Friday, March 23, 2018

Michael Curtiz: He’s No Angel

To those of us who are fascinated by early Hollywood, director Michael Curtiz has always been a puzzlement. He was born Manó Kaminer, began his professional life as Mihály Kertész, and (once he moved from his native Hungary to the U.S.) evolved into a flag-waving American known as Mike. He shrugged off his Jewish heritage as easily as he cast aside his several out-of-wedlock children, yet was consistently loyal both to his brothers and to his second wife’s growing son. (Bess Meredyth, officially married to Curtiz until his death in 1962, was a prolific screenwriter who participated in all her husband's screen projects. Her son John Meredyth Lucas went on to become a director as well as a producer on such hit shows as The Fugitive and Star Trek.)

During a fifty-year career that covered some 170 film projects, he proved himself a total workaholic, taking pride in always being the first one on the set. Yet he also loved retreating to  his expansive San Fernando Valley ranch, and (outside of sex with every sweet young thing who struck his fancy) his favorite form of recreation was polo. One thing about him was consistent: his total inability to stop mangling the English language.

I get my information from a colleague, Alan K. Rode, who’s no stranger to contradiction. A former naval officer, he spent years dividing his time between writing and toiling as an aerospace general manager before committing himself fully to chronicling the history of classic Hollywood. His love for the entertainment industry is deeply rooted: his mother and several other family members were all once involved in film production. Aa a lifelong movie buff, Alan has interviewed and befriended many of the stalwarts of Golden Age Hollywood. His special passion for film noir has led him to be active as both a commentator and a preservationist. He’s one of the leading lights behind the Film Noir Foundation, and helps host the nation’s various Noir City film festivals, as well as his own Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs. He curated UCLA's recent three-month Curtiz retrospective, and this April he'll be appearing on TCM with Ben Mankiewicz, spotlighting Curtiz's Hollywood career.

When I first met Alan, he had one book under his belt: Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy. But he told me then he was laboring over something really big. Big it certainly is—Alan’s Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film is a jumbo-sized volume from the Screen Classics series put out by the University Press of Kentucky. It’s a serious, critically acclaimed survey of the director’s long career. In it I learned about Curtiz’s skill with a camera, his fraught relationship with his home studio, Warner Bros., and his involvement in making everything from Captain Blood to Casablanca (for which he won an Oscar) to Life with Father to the Bing Crosby musical, White Christmas. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Bette Davis became stars on his watch. In addition, James Cagney brilliantly shifted gears in his George M. Cohan biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Joan Crawford—making a comeback after being sacked by MGM as “box office poison”—won an Oscar for her title role in Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce. He was the first to make movies starring John Garfield and, much later, Doris Day. (Seeing Day, a popular band singer, as possessing unmistakable star quality, he forbade her to take acting classes.) In 1958 he directed Elvis Presley in the film generally considered his best, King Creole. 

Curtiz’s achievements don’t entirely make up for his shenanigans—like his temper tantrums and the late-career big-budget botch called The Egyptian in which both he and producer Darryl Zanuck cast their mistresses in featured roles. Rode discusses, in fascinating detail, how Curtiz ended up making a movie, Mission to Moscow, that could be considered a Soviet propaganda film, but then emerged from the McCarthy era wholly unscathed. Some in Hollywood loved him; some hated him. But one thing’s for sure—without him, Hollywood would have been a much less interesting place. 

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