Bright Lights Film Journal

Michael Curtiz – Auteur Without a Theme?

Hungarian-born filmmaker, Michael Curtiz (pictured with Joan Crawford, above), is considered by many to be one of the quintessential Hollywood directors – he is, after all, the man who directed Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Yet in auteurist circles he is given short shrift.  Andrew Sarris, for example, calls Casablanca “the happiest of happy accidents, and the most decisive exception to the auteur theory.”  (My emphasis.)

Part of the problem is that Curtiz made so many films – over 170! – in almost every conceivable genre, and most of them were studio assignments.  Another problem is that the genre he is most associated with, the swashbuckler (e.g., Captain Blood), is a genre that virtually no one takes seriously these days.

To be considered an auteur, a director must have either a consistently recognizeable visual style or recognizable themes – preferably both.  There is a recognizable Curtiz visual style, a kind of von-Sternbergian expressionism, but it is mainly visible in his horror films, film noirs, or quasi-noirs like Casablanca and Passage to Marseilles – you won’t see much of it in White Christmas or Yankee Doodle Dandy.  As for a consistent theme, it is so obvious – and so typically Hollywood – that it is easy to miss.

Jean-Loup Bourget nailed it when he wrote, “The character of the rebel-in-spite-of-himself is essential to Curtiz’ oeuvre.” The rebel-in-spite-of-himself is, of course, what Bogart plays in Casablanca.  Consider also that Curtiz is the director who discovered Errol Flynn and John Garfield.  Flynn in his Curtiz swashbucklers – especially Robin Hood – is almost always rebelling against some aspect of his society.  John Garfield was a natural rebel, and that quality is apparent in all of his Curtiz films, from The Sea Wolf (1941) to The Breaking Point (1950).

Significantly, the most memorable of Curtiz’s female protagonists are rebels-in-spite-of-themselves.  See, for example, Glenda Farrell playing a wise-cracking reporter in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), aggressive because she has to be to survive in a male-dominated profession, always poking her nose where it doesn’t belong.  Curtiz’s masterpiece, Mildred Pierce (1945), is a noir melodrama featuring Joan Crawford as a social-climbing businesswoman – she is a rebel not because she wants to be, but because she has to be in a world where women were expected to be servants, not bosses.  Mildred Pierce may be Curtiz’s greatest achievement, but my personal favorite (for the moment) is Flamingo Road (1949), another film featuring Joan Crawford as a rebel-in-spite-of-herself.  In no other film does Curtiz push the melodrama and his angular visual style to such heightened extremes.

The rebels-in-spite-of-themselves theory is vindicated in two of Curtiz’s most interesting later films.  King Creole (1958), shot in beautiful black-and-white VistaVision, is a musical/noir/crime drama (!) featuring Elvis Presley, another natural rebel.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), in widescreen color, stars Eddie Hodges as the character whom most people would consider to be America’s definitive rebel-in-spite-of-himself.