May 302005

It may seem surprising that the director of films such as Casablanca (1942), Captain Blood (1935), and the Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is considered by many critics to be a technically skilled director, but nothing more than a loyal member of the studio system, who was unwilling to challenge himself artistically. Michael Curtiz (December 24, 1886-April 10, 1962) did little to change this view, and rarely gave interviews, therefore his movies are much better known than he is.

Early Life

Curtiz was born Mihaly Kertesz to upper middle-class Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary on December 24, 1886. After being wounded in WWI, he became head of Pheonix, a Hungarian film company, and he was successful enough that Warner Brothers hired him in 1926, when he was thirty-seven-years-old with sixty films under his belt. He married Bess Meredyth in 1929, and it was a solid marriage until they separated in 1960.

Warner Brothers

Working at Warner Brothers during the Depression meant that survival depended on speed, and Curtiz became the studio’s second-fastest director, surpassed only by Mervyn LeRoy. By 1933, he was considered a reliable, but not outstanding director. Everything changed in 1935 with Captain Blood, a commercial hit that solidified his position at Warners, which was further reinforced a year later by the success of Charge of the Light Brigade, the studio’s most profitable film that year. Conservative as ever, Warners embraced costume dramas only after they had proven successful at other studios. This policy was further motivated by a desire to avoid conflict with an increasingly combative and puritanical Catholic Legion of Decency, which objected to Warners’ social dramas. Historical dramas nicely sidestepped any social controversy.

Captain Blood finally gave Curtiz a project that allowed him to express his full talent, and he resisted most of producer Hal Wallis’ attempts to tone down production in order to keep the film within budget. In 1938, he directed three big money makers for Warners, Robin Hood (Warners’ most successful movie that year), Four Daughters, and Angels with Dirty Faces. Even before Casablanca (1942), Curtiz had been Warner’s top director from 1936 through to 1941, partially because LeRoy, who had previously occupied that position, had left for MGM in 1938. Curtiz also became known as someone who could save troubled pictures, including Robin Hood. Actually, Curtiz’s rise was paralleled by Warners’ success as a studio, since its increased wealth during that period meant more money for better scripts, better production values, and longer shooting schedules. Despite Curtiz’s profitable track record he continued to clash repeatedly with producer Hal Wallis on The Sea Hawk (1940), but his decision to take the time to produce excellent scenes was vindicated when it became yet another commercial hit.

Although Curtiz had directed successful films without Errol Flynn, almost half of his movies since Captain Blood had starred Flynn, and most of his hits, both critical and commercial, were with Flynn. However, a fist fight on the set of They Died With Their Boots On in 1941 ended their relationship. Whether it would have been reestablished if Flynn’s career had not nose-dived after his statutory rape trial in 1942 is unknown. Moreover, Curtiz never developed as fruitful a relationship with another leading man.


While Curtiz’s seventeen films for Warners, including four for his own production unit, after the war all made money, box office hits were rare, and his place in the directors’ pecking order slipped. Curtiz himself seemed unsure about whether to stay or leave, but he finally formed his own production unit within Warners in February 1947, where he owned 51% and Warners had 49%. However, Warners worried that Curtiz was spending too little time directing, and bought out his shares in 1949, offering him a longer contract and 25% of the profits of each film. It should not seem surprising that he abandoned his company, since other production companies formed after tha war, such as Liberty Films and Argosy, also failed.

However, Curtiz surrendered some freedom. He could look at two scripts for each film he was assigned, but if he rejected both, Warners could force him to direct one of the scripts or assign him to another film. As a result, he had to direct films that he did not like, which naturally dampened his enthusiasm.

Later Years

Curtiz finally went free-lance in April 1953 because he knew that Warners was not doing well, while the people he was used to working with had moved on to other studios, and he never again put down roots at one specific studio. Despite being weak from fighting cancer, his production rate barely slowed, and he made nine films in the period from 1957 to 1961, although it was much less than his prime in 1937-41, when he had made eighteen films.

After Curtiz became seriously ill while filming The Comancheros (1961), John Wayne had to finish directing the film. Curtiz died on April 10, 1962, age 73.

Career Assessment

Curtiz had a well-deserved reputation as a harsh taskmaster, who never hesitated to yell at actors, and micro-managed his set, but he produced beautiful movies. The only actor he regularly had trouble with was Flynn, who was simply difficult to work with. Actually, most actors, including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Claude Rains, enjoyed working with Curtiz.

For someone viewed as a studio technician, Curtiz always felt free to rewrite scripts, and his producers learned to accept this attitude. He also possessed an astounding mastery of everything technical, including lighting, editing, and cinematography, which was why he micromanaged, he knew what he was talking about. Curtiz is not remembered as one of the great Hollywood directors largely because he did not concentrate on one specific field, but he proved able to handle a remarkably wide range of genres, and he left an impressive body of work.

Historical Movies:

Noah’s Ark (1928)

Starring Dolores Costello and George O’Brien
A young American debates whether to serve in WWI because he had fallen in love with a German girl shortly before the war. At the same time, there is a parallel story about how God flooded the world to punish those who defied his will, saving only Noah and his family.

River’s End (1930)

Starring Charles Bickford and Evalyn Knapp
A Canadian Mountie captures a suspected murderer through the icy North but when he dies, the murderer impersonates him to avoid going to jail. Unfortunately, he falls in love with the dead mountie’s girlfriend.

The Key (1934)

Starring William Powell and Edna Best
A British officer is assigned to Ireland to help track down a Sein Fein leader and finds himself rekindling his romance with his ex-girlfriend.

British Agent (1934)

Starring Leslie Howard and Kay Francis
A British agent attempts to delay the signing of the Russian-German Armistice following the Russian Revolution because it would allow Germany to concentrate all of its troops on the Western Front.

Black Fury (1935)

Starring Paul Muni and Karen Morley
An immigrant working in a coal mining camp controlled by a ruthless mining company in the 1930’s threatens to blow up the mine in order to call attention to the horrible working conditions.

Captain Blood (1935)

Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland
An Irish doctor treats a wounded rebel during Monmouth Rebellion against King James II in 1685 and is sentenced to slavery on Jamaica along with many other captured rebels. Eventually, they escape from the island and become pirates.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland
A British garrison in India is massacred in 1856 by a local tribal leader but the survivors take their revenge a year later during the Crimean War, where they make a doomed charge against their enemy who is fighting on the side of the Russians.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland
With King Richard away on the Crusades, Prince John and the Norman lords are free to oppress the Saxon masses until a Saxon lord becomes the leader of a guerrilla army and begins stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

Dodge City (1939)

Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland
In 1872, Dodge City is a wide-open cattle town ruled by a powerful outlaw until the more the law-abiding members of the community invite Wade Hatton to be the sheriff and tame the town.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Starring Errol Flynn and Bette Davis
The earl of Essex, a popular war hero, woos Elizabeth I in the hope of becoming King of England but Elizabeth knows that she must consider whether Essex is worthy of the throne.

Virginia City (1940)

Starring Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott
A Union officer escapes from a Confederate prison and is assigned to stop his old commander, who is planning to smuggle a huge shipment of gold from Virginia City, Nevada to the nearly bankrupt South.

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Starring Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, English privateers raid oppose the powerful Spanish empire by capturing its treasure ships filled with gold from South America with the Queen’s unofficial support. King Phillip of Spain is tired of the endless raids and prepares an Armada to conquer England. However, one of the privateers learns of the secret armada and races to warn the Queen. (full review)

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland
J.E.B. Stuart and George Custer are romantic rivals for the same woman, while trying to stop John Brown from starting a slave uprising at Harper’s Ferry that would tear apart the United States. (full review)

Dive Bomber (1941)

Starring Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray
As war becomes increasingly likely, a flight surgeon and a navy pilot work together to solve the problem of altitude sickness that causes pilots to black out at high altitudes.

Captains of the Clouds (1942)

Starring James Cagney and Dennis Morgan
A bush pilot joins the Royal Canadian Air Force after listening to Churchill’s “blood, sweat and tears” speech but finds it difficult to adapt to military discipline.

Casablanca (1942)

Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman
The most popular nightclub in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, Morocco is owned by Rick, an American ex-freedom fighter. When he gains possession of two letters of transit that will allow two people to escape to America, he finds that everyone wants them, the local Vichy police, Nazi officers and even a European resistance leader and his wife, who is also Rick’s former lover.

Mission to Moscow (1943)

Starring Walter Huston and Ann Harding
Relates former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph Davies’ experiences as he observes Stalin’s political manueverings prior to the German invasion of Russia.

Passage to Marseilles (1944)

Starring Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains
When the passengers and crew on board a French ship bound for Marseilles learn of France’s surrender and the formation of Vichy France, pro-Vichy supporters struggle for control against supporters of the Free French.

Force of Arms (1951)

Starring William Holden and Nancy Olson
A GI sergeant and a WAC lieutenant fall in love in Italy during the winter of 1943 as the Americans struggle to breakthrough the German lines in the mountains.

The Egyptian (1954)

Starring Jean Simmons and Victor Mature
In Egypt during the 18th Dynasty of the Pharaohs, an orphan becomes a physician and dreams of becoming a pharaoh.

The Vagabond King (1956)

Starring Kathryn Grayson and Oreste Kirkop
In 1461 France, the nobles fear that King Louis XI will seize their lands so they ally with the powerful Duke of Burgundy, while the king tries to convince the leader of the Vagabonds, outlaws that rob from the rich to give to the poor, to help defend Paris against Burgundy and the nobles.

The Hangman (1959)

Starring Robert Taylor and Tina Louise
A marshal nicknamed the Hangman for his success in catching criminals who then end up in the hangman’s noose arrives in a town to find a wanted criminal. However, the town’s residents all like the suspect and conspire to prevent the marshal from catching him.

Francis of Assissi (1961)

Starring Bradford Dillman and Dolores Hart
A young Italian warrior during the middle ages hears the voice of God and rejects violence to serve God, eventually becoming a saint.

The Comancheros (1961)

Starring John Wayne and Stuart Whitman
When Texas was still an independent republic, a Texas Ranger is forced to work with his prisoner, a gambler wanted for killing a man in a duel, to infiltrate renegade white men known as Comancheros, who are selling guns to the Comanche.

Further Reading:

The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz-James C. Robertson, Routledge, London, 1993.
At 155 pages it is much too brief to provide an in-depth examination of Curtiz, but there has not been a major work on him since this was published in 1993. It is still an excellent, well-researched book, but 155 pages seems inadequate for a director of Curtiz’s stature, and it says little about his personal life. It is strongest when dealing with his Warners years because of Robertson’s access to Warners archives, while the final chapter is an excellent assessment of his career as a whole.


  • Pingback: Santa Fe Trail »

  • Pingback: The Sea Hawk »

  • kpasquale55

    My way of looking at Curtiz is that he could do anything he was asked to do. I think, for example, that the great soaper Mildred Pierce is about as good a movie as anyone could produce. There is a story that an extra drowned on the set of Noah’s Ark, an event that didn’t help his reputation, and many, many stories that he put deadlines and successful shoots way, way ahead of actors’ feelings. When you look at that list of achievements, you can’t believe he’s not right there in everybody’s list of the top 10 or 15 directors of all time.

    • historyonfilm

      He was undoubtedly a harsh taskmaster, but so were William Wyler and John Ford, and they are deservedly popular directors. I agree entirely, it is a shame that Curtiz never got the recognition that he deserved.

  • Jay Peitzer

    Left out “We’re No Angles” from 1955. Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov. Terrific little film with Bogart playing a convicted con man on Devil’s Island. Ustinov had some great stories about working with Curtiz. Curtiz could and did direct any type of film and did them all well.