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The Man Who Made the Best Movie Ever

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Those who hold to the American Film Institute’s view will assume the subject of this piece is Orson Welles, who, at the tender age of 25, made Citizen Kane (1941), a film that both cursed and immortalized the young man. This admittedly brilliant feature heads their much scrutinized list of the top 100 movies ever made.

Personally, I think the A.F.I’s number two pick, Casablanca (1942) should have won top honors. Though it’s almost absurd to compare them, Kane today feels more self-conscious, more eager to show off its virtuosity and originality than Casablanca, a film that, viewed once or a hundred times, simply seems to have nothing wrong with it.

So this piece will instead concern Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian-born director who never commanded the adulation of a Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Ford or Welles. Part of his relative obscurity came from being so thoroughly enmeshed in the intricate machinery of the studio system in the thirties and forties. Unlike Welles, Curtiz was never known as an auteur, innovator or maverick, but simply put, he knew his business.  A superb film craftsman, from roughly 1933-1945 he was widely acknowledged as the best director on the Warner lot (along with William Wyler). And today we have his pictures to prove it.

Born in 1886, he’d been in movies almost as long as there’d been movies. By the time he landed at Warners, he had established a signature style anchored in crisp pacing and frequent camera movement. Curtiz also knew how to use unusual compositions and camera angles to heighten tension. Just as important to Jack Warner, Curtiz was adept at running a disciplined set and moving a production along.

He would never have claimed to be an “actor’s director”. Still, he was unfailingly courteous to Ingrid Bergman on the Casablanca set (how hard could that have been?), and got on well enough with the unruly Errol Flynn to make twelve pictures with him. When asked about the importance of “character” in his films, Curtiz replied that character was secondary for him; audiences need hardly be concerned with it since he kept his stories moving so fast.

 What humanized Curtiz most was his thick accent and scant understanding of proper English, which often made him incomprehensible on set. The memorable title of David Niven’s memoir Bring On The Empty Horses was an actual Curtiz quote, referring to a group of riderless stallions Curtiz needed to shoot. Then, of course, there’s this hilarious rant which Niven once endured from the director: “You think you know f**k everything! Well, you know f**k nothing! And I know f**k all!”

On the set of Casablanca, the director made an unexpected but urgent request for poodles. When the dogs were ushered into his presence, Curtiz went volcanic and screamed: “No! I said poodles! Poodles of water!!!”

 After the Second War, Curtiz broke with the Warner studio that had been his home for so long, and in the roughly fifteen ensuing years until his death in 1961, the director’s output would rarely equal the quality of his pre-war features.

 But in his hey-day, what fine work he did. Beyond his universally admired masterpiece, just behold some of the other enduring classics Michael Curtiz bequeathed to future generations:

Captain Blood (1935) - In this lusty recounting of the Rafael Sabatini tale, Errol Flynn is Peter Blood, a doctor unjustly sentenced to servitude by the British Crown. Chafing against captivity, Blood escapes and becomes a pirate on the high seas. He makes as good a pirate as doctor, wielding a sword in a way they don't teach you in medical school. Beyond zesty sword fights, there are grand sea battles, and of course, romance, as Blood falls for Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), daughter of Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), cruel master of the penal colony where Blood is initially sent. Blood made an overnight star of the Tasmanian Flynn, and no wonder. His combination of good looks, athleticism, and sheer personality brought back the swashbuckler in one fell swoop. Curtiz's direction is predictably assured, and both Atwill and pirate nemesis Basil Rathbone make truly despicable villains. Finally, young de Havilland is the perfect match for Flynn; it's easy to see why they'd be paired in seven more Warner pictures.

The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938)- Robin of Locksley, a noble Saxon (Flynn), sees the people of England exploited by the Normans and their leader, Prince John (Claude Rains), who's seized the throne in his brother Richard's absence. Robin and his followers work to undermine the corrupt regime until King Richard's return. With Maid Marion (Olivia De Havilland) as love interest and Sir Guy Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) as nemesis, Robin is kept constantly occupied. This rousing, gorgeously photographed adventure movie exemplifies the magical heights Warner Brothers attained in the Golden Age of the studio system. Bolstered by a consistently clever script, with both humor and romance complementing the derring-do, Curtiz’s Robin Hood is a milestone in Hollywood cinema -- the first, and perhaps best, color swashbuckler.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)- Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, two young hooligans on the make, are caught stealing, and only Jerry gets away. As the years go by, the reform school-hardened Rocky (James Cagney) enters a life of crime, becoming a famous and feared gangster, while Jerry (Pat O'Brien) ultimately sees the light and enters the priesthood. While maintaining affection for each other, criminal and priest must compete for the souls of a new generation of hoodlums in the neighborhood, played by the Dead End Kids. Angels represents the peak of the gangster picture genre which Warners developed and refined in the thirties, when the age of Capone was still fresh in people’s minds. Cagney, whose screen career had been launched seven years before in The Public Enemy, perfects his rendition of the crook with a heart of gold, and his close real-life friend Pat O'Brien counters him perfectly as the mellow, morally upright Father Connolly. Meanwhile Humphrey Bogart, in full villain mode, is deliciously slimy as Rocky’s “business partner”. Whatever you do, don’t miss that ending!

The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)- Based on Maxwell Anderson's play, Elizabeth The Queen, this opulent drama profiles the uncoventional relationship between aging Queen Elizabeth I (a heavily made–up Bette Davis, in a rare character role), and the handsome Earl Of Essex (Flynn). Their obvious mutual affection creates an interesting dynamic, with the Queen's age and position forcing a measure of restraint, and the Earl's awareness of her true feelings making him bolder than your average subject. A sterling supporting cast includes Flynn's frequent co-star de Havilland (in a featured role), Donald Crisp, and a young Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh! In this handsome production, historical accuracy is sacrificed to achieve an intelligent and intriguing character piece, shot in glorious Technicolor. The film admirably showcases its two stars, whose on-screen chemistry never hints at their off-screen disdain for each other. Davis is forced to stretch more in her part, and bravely foregoes any vanity in playing the spinster queen, while Flynn's Essex fits the actor's breezy, effortless charisma like a glove. Another direct hit for Curtiz and Flynn.

The Sea Hawk (1940)- Captain Thorpe (Errol Flynn), a British privateer, seizes the bounty on Spanish ships to help thwart that country's hostile intentions towards Britain and fill England's coffers. On capturing a vessel carrying the Spanish Ambassador (Claude Rains) and his niece (Brenda Marshall), he returns to England and advocates for greater preparedness against Spain with Queen Elizabeth. To get him out of the way, the Spanish capture Thorpe at sea and the buccaneer must escape to warn his queen of the advancing Spanish armada. Along with Captain Blood, this remains Flynn’s best pirate film -- it’s a good old-fashioned sword-fest, with plenty of intrigue. Joined by Warner character players Claude Rains, Donald Crisp and Flora Robson (superb as the Queen), Hawk remains an exhilarating experience, with a lusty Erich Korngold score and incredible sets (two full-size ship replicas were built for the production). You’ll find it’s as bracing as the sea air.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) - Curtiz's homage to patriotic songwriter/entertainer George M. Cohan was perfectly timed to stir our spirits as we entered World War II. A meeting with F.D.R on the eve of the conflict prompts an aging George M. (James Cagney) to look back on his colorful life, from the lean early days touring the country with his parents and sister in vaudeville, to later heady, happy times as our country's most prominent songwriter/performer, who stirred love of country through the first several decades of the twentieth century. This exuberant slice of Americana is Cagney's show entirely, netting him his only Oscar (after all those gangster roles!). The actor actually began his career as a song-and-dance man, and here he gets to prove it, in a series of rousing, nostalgic numbers that keep the rich Cohan legacy alive. Walter Huston stands out in a sterling supporting cast playing George's loving Dad. Good enough to watch any old time, but a must for Independence Day.

Mildred Pierce (1945)- This timeless, tawdry Joan Crawford melodrama is based on the James Cain story of a ruthless career woman (Crawford), who will do anything to ensure her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) gets all the advantages she never enjoyed. Veda grows into a spoiled monster, but the other characters surrounding the hard-working Mildred aren't too sympathetic either, whether it's the oily Monty Berrigan (Zachary Scott) whom Mildred thinks she loves, or lascivious realtor Wally Fay (Jack Carson), who just might help Mildred if she becomes friendlier. There's a foul odor in this town, and it may be the scent of murder. Here Curtiz the master creates a diabolical murder yarn. Crawford resuscitated her fading career with the driven Mildred, a part she was born to play. The Oscar- nominated Blyth grates as the hateful Veda (hard for her not to), and Scott and Carson each ooze their particular brand of acid as the calculating men in Mildred's life. For a vicarious glimpse into seamy small town intrigue, you can't beat this one. Joan won an Oscar.

Note: several other Curtiz titles would have made this list but either are not on DVD, or available only on inferior “public domain” editions. Among them: The Kennel Murder Case (1933), The Sea Wolf (1941), and Life With Father (1947). Another winner, Four Daughters (1938), has just been released on  the Warner Archive Collection.

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