It’s always the biographies I don’t think will grip me that affect me the most. When I told Michael Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode that I compared his book to Scott Eyman’s absolutely wonderful biography of John Wayne – in that I didn’t expect to love both, but now consider them landmark texts – he was honored to be placed in “such fine company.” Rode’s 600-page biography on Curtiz is a must-read for anyone who enjoys great books and Hollywood history, and it’s great that Rode took time out of his preparations for the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival to talk about what it was like to get into the mind of the man known for his “incandescent mania for filmmaking.”
What inspired you to make a 600-page biography on Michael Curtiz?
It was a confluence of different things. I was looking for a new project to start on; my first book was Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, obviously a much lower profile personage in film history than Michael Curtiz. I was thinking about what my next [book] was and around that time two things happened. My good friend and colleague, Patrick McGilligan, who was one of the great cinema biographers and who has written terrific biographies on Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and George Cukor; Pat and I had a conversation and he said, “You ought to write a book about a film director.” I started looking at that and Pat is the series editor for the cinema series at University Press of Kentucky. So…I considered my options. Somewhere around the same time I had dinner with the actor Richard Erdman, and I should say Dick Erdman’s been a friend of mine for many years. He and his late wife, and my wife and I, we’d go to dinner, hung out together, parties, everything. I was chatting with him and he said, “What are you gonna do?” I said, “Well, I’m thinking about [a] director” and he immediately said, “You should write a book about Mike Curtiz. You know Mike Curtiz signed me out of Hollywood High School?” And he went on to tell me this really fabulous story of how his career started at Warner Bros. virtually as a teenager, going to a blind audition and doing a reading for Curtiz, and that’s in the book by the way.
So those two things together pointed me towards Curtiz, and as I started doing research I realized a lot of the mythology and anecdotes about Curtiz were true, a lot of them were not. But there was much, much more to the man and his work than had been previously published and in fact had not been published that got me started on what was a six-year odyssey of writing this book. There were several times when it occurred to me, that line that John Huston said to Jack Nicholson in the movie Chinatown. He says, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with here, but believe me you don’t.” I found that out working on this book about Curtiz. In all, I’m very satisfied with the result and I’m very glad that I took it on.
When you were talking to Ben Mankiewiciz on TCM you said that you were spending a lot of time with a figure who was known to be temperamental, wasn’t great with women. Do you tend to get demoralized about the human aspects about the subject you’re writing on? Was there a need to separate yourself?
I think as a writer and biographer you do that naturally. I learned a long time ago when you start personalizing these people we admire so much – who made the movies, who performed in the movies – if we put personal, moral standards to them, that’s a real slippery slope. You’re bound to be very unhappy doing that. I think it’s only natural that there’s a separation there. The other thing I found out, in fairness to Curtiz, he was a very paradoxical figure. A lot of actors and performers, crews, disliked working for him because of his explosive temper, yelling. He would then pressure – because he was under extreme pressure by people like Jack Warner; “hurry up. Hurry up. You’re taking too long. You’re shooting too many angles.” He would vent pressure by taking on the bit actor, the sound guy. Certainly some of his relationships with women, he had, I believe, four children out of wedlock and five children by different women and he certainly wasn’t Father Knows Best material. I found that the least admirable characteristic of his behavior. But there were many people who did like him. Ann Blyth thought he was terrific, Doris Day, John Garfield, Joan Crawford; he had many, many admirers. He was very loyal. He could be very sentimental. When you delve into somebody’s persona and somebody’s life as deeply as I did with Curtiz, you see the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think that’s true of many people. There was a certain amount of detachment there. A couple times there were grimaces, but he was a very complex fellow and I don’t think you can label him as all good or all bad.
You’re drawing from so many different sources to examine, not just Curtiz himself, but how he fits into Hollywood and its players, his various relationships and paramours. Where do you start with this, from a research perspective, and juggle all the different story lines you wanted to explore?
I did it, more or less, sequentially. I went back to Budapest and spent some time there and developed some very valuable contacts, in particular there’s a film writer and historian in his own right named Laszlo Kriston. He and I became good friends and colleagues, and he sourced and went through hundred-year-old movie magazines and translated all these articles. Curtiz was writing articles on the auteur theory almost 100 years before Andrew Sarris was. I visited the Hungarian Film Archive in Budapest and they made available all their materials on Curtiz. While I banged away on a computer Laszlo was translating. No one writes a book like this by themselves. Then [Curtiz] went to Austria in 1919 and worked for Sacha-Films, and made those great epics like Sodom and Gomorrah. I have to say I was happy when I got him to Hollywood in 1926 and quit struggling with writing different versions of Hungarian film titles and Hungarian names, that was a chore.
Once I got him to Hollywood, since I live in Los Angeles there’s a lot of archival material available here, and particularly the Warner Bros. archives at the University of Southern California. You can actually go there and for many of his films, particularly during the 1940s, all of the correspondence, the production records, have been saved so you can actually reconstruct how a film is made, a lot of correspondence between Curtiz and Hal Wallis, and Jack Warner; how many days, and who was late; where the film was actually shot. And then there’s the Academy library. I tried to interview just about everybody who worked with Curtiz, who was still alive. A lot of the material, a lot of the work, was gathering the research before sitting down and constructing how everything was going to be laid out. I tried to write each chapter as a small book and with the transition bridge to the next thing. I was very conscious of not trying to write a book of “And then he made this film, and then he made this film.” Unfortunately, or fortunately, what I found out is this was a man who’s, as I described in the book, had an incandescent mania for filmmaking. This was his life. Everything, fatherhood, sex, food; he liked to play polo; he had a large estate out here in the Valley for many, many years; everything was secondary to filmmaking. He was either making a film, preparing to make a film, thinking about making a film, and usually doing all three at the same time.
What this book does is prove to people Curtiz was more than just the man who made Casablanca. We look at credits more in classic films than we do modern films and seeing everything laid out – Adventures of Robin Hood, White Christmas. Was there a misconception or something you wanted to dispel when you started working on this?
I didn’t start out with a preconceived notion to try and prove some point that I had. What I did was I went where the facts and the research took me. Where it took me was this notion – first off this whole theory of auteurship with directors from that era of Hollywood has gotten completely out of hand and absurd to a certain point with some of these adherents of the auteur theory. Filmmaking, then and now, is a collaborative art, and with the studio system – as Curtiz called it, “this cruel business we call an art,” and he was exactly right. This notion that he was some vocational mechanic of the studio system who just shot the script I found out was completely wrong. Basically he spent his life making movies he thought were his, but it actually belonged to Jack Warner, or Hal Wallis, or Paramount. He was constantly in hot water with his bosses because he would agree to the script and agree to the schedule, and then he’d go and make the film he wanted to make. The acerbic correspondence between Curtiz and Hal Wallis during the 1930s into the ’40s when Wallis left the studio in mid-1944, it’s like reading the correspondence of an old, married couple fighting all the time because he just drove Wallis nuts because he’d do what he wanted to do.
Finally, when Curtiz was called in to save Hal Wallis’ bacon by directing The Adventures of Robin Hood after Bill Keighley – Wallis and Henry Blanke, the line producer came to the conclusion that Keighley couldn’t give the picture the vivacity, the energy, the action sequences that it really needed. They replaced Keighley with Curtiz and Curtiz should have been the director to begin with, and he would have been except that Errol Flynn hated him so much. He went to Jack Warner and begged, “Please have Bill Keighley direct this rather than Curtiz.” Warner acceded, and they eventually had to put Curtiz in the saddle for Robin Hood and he directed half to two-thirds of the picture and it was a huge, great success. It’s still, in my opinion, one of the great fantasy/action films ever made and it holds up spectacularly well. It saved Wallis and Warner Bros. bacon, and he and Wallis became close friends because they were both single-minded workaholics dedicated to making movies. I think the notion that Curtiz was just some hack who shot the script and was a tool of the studio system, I found that to be completely untrue.
If you’re not Hitchcock or an identifiable name you’re always lumped in as a journeyman director.
That’s exactly right, but who’s responsible for that? The people who are responsible for that are all these people who wrote the auteur books, the auteur theory. The auteur theory is real, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s something somebody dreamed up, but it’s so overblown and overdone. Andrew Sarris’ book Directors and Direction, I have my dog-eared copy going back to when it was first published; it’s a seminal book, there’s no doubt about it, but categorizing directors as lightly likeable, overrated. It’s clearly, in my mind, absurd. In the mind’s eye you have a director who made Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, White Christmas, The Breaking Point, and yet he’s an anonymous hack. There are a couple reasons for that, that have nothing to do with auteur theory.
One reason is timing. Timing, historically, as people are recognized in the future by writers, the media, it’s a matter of timing. For example, Curtiz came to America in 1926. He ended up at Warner Bros. because Harry Warner signed him over in France and he came to Hollywood in ’26. He was at the perfect time. He made a few silent films, most notably Noah’s Ark, even though it had some Vitaphone talking sequences in it; it really is a silent film, the last great silent epic in Hollywood. Warner Bros. was the perfect studio for him because they were on the rise. They were just ready to separate themselves with sound in The Jazz Singer, and the Warner Bros. were tough hombres. These are people who risked everything on their gut, on their moxie. Jack Warner had to tell Henry Blanke, “Take the cameras home and lock ’em in your garage so the banks won’t get ’em.” Rin Tin Tin was nicknamed by Jack “the mortgage lifter.” These were guys who were really sharp-edged and Curtiz fit into that milieu because the other thing is Curtiz was not an intellectual. He was not smooth. He did fracture the King’s English. He did have all his malapropisms. He was explosive temperamentally. He was tough. He could be crude, and he didn’t fit into that auteur mold by any stretch of the imagination.
But he was perfect for Warner Bros. Could you imagine Michael Curtiz at MGM working for Thalberg? No, that wasn’t gonna happen. Conversely, Curtiz died in February, early spring of 1962 and this was before people like Peter Bogdanovich, and Richard Schickel with his interviews. He was not around to sit there like Raoul Walsh with his cowboy hat and his eye patch and tell stories about he and Peter Lorre taking John Barrymore’s body to Errol Flynn’s house. Documentaries on Hitchcock. Curtiz made a conscious effort to keep his private life out of the newspaper. He didn’t want people to know that he had all these kids out of wedlock. He got involved in a mini-scandal when he was arrested for public indecency in the mid-’50s and it got into Confidential magazine. That simmered down. He sought publicity, but only so he could make more movies. He never sought publicity for he, himself. He didn’t want that to get in there. He died before this great wave of appreciation for golden age directors and that timing is another reason why people, as I wrote in the book – we celebrate the fourth of July every year with Yankee Doodle Dandy; we celebrate Yuletide with White Christmas; and we fall in love all over again with Casablanca, but no one remembers who the guy was who made these pictures.
Do you think there’s anything that marks a Curtiz film?
Yes, I think that Curtiz was masterful with the camera. You see the movement of the camera and the way he constructed his shots, and his compositions was artistic. Jimmy Leydon, who’s still with us, spent much of his life behind the camera as well as being an actor – for those who aren’t familiar with Jimmy, he was the oldest son of Bill Powell and Irene Dunne in Life with Father who was courting the cousin, Elizabeth Taylor, in that movie. Jimmy said the thing people didn’t realize about Mike is he “was the most artistic director I ever worked with. Mike arranged all of his camera setups. The cinematographers and the camera operators didn’t arrange them, Mike arranged them.” He was a very artistic man, and he knew everything; he knew editing, cutting. This was a fellow who made his first movie in 1912, who was watching the Lumiere brothers movies in City Park in Budapest projected in a tent on sheets around the turn of the 20th-century. This was someone who was there at the very beginning of filmmaking who mastered the transition to sound, two-strip Technicolor, regular Technicolor. He shot and directed the first film in VistaVistion, White Christmas at Paramount.
This was someone who’s career spanned the history of film in the 20th-century, and who was a masterful technician and knew exactly what he wanted. Paul Newman said, “he knew exactly what he wanted.” He directed Newman in The Helen Morgan Story in 1957, not the greatest film Curtiz ever made. But he said, “Curtiz always knew what he wanted. I didn’t necessarily think it was right all the time, but he always knew what he wanted.” When you look at a Curtiz film you see that artistic quality and how the cameras moved, the close-ups, the use of mirrors. His initial American production, a film noir, The Unsuspected, is an entertaining movie; the opening to that is such a beautiful exercise in camerawork and lighting. I believe he used the DOP, Woody Burdell, who shot those great noirs at Universal – The Killers and Phantom Lady. The guy was a master, so visually you have that signature of Curtiz. Also, he was one of the great directors of scenes, and a great director of actors when you look at how many people were nominated under his guidance for Oscars, or who made their bones for the first time: Errol Flynn, John Garfield, Doris Day; even going back to 1922, a young man that he discovered in a bar in Vienna who was very handsome at the time named Walter Slezak, put him in Sodom and Gomorrah. His eye for talent, as far as acting goes, because he [Curtiz] was a classically trained actor. He went to the Royal Academy of Art in Vienna and was trained as an actor, performed as an actor, so he knew acting as well. This is someone who was not only the Swiss Army knife of directors, where he could direct anything because he had such an instinct for film, but that he was also the artist in terms of acting and direction.
I just watched Mandalay with Kay Francis the other day.
Is that a trip? Isn’t that a fun movie?
I’m in awe of Kay Francis with massive fans, dressed like she’s going out on the town all the time.
It’s terrific. They filmed that up near the Russian River, up near northern California and it was freezing cold when they did that, that doubled as Rangoon. That is a terrific pre-Code film. I recommend it highly.
You’ve written about Charles McGraw, George Raft and now Curtiz. Is there a type of subject or a unifying theme that defines all of them for you?
Let me clarify, when you say I’ve written about George Raft the only thing I’ve done for George Raft is I wrote the introduction to my friend, Stone Wallace’s biography.
Amazon doesn’t say that!
Amazon does that and it’s very annoying because I’ve been erroneously credited as a biographer of George Raft and I’m not. So I’ll confine my answer to Charles McGraw and Michael Curtiz. The McGraw book was an exercise in serendipity because I became fascinated with him many years ago, and then I started investigating his death, which was very tragic and mysterious. I found out that the house he died in was still owned by the original owner, which meant that person still lived there. So, long story short, I got to know and became very close to McGraw’s last significant other, and from that I started meeting his daughter and his surviving buddies. This whole era of studio city and stuntmen, and actors, and RKO, and film noir opened up in front of me over a period of time. The McGraw book was something that presented itself to me where I got to a certain point and said, “You know? I need to write about all this before I forget about it or before all these people pass away” and that’s what I did. As a matter of fact, the woman [McGraw] spent the last fifteen years of his life with, my wife and I ended up taking care of her in her last years, so that was very serendipitous. I don’t want to sound too mysterious but everything does happen for a reason. I’m thinking about what’s next and hopefully there will be another confluence of rationale, circumstance and opportunity that comes together when I decide whatever it is I’m going to do next.
Are there specific people you’d love to write on if money and time were no object?
I don’t know. I’d really have to give that thought. One of the things I do like to do is break new ground rather than cover plowed ground. For example, does the world need another biography of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?
Or Marilyn Monroe?
I think not. The other thing that’s challenging to write about, some of these folks you want to come from a different perspective and many of the people that work with them are gone. One of the things I dislike doing is going to secondary sources, books and things that people have written, and repeating all of the same stories and insights. I don’t view that as being creative, it’s more recycling.
You are just as prolific to me as Curtiz. You put together the Arthur Lyons Film Festival, you’re a charter director of the Film Noir Foundation. How do you do it all and what’s next?
I had a lot of fun doing that stuff with my two partners, Steve Smith and Patrick Francis, who really do the heavy lifting. A couple months ago we completed the featurette for, pending release, that Film Noir Foundation is going to do for Flicker Alley, our funded restoration of The Man Who Cheated Himself. We’re gonna bring that out on Blu-ray as we did for Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run. I left my day job five years ago and this is what I do. It’s nice getting up in the morning, and you go to work and your main impediment to starting is lifting my cat off the keyboard if he’s asleep on top of it. I had a long career as a general manager, and as a director, and I had a long career in the U.S. Navy, and I’ve done a whole lot of different things in my life, but at this point I’m able to do the things I’m really passionate about. I like to keep busy. I think being busy and being involved in meaningful work that’s my purpose, that’s what I like to do. I’ve never been one to get up and go out in the backyard and hoe the garden, or sit and watch television all the time. I can’t do that. I need to be working, I need to be kept busy. I keep myself busy now.
The last question is the one everyone ends with: What are the Curtiz films you recommend – excluding the movie everyone should watch, Casablanca – that would give a beginner a good look at the director?
You brought one up already, Mandalay, which I really like. There is one of his early films that was recently discovered and restored in Hungary – hopefully it’ll come out on DVD and Blu-ray – The Last Dawn in 1917. That really gives a sense of his evolution as a storyteller and as a filmmaker. I saw it recently because the Hungarian Film Archive released it for the three-month Curtiz retrospective I curated for the UCLA Film and Television Archive here in Los Angeles. His other films, his films that we’re more familiar with are really interesting. The two two-strip horror films from the 1930s, Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, are very worthy. I love The Kennel Murder Case. I don’t think there’s a better mystery story from the 1930s than that. Along with Mandalay there’s Female, which Curtiz directed a good portion of that along with Peter Lee, who directed a couple days, and then Bill Wellman directed some of it; it was kind of a polyglot assignment at Warner Bros. That’s a very meaningful pre-Code. All the famous ones: the Flynn movies – Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk. Kid Galahad has been revisited and that’s Warner Bros. starpower at its best. A very underrated film that’s become forgotten is Four Daughters. I think it’s a charming film and it introduced John Garfield to audiences. He was nominated for an Academy Award and it’s a well-crafted picture. One picture that’s been off the radar, sadly, is Angels with Dirty Faces. There is some legal problem with that which is preventing it from being shown on television and theatrically. This has to do with the law of how copyright can be handed down in perpetuity to relatives which prevents a number of films from being shown. That is one of the great James Cagney performances that spawned Frank Gorshin and a whole generation of Cagney imitators because they weren’t really imitating James Cagney, they were imitating James Cagney playing Rocky Sullivan in that movie. It’s a terrific film.
The Sea Wolf has now been restored. It’s terrific, and fourteen minutes has been missing for 70 years when Jack Warner edited The Sea Wolf and The Sea Hawk. He put them on a reissued double bill in 1947 or 1948. That is now back and I get to introduce that at the TCM Film Festival on opening night, Thursday night. Mission to Moscow is not a particularly entertaining film, but it is historically important as the most egregious example of pro-Soviet propaganda ever made by an American movie studio. I devote nearly an entire chapter in my book to how that movie got made. That’s a historically fascinating story, in my opinion, and Curtiz, who was extremely patriotic and pro-American, was basically told “you have to do this,” so he did, much to his dislike after the fact. Another Curtiz movie I think gets short shrift is Roughly Speaking that he made in 1945. This is the biography of Louise Randall Pearson who is determined to succeed in a man’s world, then she falls in love, has these children, then she gets divorced, remarried, and it’s an inspiring story, beautifully crafted, beautifully acted by [Rosalind] Russell, Jack Carson, Robert Hutton, Donald Woods, Alan Hale, the usual suspects of the Warner character actors stable. But a very good film that has been overlooked.
There are so many others – the films with Doris Day; I really like My Dream is Yours because it’s not just a Warner Bros. assembly-line musical. Curtiz produced it. It was Doris Day’s second film, second film with Curtiz and it’s about this triangle of showbusiness relationships with Doris Day as a singer that Jack Carson, the agent, discovers in a record store, and there’s a love triangle between Jack Carson and Doris Day and Lee Bowman that’s a prototypical example of why relationships in showbusiness, with egos and people trying to tag on and influence people, are so difficult. I find most of Curtiz’s movies to be worthwhile. There are certainly some stinkers in there because I don’t think someone could direct 180 films – not everything can be a winner. I’m very excited, this Thursday, Paramount has reached down into the vast recesses of its vault and come up with a 35 mm print of The Scarlet Hour, it was one of Curtiz’s last films that he produced and directed at Paramount. His reputation was waning and he was going to make stars out of Carol Ohmart, Tom Tryon, and Jody Lawrence. Carol Ohmart is best remembered for House on Haunted Hill when Vincent Price throws her into a vat of acid at the end. The Scarlet Hour is similar to Double Indemnity in a lot of ways, but it’s one of the last film noirs that used a new camera lens and I’m very excited to introduce and see it on the big screen. There are so many Curtiz films that are worthy for rediscovery and discussion out there. If all of them aren’t classic, most of them are very distinctive and bring something to the fore that’s worth looking at.
Thank you to Alan K. Rode for sitting down with me. You can purchase Rode’s book, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film here.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.