This Day in Jewish History / A Star Director Is Born (Or So He Says)

'Casablanca' director Michael Curtiz claimed that he was born on December 24, but like other elements of his biography, it's hard to be sure.

David Green
David B. Green
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December 24, 1886, is the date that film director Michael Curtiz claimed as his birthday, although like several other elements of his autobiography – such as the assertion that he fenced on the Hungarian Olympic team in 1912 – it is subject to some doubt.

What is certain is that Curtiz was born as Mano Kaminer Kertesz (though his name did go through many other incarnations) into a Jewish family in Budapest, and that he began his career as a theater director and actor in the Hungarian National Theater, in 1912. After a brief spell working at the Nordisk studio in Denmark, and service in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, Curtiz left Hungary for good in 1919, which, during its brief period as the Hungarian Soviet Republic, saw its film industry was nationalized. Between then and 1926, when he was invited to Hollywood by Jack Warner, Curtiz worked in Sweden, France, Germany and Austria, making 21 films in seven years.

One version of his life story says that the director arrived in the United States, where he anglicized his name, on July 4, 1926. His first big film for Warner Bros. was “Noah’s Ark,” a million-dollar, part-talkie that combined a melodramatic romance story taking place during World War I with scenes depicting the story of Noah and the flood. During filming, several extras in the cast actually drowned, and others were badly injured, helping establish Curtiz as a callous and overly demanding director. That image was not helped by frequently disparaging remarks he made about actors throughout his career.

To this day, a half-century after his death, film enthusiasts still enjoy arguing over Curtiz’s quality as a filmmaker: Was he an auteur, whose entire body of work is characterized by a distinctive vision and style, or was he a mere technician who has a number of successful titles to his name simply because he was backed by a strong studio system that provided him with decent screenplays and actors? Even over what may be Curtiz’s most beloved film, for which he won his lone Oscar for Best Director – “Casablanca” – critics are not in agreement. In his blog for the Museum of Modern Art, before a screening of “Casablanca” last year, Charles Silver, a film curator at the museum, conceded that the movie has “an ingratiating charm,” but, reacting to a 2005 vote by the Writers Guild of America that named “Casablanca”’s screenplay as the best of all time, Silver argued that it was “not even the best film of 1942.”

The Motion Picture Academy disagreed, awarding “Casablanca” additional Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. In fact, the script of “Casablanca,” the story of a nightclub owned by a cynical American expatriate played by Humphrey Bogart in the Vichy-controlled Moroccan port city, where refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe have descended in a desperate attempt to find escape routes from the war, was a group effort. Writing credits for “Casablanca,” which was based on an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,"went to the twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein and to Howard Koch, and writer Casey Robinson also had a hand. The Epsteins and Koch worked on the screenplay simultaneously, though never in the same room, and until the end of shooting, no one could decide how the movie would end. (Julius Epstein told an interviewer in 1995, “Warner had 75 writers under contract, and 75 of them tried to figure out an ending,” and Philip’s son, novelist Leslie Epstein, claimed that the twins, driving down Sunset Boulevard, came to a red light, “when they turned to each other and with one voice cried out, ‘Round up the usual suspects!’”).

Among the more than 100 other movies, of almost every genre possible, made by Curtiz in Hollywood, some of the most well-known are a slew of films starring Errol Flynn, including “Captain Blood” (1935) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938); “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” with James Cagney in the role of George M. Cohan (1942); and “Mildred Pierce” (1945), “Life with Father” (1947) and “The Breaking Point,” a highly regarded 1950 screen version of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” Also to be noted, considering that today is Christmas Eve, is “White Christmas,” starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, from 1954.

By the late 1940s, Curtiz and Warner’s rewrote their relationship so that they both now shared in costs and profits of the director’s films. Unfortunately, the movies that followed were not successful, and both parties ended up fighting in court. Curtiz was later quoted as saying that “You are only appreciated so far as you carry the dough into the box office. They throw you into the gutter next day.”

Curtiz stopped working with Warner Bros in 1954, but he continued directing almost up until his death, which indisputably took place on April 10, 1962.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in 'Casablanca.' Credit: AP
Director Michael Curtiz.Credit: Wikimedia