Who Cares About Character? The Films of Michael Curtiz

Michael Curtiz photo 77287-004-ADA41C05.jpg“Who cares about character? I make it go so fast nobody notices”. Michael Curtiz’s disdain for the people in front of the camera was as notorious as his malapropisms. English was his second language and Curtiz struggled mightily with it his whole life.

One thing he didn’t struggle with was film making.

Curtiz was a technical wizard who by the time he emigrated to America from his native Hungary had mastered the art and science of cinema although that wizardry seemed to desert him (or maybe it was disdain) when it came to the tragic flood scene in Warner Brother’s Noah’s Ark (1928).

Speed was the watchword in a Curtiz production. This wasn’t unique. Because of time and budgetary constraints directors in the studio era were pushed aggressively to get it in the can and move on.

Curtiz’s contemporary W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man) was known as “One Take Woody.” They weren’t so much artist as technicians in the assembly line. Many never rose above that label and it shows in their work which more often than not is pure hackery.

Curtiz was not one of those.  If he didn’t care about character then it must have been some other director who made King Creole Elvis Presley’s best performance on film. Or garnered Joan Crawford her one and only Oscar for the penultimate soap opera Mildred Pierce.

Joan Crawford - photo by Bert Six photo JoanCrawford-photobyBertSix.jpg
Best Actress of 1945 Joan Crawford

This doesn’t even take into account Curtiz taking a rudimentary actor like Erroll Flynn and turning him into the Robin Hood. I mean really can you honestly see anybody playing that role better? Flynn’s looks charisma, athleticism and natural wit made him an icon thanks to his collaborations with Michael Curtiz. They thanked each other by getting into a fistfight on the set of They Died With Their Boots On (dig the irony) thereby ending any prospect of ever working together again.

Errol Flynn - Robin Hood photo olivia-de-havilland-errol-flynn-the.jpg
Olivia De-Havilland & Errol Flynn is a scene from The Adventures of Robin Hood

Accepting Curtiz’s learned disgust for actors like any good director he had to at least consider character. One thing that links the characters in his films is a sense of adventure. Good or bad they’re searchers who will go anyplace to find what they’re looking for or to escape from. Things can get pretty desperate in a Curtiz film and you have to be ready when life comes rolling your way.

The Sea Wolf for me is one of Curtiz’s signatures.  Adapted for the screen by  Robert Rossen from the Jack London novel it’s the story of an escaped convict (the great Ida Lupino) and a writer (Alexander Knox) are rescued after their ship crashes into another vessel.

Now it’s good to be alive but if anybody had to rescue you the hope is it wouldn’t be Captain Wolf Larson or that the ship’s name isn’t called The Ghost. Be that as it may they are grateful How long that last your mileage may vary because they soon start to realize they’ve been saved by a madman.

Edward G. Robinson is brilliant as he draws his new passengers into his world of inhuman cruelty and absolute power. But he’s not evil personified. Larson is a very complex man. Well educated but it’s meaningless to him. Physically tough but he suffers from blinding headaches (Cagney in White Heat eight years later). Relishing his public humiliation of the ship’s alcoholic doctor played by Gene Lockhart and then consumed with fear when that same doctor is about to spill his secrets.

Indeed Curtiz gets wonderful performances from all his actors. John Garfield and a particularly scary Barry Fitzgerald as Cooky There’s no other way to pay Fitzgerald the highest acting compliment but to say Cooky is vermin.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the Curtiz hallmark. Atmosphere. Through camera movement lighting and other touches the mood was set. Audiences had been transported to wherever the movie was taking place. The Unsuspected with Claude Reins as radio narrator trying not to get caught after committing a murder is another example. Curtiz puts you right into that gorgeous ominous apartment Reins inhabits.

Then there’s Robin Hood again. We are there in the 12th century as the forces of good in the form of Robin battle against evil Prince John (Claude Reins again).  Robin  has no choice but to fight but when he does he loves it. This is an adventure to him something many of Curtiz’s characters can relate to. Rick doesn’t have to get Ilsa and Victor out of Casablanca. He doesn’t owe Ilsa anything after she broke his heart. But whether it’s for old times or some other reason, Rick takes up the adventure.Humprey Bogard & Ingrid Bergman photo casablanca-bogart-bergman-2.jpgThe truth is Curtiz needed the studio system but more importantly he needed actors who could get him what he wanted. Warner Brothers had that in abundance and Curtiz took full advantage to do his greatest work  . No doubt he made some solid pictures later on. White Christmas has become a classic. We’re No Angels, King Creole and the vastly underrated Breaking Point were good films.

But Warner Brothers knew how to get the best out of Curtiz. He seemed to feed on the crazy place Jack, Harry and Sam had built. For all the headaches it was home. For all the railing against actors they made him a great director. Technical efficiency with no heart will only carry you so far. That heart never achieved the same sustained level of artistry after Curtiz left Warner Brothers.

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