Tomorrow morning at 11:30 AM, the Music Box Theatre will present a 35-millimeter screening of the 1927 silent melodrama A Million Bid. The film was the second American feature directed by Hungarian emigre Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct some of the most beloved films Warner Bros. ever released, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, and The Breaking Point. (He also directed a little movie called Casablanca—maybe you’ve heard of it?) All three of those are scheduled to play at the Music Box in June, when the theater kicks off a two-month slate of Curtiz revivals. Alan K. Rode, author of the new biography Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, will be on hand on June 9 and 10 to introduce screenings and sign copies of his book, which is an illuminating account not only of Curtiz’s life, but of Hollywood at the height of the studio era. Rode has provided entertaining commentary over the years at the annual event Noir City: Chicago; doubtless he will have many fun stories to share when he appears in June.
A Million Bid comes from a transitional period in Curtiz’s career. Prior to making the film, he had all but singlehandedly started Hungary’s film industry and directed successful biblical spectacles in Austria. The popularity of these films led to a contract with Warner Brothers in 1926, and he dove into Hollywood filmmaking straight away, directing four films by the end of 1927 alone. A Million Bid may not be the most ambitious of these early American productions; in fact it may have seemed dated when it was first released. “You have to put a picture like A Million Bid in its proper context,” Rode explained to me the other day. “The Warner brothers had bought Vitagraph Studios back in the 1920s, and they inherited a lot of these story properties that were based on stage plays. Jack Warner was a guy that pioneered the art of squeezing a nickel hard enough to make the buffalo keel over. So they were using these properties that they had, and a lot of them were based on pre-World War I plays. A Million Bid in particular has an attempted rape, a forced marriage, amnesia—all of these really broad and cliched plot points.”
At the same time, Curtiz elevates the material with naturalistic performances and a vigorous pace. The story may be hackneyed, but it’s certainly never dull. “The performances in this movie are really interesting,” Rode enthuses. “Dolores Costello, who was Warners’ biggest star at the time, worked with Curtiz on a lot of movies. And you have Warner Oland, before his days of being Charlie Chan at Fox, as the heavy. You even have William Demarest smoking with a cigarette holder that looks like a nine-iron!” The director’s sure hand with performers reflects his training as a classical stage actor in Hungary. As Rode’s biography explains, Curtiz studied at the Royal Art Academy in Budapest, performing in plays before he started directing. This made him a natural fit for Hollywood’s star system, as he elicited larger-than-life performances from Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, John Garfield and many more. “Curtiz famously said, ‘Actors’ studio can make actor, but only God can make star.'”
amounted to the last great silent epic in Hollywood, even though it had Vitaphone talking sequences. It was the movie where Curtiz infamously—along with Darryl Zanuck, who produced it—dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on top of all these extras and broke apart the set. The old Hollywood anecdote was that three extras were killed, although I never found any proof of that. But certainly, Curtiz had a reckless disregard for the safety of actors when he was making movies. His mantra was realism at all costs.”
At the same time, Curtiz was also an expert stylist, developing a filmic language based around nearly constant movement. “Curtiz always believed in moving people in the frame, even before the days of rotating heads or dolly tracks, and any of those other innovations. He believed in keeping things moving, and I think you see that in his early films. This was also a fellow who ran a movie studio called Phoenix Films in Budapest and was really the Irving Thalberg of early Hungarian film, where he was producing and directing something like 25 films in two years.” Having been around in the earliest days of movies (he directed his first film in 1912), Curtiz displayed an enthusiasm for stylistic innovations that he carried throughout his career. “He ran the whole gamut in terms of technique. He made the transition to sound while at Warner Brothers, was a pioneer of two-strip and then three-strip Technicolor, and he ended up the first film in VistaVision, White Christmas, in 1954. So he was really a pioneer.”
As opposed to such classic Hollywood directors as Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock, who developed recognizable themes and visual tropes over the course of their careers, Curtiz was somewhat more self-effacing in his style. Rode believes this is why he didn’t develop the same following among auteurists as some of his colleagues. At the same time, “I think Curtiz was someone who put himself into the individual story, the individual picture. In a visual sense, you can certainly see his imprimatur on many pictures in terms of how he uses the camera, his transitions, his compositions. Curtiz was a very artistic man. He designed all his own set-ups—the cameraman didn’t do it; Curtiz did it. So he was extremely artistic, almost painfully so, because he was always getting in dutch with his bosses for taking too long in arranging shots.”
Curtiz also pioneered the concept of the film director as artist. “He was actually writing in movie magazines about 100 years ago about the auteur theory, saying that the director was king and needed to be the creative chef on all the movies and so forth. Of course, he had to alter that theory when he came to Hollywood and dealt with the star system and hands-on producers. He adapted himself and nurtured—and was nurtured by—the Hollywood star system. I think he understood that very well.” Even so, Curtiz remained an explosive personality on the sets of his films, earning a reputation as a hothead. One of the most interesting aspects of Rode’s biography is how it presents Curtiz as alternately aggressive and gracious. He was a complex figure, and Rode doesn’t attempt to paper over the more difficult aspects of his personality.
What emerges most strongly, though, is a great respect for Curtiz’s work. Does Rode have personal favorites or films that he’d recommend as starting points for Chicago viewers first delving into his work this summer? “If I had to pick my favorites, I think I would pick the ones that are standards, starting with Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, and The Breaking Point—which is finally getting regarded as the great film that it is. He made so many films—I think my count was 181, which is just mind-boggling—and, obviously, if one directs that many films, not all of them are going to be classics, or even good. But even the films that, at the time, were written off as flotsam and jetsam . . . have this visual acumen, vitality, and inspired performances. I’m really happy that, with my book, people are taking another look at one of the great American film directors.”