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Have You Seen…? Episode 33

On this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about Hollywood director Michael Curtiz, a very prolific filmmaker known for Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas, Angels with Dirty Faces and the Adventures of Robin Hood

David Hast: Scott, have you seen The Adventures of Robin Hood?

Scott Vander Werf: You know, I've seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn many times, but it was when I was a kid. So we're talking the 1970s is probably the last time that I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood.

DH: I've only seen it a couple of times, but I rewatched it recently and it's just, it's so fun to watch with the technicolor of it is just so over the top and it's such a fun adventure movie with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland who are in many movies together.

SVW: And you know, I, I, I hesitate when you say technicolor, I forget that it's in technicolor. I probably watched it on a black and white TV back in the seventies more than I did on our color television.

DH: Yeah. Well, no, it's technicolor and it was, it was a very bold, you know, stunning color, which actually the technicolor company didn't really want. They wanted more subdued colors.

But the Warner Brothers decided to kind of go over the top with it and they were right. But the reason I bring it up isn't isn't those things. It's that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who is a really interesting director in movie history.

SVW: He's the the essential journeyman of directors.

DH: Right. In some ways, Michael Curtiz is the ultimate example of how Hollywood worked during the studio in this era and how different the movie industry is now from then. Michael Curtiz is best known for a few classics, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas, the film noir Mildred Pierce, Angels with Dirty Faces, and of course Casablanca.

SVW: Which is the film I probably have seen the most of in his filmography.

DH: Yes, and there are others, a few others that might even be considered great masterworks from him, but Journeyman, you know, almost doesn't say it. Michael Curtiz directed, in his entire career, directed 179 movies or something like that total in his career, beginning in the silent era in 1912 in his native Hungary, and then he directed in Denmark and Austria before Warner Brothers brought him to Hollywood in 1926.

Yet another European Jew in the movie industry who came to the U.S. in the 20s and 30s, in many cases to escape the Nazis, and he became just this workhorse for Warner Brothers. He made every kind of movie, action, adventure, drama, historical drama, romance, comedies, westerns, gangster movies, musicals, film noir. He even made a few horror films.

And he you know, it shows you how the studio system was then. You made a movie, maybe it had a four or five week shooting schedule, you finished, and the next week you started on another movie. Michael Curtiz in the 1930s, just the 1930s, directed 53 movies. That's more than five movies a year. That is, to get a perspective on now, think of two great directors now who are very prolific, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, neither of them in 50 plus years of their careers has made 50 movies yet. And he made 53 just in the 1930s. In the 40s he made, I counted this on IMDB, he made 21 more in the 40s and 21 more in the 50s. So two a year. He made, you know, over 100 movies in Hollywood in 30 some years.

SVW: And The Adventures of Robin Hood was in the 30s, it was in 1938, and it starred Errol Flynn. He also made Captain Blood with Errol Flynn 1935, and Angels with Dirty Faces was in 38, another Errol Flynn movie, Dodge City, in 1939. So, and he, and I, when I saw that he had made most of the films that I'd seen that starred Errol Flynn, I didn't remember that.

DH: Yeah, and many of them also have Olivia to have one. They were, they were paired a lot. Dodge City, that western has a… has Olivia to have one in it. And, you know, I bring it up because the question is, you know, why is he not as well known?

You know, I started thinking about Curtiz because I just, I keep, for the last five years, I've kept a log of every movie I've watched. And I noticed I'd been, I watched TCM a lot. So I watch old movies and I noticed I was seeing Michael Curtiz films. And I went back and searched through my document, and in the last four and a half years, I have seen 20 Michael Curtiz films, not even trying to.

SVW: And you know, I looked at his selected filmography and I counted 21 movies that I've seen, you know, in my entire life. But that's still a lot of movies. It's not in four years, but it's in 60 plus years.

DH: And I saw those 20 movies in four and a half years, but I'm not even counting, they're not in my log. I didn't see again all the ones I just mentioned at the beginning, I didn't rewatch Mildred Pierce or Casablanca or Yankee Doodle Dandy. So I don't know, maybe I've probably seen 30 Michael Curtiz films.

SVW: Well, and you ask why isn't he better known or brought up in terms of one of the great directors, he kind of had an invisible style.

DH: Well, he is the ultimate studio director. His career was, he was brought over by Warner in the 20s, and he worked for Warner Brothers for like 30 years. All his movies until the early 50s are Warner Brothers. And then I think he went to Paramount and then was kind of freelance until his career ended in the late 50s or early 60s.

But yeah, so it's sort of like when you talk about the invisible editing style, the studio style, you know, is it remarkable? Are the people doing it remarkable in any way or are they just, you know, technicians? And this is where it is open to some debate because...

Just because he was a workhorse and did the things the studio wanted, he worked fast, he was on budget, does that mean he lacked any kind of personal style?

I mean, I think the answer is actually that's wrong. And I'm not alone in this, I've read critics recently. He was a very visual director. If you look at Casablanca, best example, right? And it is the one movie he won best director for, we think of Casablanca because, well, primarily it's just a great story and the performances are wonderful. But if you go back and watch that movie just to watch the camera work and the lighting, Curtiz does there what he does in actually many, many of his movies. He moves the camera a lot. He loved having the camera on a dolly and tracking around, you know, moving the point of view with the characters through space, not just editing. He liked interesting angles, you know, shooting through things, through windows, high and low angles. He, you know, worked with great cinematographers. There was great lighting. And he did have a lot of visual style.

So, yeah, so I think he's kind of underrated that way. And you think about, well, why isn't he mentioned in the same breath with Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford, the great auteurs, you know, the directors of that time? Maybe it's because he just did so much.

SVW: That could be he was he actually punched the time clock every Monday morning and he worked you know to the end of the week and who knows how many hours per day as opposed to a director like John Houston who was famous for making a film and then leaving the country going to Europe or going to Mexico and hanging out and drinking and hunting and having his leisure time spending the money that he made on the film, and not coming back to make another movie until he needed money.

DH: Yeah, and Houston is a great auteur with a recognizable style and type of characters, and he didn't make that many movies, but you go, wow, he's a great director. And it is true. If you direct a hundred Hollywood films, there's going to be a lot of crappy films in there, and there are in Curtiz’s filmography.

SVW: But it's still stunning how many wonderful stories that he told.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: And he worked with a lot of great actors, I mean, notably Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, James Cagney, and I already mentioned Errol Flynn, and you mentioned Olivia Day.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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