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The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

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The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby moira finnie » December 7th, 2017, 7:45 pm

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A Christmas present that can be opened early comes to The Silver Screen Oasis on Tues., Dec. 12th! The classic film discussion group will be hosting an online visit with film historian Alan K. Rode, author of Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (Univ. Press of KY) on on Tues., Dec. 12th.

Millions of us cherish films such as Casablanca, White Christmas, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Four Daughters, Mildred Pierce, Angels With Dirty Faces, and Captain Blood, but how much do we know about the protean figure of Michael Curtiz who directed these and over 170 other movies spanning every genre from the silents to the sixties?

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Alan K. Rode, a film historian, the author of Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy, director-treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation host and producer of the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, California, has spent years researching and evaluating the complex and remarkably creative public and private life of Michael Curtiz. The wait for this biography has been worth it. Illuminating his formative years from his native Hungary to the flowering of his talent in the studio era on the soundstages of Warner Brothers, the author has created a biography worthy of its subject's range. Alan’s depth of research and compelling storytelling has brought a complex, brilliant man and a lost world to life on the page, creating a portrait of an individual who mastered filmmaking in many genres, building a career spanning moviemaking on two continents from the early silents to pre-code talkies to the height of the studio era.

Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, has been described by Scott Eyman as:”exhaustively researched, well written and frequently witty,: and by others as “a wonderful read and an accurate source for future reference, [that] is thoroughly satisfying, highly intelligent, and a delicious, rich dessert for any serious lover of film and film history." More about the author and the book (including a discount on the cloth edition this month) may be seen here:

https://www.kentuckypress.com/live/titl ... tleid=2584

As many longime Silver Screen Oasis members will recall, Alan was an engaging guest some time ago, discussing his moving and entertaining biography of the essential film noir actor, Charles McGraw. That lively discussion can be seen here:

viewtopic.php?f=36&t=1480

Please join us at the link below on Dec. 12th to ask the author everything you have always wanted to know about Curtiz the man and the filmmaker. All are welcome!

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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby moira finnie » December 12th, 2017, 8:41 am

This thread is now open and welcome to all members to post a question for our guest, Alan K. Rode.

Thanks for agreeing to spend today with us, Alan and congratulations on the critical and popular reception of your book! It's clearly a labor of love and a good read.

1.) Why were you drawn to Curtiz in particular as a subject? Given your background as one of the moving forces behind the Film Noir Foundation, was it the director's work in this genre in such gems as The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Mildred Pierce, The Unsuspected and The Breaking Point that initially appealed to you?

2.) One of the outstanding qualities in your book is the way that you address how Michael Curtiz appears to have eluded easy categorization by film buffs using the auteur theory as a measuring stick. Could you please explain what makes films indelibly his own and how he approached the collaborative efforts and "happy accidents" it really took to create over 150 movies, including such lasting movies as Casablanca, Angels With Dirty Faces, Captain Blood, and so many more?

Thanks in advance for your reply.

NOTE:
Please bear in mind that Mr. Rode is posting from Pacific Time on the west coast and may be several hours behind many of our questioners' schedules in other time zones.
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » December 12th, 2017, 9:39 am

Alan, we are so happy you are here to visit with us about Michael Curtiz!

Last night I was rewatching A Night At The Movies: Merry Christmas! from 2011, and historians discussed how Michael Curtiz worked on Casablanca and White Christmas with scripts that were hastily created or continued to be changed during production. How did Curtiz's ability to create and collaborate "on the fly" stand him in good stead? Did he always have this ability to adapt to a production in such a ready manner?

Thanks for coming to visit here, Alan! It's always great to see you at the TCM Film Festival and Noir City Hollywood.
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby moira finnie » December 12th, 2017, 9:52 am

Great question, Christy!

Alan, Could you please tell a bit about the challenges you faced in writing this book? How long did it take you to research, write and edit this incredibly detailed biography?

Given the fact that Curtiz died in 1962, were there many people you could turn to for first hand accounts of the director's life? Were oral histories helpful to you?

I know that you traveled extensively to research this book--including, I believe, visits to Budapest. Did these research trips affect your writing and perspective on your subject's life and work?

Why do you think that so many influential figures in front and behind the camera in the studio era came from this corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire?
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Alan K. » December 12th, 2017, 12:55 pm

Thanks Moira for inviting me back to the Oasis to discuss MICHAEL CURTIZ A LIFE IN FILM. I certainly appreciate returning with a new book to discuss.

1.) I was drawn to Curtiz as a biographical subject for several reasons. My friend and colleague Pat McGilligan (also the Screen Classics editor at UOK press) suggested that I consider writing a book about a film director. After pondering and rejecting several candidates, I began examining Curtiz and his career. I discovered that there was very little of substance written about him beyond his lengthy resume of films and colorful anecdotes about his broken English and on set temper tantrums. I was familiar with his great pictures including CASABLANCA, ROBIN HOOD, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE and THE BREAKING POINT but most of those accounts omitted or were dismissive of his specific contributions. What helped clinch my decision to write about Curtiz was my long term friendship with the actor Richard Erdman. Dick was discovered and signed by Curtiz to a Warner Bros. contract right out of Hollywood High School in 1944. He urged me to write about "my champion, Mike Curtiz."

2.) Although he labored on his scripts, Curtiz was an artistic man who interpreted words in a visual sense. Although this is a characteristic of many directors who began their careers in silent films, Curtiz's energetic personality became imbued into his movies particularly in terms of vitality and action. The movement and usage of his camera became his artistic signature as his technique was melded into the rapid fire Warner house style favored by Zanuck, Wallis, and Jack Warner. As a European director who helmed his first film in 1912, he initially viewed actors as directorial Silly Putty. In Hollywood, Curtiz adapted to the star system and became much more of a collaborator with actors than his autocratic reputation would indicate.
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby MarcusMalone » December 12th, 2017, 1:03 pm

Alan, was it unusual for Michael Curtiz to be chosen to direct musicals? Thinking of his many action, gangster and dramatic movies, did he have to get the approval of an actor such as Jimmy Cagney before being allowed to direct Yankee Doodle Dandy?

Did the status of Curtiz at Warner Bros. change after Casablanca's success? Did other studios ever try to tempt him with better contracts in the life'30s & '40s?

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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Alan K. » December 12th, 2017, 1:16 pm

moira finnie wrote:Great question, Christy!

Alan, Could you please tell a bit about the challenges you faced in writing this book? How long did it take you to research, write and edit this incredibly detailed biography?

Given the fact that Curtiz died in 1962, were there many people you could turn to for first hand accounts of the director's life? Were oral histories helpful to you?

I know that you traveled extensively to research this book--including, I believe, visits to Budapest. Did these research trips affect your writing and perspective on your subject's life and work?

Why do you think that so many influential figures in front and behind the camera in the studio era came from this corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire?


Thanks Moira: There were a few times during the writing of this book where I recalled John Huston's line from CHINATOWN: "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." I am also from the "turn every page" school of biographers so it was a long journey. I spoke to every person I could find who worked with Curtiz (Olivia de Havilland turned me down), went through all the oral histories, went to or consulted every film related archive that held relevant materials (I lived at the USC Warner Bros. Archives for a couple of years). Traveling to Budapest and visiting places where Curtiz spent his formative years was vital for me to get a contextual feel for his early life. I also began a friendship with a Hungarian film historian named Laszlo Kriston that proved invaluable to my research. Some of my contacts with Curtiz's grandchildren and others were also very important. As to the artistic talent of Hungarians from this period, I can only point to a sign that supposedly hung on a 1940's Hollywood sound stage: "It is not enough to be Hungarian. One must also have talent!"
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Alan K. » December 12th, 2017, 1:26 pm

MarcusMalone wrote:Alan, was it unusual for Michael Curtiz to be chosen to direct musicals? Thinking of his many action, gangster and dramatic movies, did he have to get the approval of an actor such as Jimmy Cagney before being allowed to direct Yankee Doodle Dandy?

Did the status of Curtiz at Warner Bros. change after Casablanca's success? Did other studios ever try to tempt him with better contracts in the life'30s & '40s?



Hello Marcus and thanks for the question:
It wasn't unusual for Curtiz to direct musicals or any other picture that he was assigned by the studio back in the 1930s and into the 40s. Warner and Wallis assigned and Curtiz directed. As he became more successful, he was allowed considerable leeway to select or decline materials, but he was so addicted to filmmaking that he couldn't bear to stay idle very long, if at all. Warner knew this and used it to get Curtiz to direct pictures that he might not have chosen on his own. Although James Cagney's 1938 contract gave him story approval along with a "happiness clause" that would allow him to quit the studio whenever he chose, he did not have per se directorial approval. However, if Cagney became adamant about not wanting a certain director, he might have carried the day. Cagney had great respect for Curtiz's abilities although he disliked his pressure venting tirades on bit actors and sound gaffers. By all accounts, Curtiz and Cagney worked seamlessly together on YDD.
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Alan K. » December 12th, 2017, 1:40 pm

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Alan, we are so happy you are here to visit with us about Michael Curtiz!

Last night I was rewatching A Night At The Movies: Merry Christmas! from 2011, and historians discussed how Michael Curtiz worked on Casablanca and White Christmas with scripts that were hastily created or continued to be changed during production. How did Curtiz's ability to create and collaborate "on the fly" stand him in good stead? Did he always have this ability to adapt to a production in such a ready manner?

Thanks for coming to visit here, Alan! It's always great to see you at the TCM Film Festival and Noir City Hollywood.


Christy: Looks like my first answer to your question disappeared so I'll write it again. Curtiz had such an instinct for film direction, he could work without a script; sometimes without really knowing what the overall theme of the picture was. Warners used him constantly to fix, fill-in for absent directors or complete films such as ANTHONY ADVERSE, MARKED WOMAN, BLACK LEGION, THE MAYOR OF HELL, FEMALE among others. As his colleague William Dieterle put it, "If you didn't make progress at Warners [even without a script], they would replace you, usually with Mike. Mike had such an instinct for film, he could finish a picture at 11:00 am and start a new one at 1:00 pm. If I didn't have my script, I was helpless." This Jungian instinct for cinema served Curtiz well, particularly on CASABLANCA as the film was being written and made more or less simultaneously.
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby moira finnie » December 12th, 2017, 2:13 pm

One of the areas of Curtiz's life that you brought to life was his early work in silents, mentioning that he really was present when the Hungarian film industry began, but I wondered if he was influenced by filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith?

His early movies seem to have a touch of both filmmakers but the few I have seen excerpts from indicate that his graceful use of a camera really was exceptional, early on. BTW, a print of the period Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) with German subtitles is available on youtube (see below).
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Your mention of Richard Erdman's feeling that Curtiz was his champion when he was first getting started as an actor reminded me that--despite his technical facility and the verve he could display in crowd scenes--the director evoked some of the very best (and in some cases, Oscar-winning) acting from individuals in his movies. Given his obsession with getting as many camera setups as possible in a day and his notorious disregard for the safety of his actors, was there a sensitive side to his direction for those who needed it from him? Was Curtiz's training as an actor helpful to him after he decided that directing was a better choice for him? Did you come across any contemporary accounts of the impression he made as an actor on stage in pre-WWI Hungary?

How much truth do you think were the tales of real life injuries and alleged deaths that occurred on movie sets that have been part of the myths around Curtiz? One famed instance of people really being hurt occurred in the film excerpted below on the set of one of Curtiz's first American movies, Noah's Ark (1928).
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » December 12th, 2017, 2:51 pm

Thanks so much for your response, Alan.

I loved Richard Erdman in so many of his different character parts, especially as Hoffy in Stalag 17 and in Cry Danger. Do you have any Richard Erdman stories about Curtiz that you can share?

Also, can you share with us how you think the loss of Curtiz's close family members in Auschwitz affected his professional and personal life? Did it affect certain artistic choices he made?
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Alan K. » December 12th, 2017, 3:29 pm

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Thanks so much for your response, Alan.

I loved Richard Erdman in so many of his different character parts, especially as Hoffy in Stalag 17 and in Cry Danger. Do you have any Richard Erdman stories about Curtiz that you can share?

Also, can you share with us how you think the loss of Curtiz's close family members in Auschwitz affected his professional and personal life? Did it affect certain artistic choices he made?


Hi Christy:
There are a couple of great Erdman stories about Curtiz in the book. A choice one is how Curtiz put Dick through a cold audition in his office and ended up giving him a seven year contract on the spot. Another is the spontaneous celebration that occurred at Warner Bros. when the end of World War II was announced by Jack Warner. Everything at the studio stopped and people went bananas. Erich Von Korngold led the studio orchestra down the lot playing "America, the Beautiful" as Curtiz mounted a crane and filmed everyone on the lot who streamed from the sets and offices joyously celebrating V-J Day.

The loss of Curtiz's sister's family in Auschwitz affected him deeply. This tragedy accentuated his extreme gratitude to America that was originally forged as a Jew who experienced anti-Semitism while growing up subject of the Austro-Hungarian emperor. He experienced the disastrous end of World War I that caused him to flee to Austria due to the Communist take over and subsequent chaos in Hungary. Curtiz was a hyper American patriot who gloried in directing YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and held his nose while making the Communist propaganda film MISSION TO MOSCOW.
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » December 12th, 2017, 4:10 pm

Oh, thanks so much for sharing those wonderful stories from your book, Alan, and we are so grateful you're here.

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Alan K. Rode and Monika Henreid at Noir City Hollywood...

Can you tell us about an event, fact, or photo that you discovered while doing research that made you feel that you'd unearthed a special treasure about Michael Curtiz?
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby Alan K. » December 12th, 2017, 4:37 pm

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Oh, thanks so much for sharing those wonderful stories from your book, Alan, and we are so grateful you're here.

Image
Alan K. Rode and Monika Henreid at Noir City Hollywood...

Can you tell us about an event, fact, or photo that you discovered while doing research that made you feel that you'd unearthed a special treasure about Michael Curtiz?


There were a lot of "oh wow" moments during my research. One was discovering that Curtiz had a close friendship with Sir Alexander Korda who grew up down the street from him in Budapest. This realization was accentuated when Michael Lucas (son of Curtiz's stepson John Meredyth Lucas) let me review his Curtiz ephremra and I found a number of photos of Curtiz and Korda together that had never been published. Many of Michael's photographs are in the the book. One of the truly sad occasions was Michael's recent passing just before the book came out. Michael was such an ardent and helpful proponent of the biography of his grandfather for whom he was named. It breaks my heart that he is no longer around to share the fun part of the book being published. Another thrill was the discovery of a set of composition books in which Curtiz diagrammed sentences and grammatical structure in attempting to master English. Also: Locating and speaking to a variety of people including Jill Gerrard, the mother of his last child was a great thrill.
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Re: The Q & A on Michael Curtiz with Alan K. Rode on Dec. 12th

Postby moira finnie » December 12th, 2017, 4:48 pm

Could you please share how you think Michael Curtiz felt about the actresses he worked with throughout his career? Many of them, including Fay Wray, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, seem to have found him difficult. Do you think he had a harder time relating to women as professional actors and people?
Image
Michael Curtiz displaying considerable rapport with Rosalind Russell as they contemplate filming on the set of Roughly Speaking (1945).

Alan K. wrote:The loss of Curtiz's sister's family in Auschwitz affected him deeply. This tragedy accentuated his extreme gratitude to America that was originally forged as a Jew who experienced anti-Semitism while growing up subject of the Austro-Hungarian emperor. He experienced the disastrous end of World War I that caused him to flee to Austria due to the Communist take over and subsequent chaos in Hungary. Curtiz was a hyper American patriot who gloried in directing YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and held his nose while making the Communist propaganda film MISSION TO MOSCOW.


"Everybody is human beings" is one of the most endearing quotes you included in the book from an interview the director gave in the '40s when he was trying to describe his feelings about American life for a reporter. His past experiences during and after WWI in Europe-- vividly described by you, which included witnessing mayhem on the battlefield,and later, during postwar chaos, seeing friends arrested and shot as well as a revival of latent anti-Semitism, made me wonder if this part of his life affected the themes he developed repeatedly in his films?

I realize that Warner Bros. movies exploited timely situations to make a buck on screen, but wonder if the effects of economic and social injustices in shaping characters' lives meant more to Curtiz as a storyteller?

Interestingly, the director seemed to have great sympathy for people trying to survive in an unfriendly world, as in Angels With Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, and two personal favorites of mine, the lesser known Mountain Justice and Roughly Speaking. Did he feel insecure after his arrival in the U.S.? Was he apolitical, even after becoming an American citizen?

Thanks for any answers you may provide.
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