elvis Presley in ‘King Creole’ (1958). (Courtesy/author’s collection)

“When the right-wing regime took over [in Hungary in 1919] they were killing people,” Rode explains. “Curtiz was really apolitical. He just wanted more resources to make better movies. But Curtiz was a Jew, who had been part of the establishment in Budapest at the time, and so he decided to go somewhere where it was safe.”

Curtiz didn’t stray too far initially, leaving Budapest for Vienna, where he began making movies for the wealthy Austrian aristocratic movie mogul Count Alexander Kolowrat.

“By the time Curtiz came to Warner Bros in LA 1926, he had already made 70 films in Europe,” Rode explains. “That included numerous films in Hungary, as well as silent movies [in Vienna] like ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ and ‘The Moon of Israel,’ which were hugely successful.”

An opportunity to move to Hollywood presented itself when Harry Warner headhunted the Hungarian movie maker to support Warner Bros., a growing film production company he was building along with his brothers, Albert, Sam, and Jack.

Rode believes it’s impossible to recount the career of Michael Curtiz without relating much of it to Warner Bros. and its early history.

“All of the moguls were Jewish, but a lot of them cloaked their Jewishness, because they wanted to be assimilated,” says Rode, who references the 1989 book “How the Jews invented Hollywood,” which documents the evolution of Tinseltown by Jews who made sure they were overtly American.

Curtiz attempts to direct Bette Davis in ‘The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex’ (1939). (Courtesy/author’s collection).

“The Warner brothers are a good example of this,” says Rode. “Harry was the serious stern older brother, who was very dedicated to Judaism. And then Albert stayed in New York and counted the money.”

“And so Sam and Jack were the assimilated ones,” Rode continues, “but Harry was the guy who really built up the business and turned Warner Bros. into an integrated company with movie studios, radio stations, and the movie theater chains. Harry got the banks to lend them money to create this studio system. But they never wanted the movies they made to appear too Jewish.”

Upon arrival in Hollywood in 1926, Curtiz fell in love with his newfound life in the New World.

However, back in Europe, Curtiz had been used to controlling everything on set himself. He soon discovered that in Hollywood that wasn’t going to be the case — primarily because Jack Warner rigorously hounded him with schedules and budgets.

Still, Rode insists their Jewish heritage smoothed out what could have easily been a much more difficult relationship. Especially since “Warner could be a real bastard when he wanted to be,” says Rode.

“Jack Warner had genuine affection for Curtiz,” Rode explains. “The fact that they were from the same tribe made a difference. And when Curtiz’s production company failed for a variety of reasons in the late 1940s, Jack Warner bought it out, paid all the bills, and bailed him out.”

“But Harry was the guy that brought Curtiz to America in 1926, and Curtiz never forgot that,” Rode adds.

As Curtiz settled into his new life in the United States, any patriotic feeling he once held for Hungary soon vanished. In an interview he gave in 1946, for example, Curtiz talked about his newfound freedom in America.

“When I am a little kid [sic], I am on the street a policeman pass and say long live king and beat the Jew. But when I come here the underdog is always the hero and I never forget,” Curtiz told his interviewer.

“Curtiz was a real patriotic American,” says Rode. “And it was genuine — he really believed in America.”

That patriotism would be put to the test in 1943 when Curtiz took the the director’s chair for what arguably became the most influential Hollywood propaganda movie of the 20th century, “Mission to Moscow,” which portrayed a simplified version of communist life in Russia and Joseph Stalin as a benevolent and kind leader.

The aim of the movie was pure propaganda: to show the American public that the Russians were worthy partners to go to war with to defeat the evils of Nazism.

Upon its release in 1943, the New York Times described it as “clearly the most outspoken picture on a political subject that an American studio has ever made.”

In his 1964 memoir, Jack Warner recalled how President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded him to make the movie in the interests of wartime propaganda.

“When Curtiz made ‘Mission to Moscow’ he realized Warner Bros. had agreed to do it for the Roosevelt Administration,” Rode explains.

“It’s fascinating that a Hollywood studio made such a dishonest propaganda film about Stalin at the behest of Franklin Roosevelt because they thought it was the right thing to do to win the war. But there were blatant lies put into the script,” he says.

While Curtiz did possess a certain kind of political ambiguity, he would later align himself with the more right wing arm of writers, directors and producers in Hollywood who saw communism as a threat. Mostly though, Rode claims that Curtiz never spoke much in public about political matters lest it interfere with his true passion: making movies.

“Movies always came first,” says Rode. “He had an incandescent mania for filmmaking. He lived to make movies and anything that jeopardized that he stayed clear of.”

But the glamour of Hollywood would, of course, offer other temptations. Indeed, Curtiz developed quite a reputation in Hollywood gossip circuits for his womanizing, often mixing business with pleasure on and off set. While he was married three times, Curtiz had numerous out-of wedlock children, multiple mistresses, and innumerable trysts.

Though the director had managed to avoid any scandalous reportage about his personal life for decades, that changed in 1956 when Los Angeles magazine Confidential reported how Curtiz hired an African American couple to have sex while he watched. When a pair of vice cops broke into the seedy Hollywood motel room, Curtiz supposedly claimed he was scouting for film locations.

Rode, however, claims that there is no evidence that Curtiz ever abused his position of power for casual sexual liaisons with women.

“It would be unfair to compare Curtiz to a sexual predator [in Hollywood today] like Harvey Weinstein,” says Rode. “Curtiz had a lot of affairs with women, but they were all willing.”

Rode says he interviewed some of Curtiz’s former lovers and mistresses, who had nothing but praise and fond memories of the filmmaker.

While none of Curtiz’s sexual liaisons with women appear to be abusive, Rode claims that the film director’s treatment of children from his early marriage unions was certainly “disreputable.”

Harvey Weinstein arrives at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards on March 2, 2014 (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Curtiz had four children out of wedlock from four different women, Rode explains, “And the mother of his first child had to bring him to court repeatedly to get him to pay child support. He wrote several of his children out of his will, too.”

“Curtiz was a romantic who had a turbo-charged libido,” says Rode. “And sex ran as a second passion to filmmaking. But he never let the former interfere with the latter. Nothing was allowed to interfere with his love of filmmaking.”

Rode’s latest book may well be an attempt to resuscitate Curtiz the artist and filmmaker with grace and nobility, lauding him as one of the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age.

However, the jury is still out on Curtiz the man, as Rode explains.

“He was a paradoxical man. He could be very charming and had lots of friendships. But many hated working for him,” says Rode. “He had an explosive temper — mainly because he was under enormous pressure from people like Jack Warner Warner and Hal B. Wallis. And he could take that out on people without power. So that was a really unappealing part of his personality.”

Rode believes that Curtiz’s personality is best summed up by Hal Mohr, who was the pioneer cinematographer on the 1927 movie “The Jazz Singer,” and who also worked on a host of Curtiz’s early Warner Bros. films.

“Mohr said, ‘I enjoyed Mike very much. He was a brutal son-of-a-bitch, he had no considerations for anybody’s feelings. But he was a very kindly guy,'” concludes the biographer.

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