Casablanca is one of the most recognized films in Hollywood history. The American Film Institute named it the third-best American film of all time, with Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane coming in first and second, respectively. In 1983, The...
Michael Curtiz was born Mano Kertesz Kaminer in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary). He fought in the Hungarian army in World War I. He started making films in his native Austria and then, later, in Germany. His first directing credit is on the 1912 film Today and Tomorrow. He is credited as Kertesz Mihaly or Mihaly Kertesz on all the films he made through 1919. By the early 1920s, Curtiz was making films in other European countries as well. He moved to the United States in 1926 and was quickly swept up by the studio system, specifically Warner Brothers. He adopted the first name "Michael" and was commonly known as "Mike". Aljean Harmetz writes, "He...shed Mihaly as easily and quickly as he had shed Hungary for Austria and German Expressionism for Hollywood eclecticism."
Curtiz's Hollywood career was long and varied. He made Casablanca in 1942 at the height of his popularity. Between 1930 and 1940, Curtiz made 45 films, all with sound, across a variety of genres. He was one of Warner Brothers' favorite directors, likely because he finished his movies on time, within budget, and his films were almost always successful at the box office. Curtiz was earning "$3,600 a week in February 1942, [and] had more power than most studio directors, but he was still assigned his stars and many of his supporting players" (Harmetz 76).
Curtiz's most celebrated films are Casablanca and Mildred Pierce (1945), the Academy Award-winning adaptation of James M. Cain's novel starring Joan Crawford. During his career, Michael Curtiz directed 10 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Paul Muni, John Garfield, James Cagney, Walter Hudson, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Raines, Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Eve Arden, and William Powell. He made 12 films with Errol Flynn until they had a falling-out in 1947 during pre-production of The Adventures of Don Juan. Curtiz made 8 films with Humphrey Bogart, including Casablanca. Curtiz himself was nominated for 5 Academy Awards between 1935 and 1943, when he finally won a Best Director Oscar for his work on Casablanca.
Michael Curtiz and Hal Wallis, the producer of Casablanca, had a longstanding friendship. They met in 1926 when Mihaly Kertesz arrived in Los Angeles and Hal Wallis was the studio publicity representative that met him at the train station. They shared a great mutual respect and Curtiz always gave Hal Wallis a lot of credit for major creative decisions that shaped Casablanca. Meanwhile, Curtiz was not Wallis' first choice to direct Casablanca. He offered the film first to William Wyler, who was unavailable, and so Wallis turned to his old friend, the dependable hit-maker Michael Curtiz.
Curtiz enjoyed making films, riding horses, and the company of women. He was married twice; once to Lucy Doraine, an Austrian actress he had worked with and abandoned. During the filming of Casablanca, Curtiz was married to a whip-smart screenwriter named Bess Meredyth, and formally adopted Meredyth's son, John, in 1929. Meredyth often provided her husband with on-set advice. Curtiz's crewmembers described situations where the director would leave the set in the middle of the scene to call his wife with a question. However, despite their professional compatibility, their marriage was terribly unhappy. Bess Meredyth was depressed and eventually stopped working and was confined to her bed.
On set, Curtiz had a notoriously bad temper. Screenwriter Philip Dunne described him as a bully. He would fire people on a whim and treated his actresses so terribly that some stars, like Bette Davis, refused to work with him. However, there is not much evidence of Curtiz's explosive anger aimed at the stars of Casablanca (although he certainly terrorized the rest of the cast and crew). Ingrid Bergman claimed Casablanca was an enjoyable experience and that she learned a lot from Curtiz over the course of the production. Even his great friend Hal Wallis often described Michael Curtiz as difficult, but stressed that Curtiz had the power to create cinematic magic.
Even though he spent the majority of his life and career in the United States, Curtiz never lost his Hungarian accent. Sometimes, his American cast and crew found it difficult to understand him. Apparently, while filming Casablanca, Curtiz asked a set dresser to bring him a "poodle". The young man came back with a small dog, and Curtiz exploded, because he thought he had asked for a "poodle"... of water (puddle). Curtiz was also known for his incredible focus on his work, which could sometimes be detrimental to his life. Once, he wanted to write down an idea while he was driving a car. Unable to do both successfully, he ended up falling out of the car and injuring himself.
Regardless, Michael Curtiz's talent as a director was no accident. He was technically extremely proficient and knew how to enhance a story by utilizing every facet of his medium. When 'talking pictures' first came to Hollywood, cameras had to be stationary because they were encased in soundproof booths that restricted movement. Even then, Curtiz would invent ways of moving actors around to simulate the sensation of camera movement. Jack Lucas, who worked with his stepfather on a few films, says, "The one great thing I learned from him was that any camera movement must be motivated, that the camera couldn't just move for the sake of showing off."
Curtiz worked well within the studio system, where he could be assigned to new films one after the other and powerful producers like Hal Wallis could help him harness his creative vision. However, the Studio System was effectively dismantled after the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount Pictures (1948) forced the end of vertical integration. In the 1950s, Curtiz started directing films for studios other than Warner Brothers, and the quality of his work declined considerably.
He made his last film in 1961 and died of cancer a year later, with more than 150 films to his name.