He began life as Kertesz Kaminar Mihaly in a poor but artistic
Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary on December 24, 1888. After he came to America
he could never really accept, or so he liked to pretend, that the decorated trees
and wrapped presents weren't really there to celebrate his birthday.
His mother was a concert singer and, as children, Curtiz
and his brothers sold programs in the many theatres and opera houses of Budapest.
He finished school, and was able to attend University where he directed and acted
in student productions. When he became interested in the new medium of movies,
because of the lack of a working Hungarian film industry he headed to Denmark
and joined the famous Nordisk studios, where he learned the basics of cinematic
In 1914 he returned to Budapest, and directed several films
before World War I broke out. He joined the Austro-Hungarian cavalry but was wounded
badly enough to be reassigned to making films for the Red Cross.
After the war, when it became prudent for political reasons
that he leave Hungary, Curtiz went to Vienna, the cultural center of Eastern Europe,
where he joined the prestigious filmmaking Sascha Company. He directed some of
his best non-English language films for Sascha, including Sodom und Gomorrah,
an innovative two part Biblical epic, in 1922, and Moon of Israel
(known in Europe as The Slave Queen) in 1923.
Harry Warner, always on the lookout for new talent, noticed
these films and signed the renamed Michael Curtiz to a directing contract with
Warner Brothers Studio. Mike and his family pronounced his new name “Kurt-ez,”
and the rest of the world pronounced it “Kurt-eese.”
He arrived in the US in 1926, and for the next thirty-five
years created film history as Michael Curtiz in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Almost as famous for his fractured English as for his directing, he was nonetheless
a patriotic American and quickly became a citizen, learning far more about his
adopted country than do the majority of people born in the US. When he took the
citizenship test, he stood ready to recite the Bill of Rights and the Preamble
to the Constitution, and was furious when the judge in charge merely wanted to
talk about movies. Thus many of his films, such as Yankee Doodle Dandy,
The Story of Will Rogers, This Is The Army, Life With Father,
and of course Casablanca, are patriotic to the core.
Curtiz acquired a reputation as a difficult, not to say cruel,
director, but it was simply that to him, the success of the film was the most
important thing in the world, and he had no patience with anyone who did not share
his vision, or worse, stood between him and his goal. At home, surrounded by his
beloved polo ponies, dogs and grandchildren, he was the kindest of men.
In his fifty-year career, Curtiz directed nearly 200
films. He died in Los Angeles in 1962.