We had to do everything—make bill posters, print programs, set scenery, mend wardrobe, sometimes even arrange chairs in the auditoriums. Sometimes we traveled in trains, sometimes in stage coaches, sometimes on horseback. Sometimes we played in town halls, sometimes in little restaurants with no scenery at all. Sometimes we gave shows out of doors. Those strolling actors were the kindest-hearted people I have ever known. They would do anything for each other.
Curtiz was born Manó Kaminer to a Jewish family in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, in 1886, where his father was a carpenter and his mother an opera singer. In 1905, he Hungaricised his name to Mihály Kertész. Curtiz had a lower to middle-class upbringing. He recalled during an interview that his family's home was a cramped apartment, where he had to share a small room with his two brothers and a sister. "Many times we are hungry", he added.
He earned a reputation as a harsh taskmaster to his actors, as he micromanaged every detail on the set. With his background as Director since 1912, his experience and dedication to the art made him a perfectionist. He had an astounding mastery of technical details, including lighting, cinematography, and editing. Producer Hal Wallis considered him to be a superb Director, with "amazing command of lighting, mood and action, who could handle any kind of picture: melodrama, comedy, Western, historical epic or love story." He also directed musicals and war films.
He was assigned to make fund-raising documentaries for the Red Cross in Hungary. In 1917, he was made Director of production at Phoenix Films, the leading studio in Budapest, where he remained until he left Hungary. However, none of the films he directed there survived intact, and most are completely lost.
Around 1918, he married Actress Lucy Doraine, and they divorced in 1923. He married his second wife, Lili Damita, in 1925, and they divorced in 1926. When he left for the United States, he left behind an illegitimate son and an illegitimate daughter.
Among the films he directed were Biblical epics such as Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (1924) (titled Moon of Israel in the U.S.). He also made Red Heels (1925) and The Golden Butterfly (1926), and once directed 14-year-old Greta Garbo in Sweden. During this period, he tended to specialize in directing two kinds of films, either sophisticated light comedies or historical spectaculars. He launched the career of Lucy Doraine, who went on to become an international star, along with that of Lily Damita, who later married Errol Flynn.
Although he was an experienced filmmaker, now age 38, Warners assigned him to direct a number of average-quality films to break him in, the first being The Third Degree (1926). Curtiz's unique camerawork technique was used throughout, visible in dramatic camera angles, in a style which one critic assumed other Directors would likely envy.
On a visit to Hollywood in 1927, Ilya Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy's son, who had been a friend of Curtiz's in Europe, wanted him to direct several films based on his father's novels. He chose Curtiz because he already knew the locale and its people. During this period, Warner Bros. began experimenting with talking films. They assigned two part-silent and part-talking pictures for Curtiz to direct: Tenderloin (1928) and Noah's Ark (1928), both of which also starred Costello.
At the time Crawford accepted the part from Warner Bros., her 18-year career at MGM had been in decline. She had been one of Hollywood's most prominent and highest-paid movie stars at MGM, but her films began losing money, and by the end of the 1930s, she was labeled "box office poison". Rather than remain at MGM and see newer, younger talent draw most of the studio's attention with better roles, she left MGM and signed a contract with Warner Bros. at a reduced salary.
Nevertheless, Bette Davis, who was little known in 1932, made five more films with him, although they argued consistently when filming The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), one of her earliest roles. He had a low opinion of actors in general, saying that acting "is fifty percent a big bag of tricks. The other fifty percent should be talent and ability, although it seldom is." Overall, he got along well enough with his stars, as shown by his ability to attract and keep some of the best actors in Hollywood. He got along very well with Claude Rains, whom he directed in ten films.
In 1933, Curtiz became a naturalized U.S. citizen. By the early 1940s, he had become fairly wealthy, earning $3,600 per week and owning a substantial estate, complete with polo pitch. One of his regular polo partners was Hal B. Wallis, who had met Curtiz on his arrival in the country and had established a close friendship with him. Wallis' wife, the Actress Louise Fazenda, and Curtiz's third wife, Bess Meredyth, an Actress and Screenwriter, had been close since before Curtiz's marriage to Meredyth in 1929. Curtiz was frequently unfaithful, and had numerous affairs; Meredyth once left him for a short time, but they remained married until 1961, shortly before Curtiz's death. She was Curtiz's helper whenever his need to deal with scripts or other elements went beyond his grasp of English, and he often phoned her for advice when presented with a Problem while filming.
Six of Curtiz's films were nominated for Best Picture: Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1943), and Mildred Pierce (1945). Of these, only Casablanca won Best Picture.
Curtiz continued the successful genre of adventure films starring Flynn that included The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), a depiction of the British Light Brigade during the Crimean War. The film, another Oscar winner, sold even more tickets than Captain Blood, and reinforced Curtiz's status as the studio's top Director. It was followed by The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), the most profitable that year, winning three Academy Awards and being nominated for Best Picture. It is number 12 on Rotten Tomatoes' list of best rated films.
While Curtiz himself had escaped Europe before the rise of Nazism, other members of his family were not as lucky. He once asked Jack Warner, who was going to Budapest in 1938, to contact his family and help them get exit visas. Warner succeeded in getting Curtiz's mother to the U.S., where she spent the rest of her life living with her son. However, he could not rescue Curtiz's only sister, her husband, or their three children, who were sent to Auschwitz, where her husband and two of the children died.
Three Westerns directed by Curtiz also starring Flynn were Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and Virginia City (1940).
His attitude did not change when he joined a large studio, despite being given large spectacles to direct. As late as the 1940s, he still preferred "homey pictures." He said it was "because I want to deal with human and fundamental problems of real people. That is the basis of all good drama. It is true even in a spectacle, where you must never forget the underlying humanity and identity of your characters no matter how splendid the setting or situations are." However, he also felt that even with the same story, any five different Directors would produce five distinctive versions. "No two would be alike," he said, as each director's "work is reflection of himself."
Edward G. Robinson starred in his second film directed by Curtiz in 1941, The Sea Wolf. He portrayed the rampaging, dictatorial captain of a ship in an adaptation of one of Jack London's most famous novels. Robinson said the character he portrayed "was a Nazi in everything but name," which, Robinson noted, was relevant to the state of the world at that time. John Garfield and Ida Lupino were cast as the young lovers who attempt to escape his tyranny. Some reviews described the film as one of Curtiz's "hidden gems... one of Curtiz's most complex works."
Also in 1942, Curtiz directed Casablanca (1942), a World War II-era romantic drama that many consider to be the most popular motion picture from Hollywood’s golden age, and is today considered a classic. Among its stars were Humphrey Bogart, playing an expatriate living in Morocco, and Ingrid Bergman as a woman who was trying to escape the Nazis. The film is widely considered to be one of the finest films ever made, receiving eight Academy Award nominations and winning three, including one for Curtiz as Best Director.
During this period, Curtiz also directed the World War II propaganda film Mission to Moscow (1943), a film which was commissioned at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in support of the U.S. and British ally, the Soviet Union, at that time holding down 80% of all German forces as they repelled the Nazi invasion of Russia. The film was mostly well received by critics and was a success at the box office, but the film soon proved to be controversial after it stirred up strong anti-Communist sentiments. Curtiz took the criticism personally and vowed never again to direct an overtly political film, a promise which he kept.
Mildred Pierce (1945) was based on the novel by James M. Cain. Its star, Joan Crawford, gave one of the strongest performances in her acting career, playing a mother and successful businesswoman who sacrifices everything for her spoiled daughter, played by Ann Blyth.
In 1947, Curtiz directed william Powell and Irene Dunne in Life With Father, a family comedy. It was a big hit in the United States, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Powell. During Powell's career, he acted in 97 films, and this was his third and last nomination. One review stated, "He is magnificent in the role, imbuing it with every attribute of pomp, dignity, unconscious conceit, and complete loveableness! His is one of the really great screen performances of the year... that crowns a long screen life."
Among the films Curtiz directed was Young Man with a Horn (1950), which starred Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day, had Douglas portray the rise and fall of a driven jazz musician, based on real-life horn player Bix Beiderbecke. The following year, Curtiz directed another biopic, Jim Thorpe – All-American (1951), which starred Burt Lancaster in the true story of a Native American athlete who won more gold medals than any other athlete at the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm. The film received plaudits as one of the most compelling of all Sports movies.
Also in 1951, he directed another biopic, I'll See You in My Dreams, with Doris Day and Danny Thomas. The film is a musical biography of lyricist Gus Kahn. It was Day's fourth film directed by Curtiz, who first auditioned her and gave her a starring role in her debut film, Romance on the High Seas (1948). She was shocked at being offered a lead in her first film, and admitted to Curtiz that she was a singer without acting experience. What Curtiz liked about her after the audition was that "she was honest," he said, not afraid to tell him she was not an Actress. That, and the fact that "her freckles made her look like the All-American Girl," he said. Day would be the discovery he boasted about most later in his career.
The Story of Will Rogers (1952), also a biography, told the story of well-known humorist and movie star Will Rogers, played by Will Rogers, Jr., his son. White Christmas (1954), Curtiz's second adaptation of an Irving Berlin musical, was a major box-office success, the highest-grossing film of 1954. It starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.
After his relationship with Warner Bros. broke down, Curtiz continued to direct on a freelance basis from 1954 onwards. The Egyptian (1954) (based on Mika Waltari's novel about Sinuhe) for Fox starred Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Gene Tierney. He directed many films for Paramount, including White Christmas, We're No Angels), and King Creole.
Noah's Ark included two parallel stories, one recounting the biblical flood, and the other a World War I-era romance. It was the first epic film attempted by Warner Bros., and in handing production over to Curtiz, they were hoping to assure its success. The climactic flood sequence was considered "spectacular" at the time, notes Historian Richard Schickel, while biographer James C. Robertson said it was "one of the most spectacular incidents in film history." Its cast was made up of over 10,000 extras. However, the reissue of the film in 1957 cut an hour off the original time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. The story was an adaptation written by Bess Meredyth, who married Curtiz a few years later.
Another musical, King Creole (1958), starred Elvis Presley and Carolyn Jones. When asked to direct Elvis, who was then the "king of rock and roll", Curtiz could only laugh, assuming Elvis would not be able to act. After a few conversations with him, however, his opinion changed: "I began to sit up and take notice," Curtiz said, adding, "I guarantee that he'll amaze everyone. He shows formidable talent. What's more, he'll get the respect he so dearly desires."
Curtiz died from cancer on April 11, 1962, aged 73. At the time of his death, he was living alone in a small apartment in Sherman Oaks, California. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California, near his younger brother, Director and special effects Artist, David Curtiz.