Tirelessly prolific director Michael Curtiz helmed some of Classic Hollywood's most memorable films. He churned out four or five films a year and did some of his best work with dashing leading man Errol Flynn. Though not the most famous of the classic era's directors, Curtiz was nominated for five Best Director Academy Awards and won for directing one of the greatest movies of all time.
A rousing epic, The Charge of the Light Brigade firmly established star Errol Flynn as Hollywood’s most dashing hero while cementing Curtiz’s status as a top director capable of drawing quality performances amidst breathtaking action and sweeping historical events. Inspired by Lord Tennyson’s classic poem and loosely based on events taking place during the Crimean War, the film starred Flynn as a British cavalry officer battling his brother (Patric Knowles) for the love of the beautiful Elsa (Olivia de Havilland) while hungering for revenge against the treacherous local tributary, Surat Khan. His quest for vengeance leads him to falsify orders so he can lead a charge against Khan and his Russian allies. Rife with historical inaccuracies, The Charge of the Light Brigade is still great fun and featured at its climax one of the greatest battle sequences ever filmed.
Curtiz reunited with Flynn to direct their most famous film together. Flynn starred as the titular Sir Robin of Locksley, a rebel outlaw who lives in Sherwood Forest with his Merry Men and helps save the throne for an absent King Richard (Ian Hunter) from Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), while vying for the love of Maid Marian (de Havilland). An extravagant production that cost a small fortune to make, The Adventures of Robin Hood was one of the first films Warner Bros. filmed in three-strip Technicolor and featured breathtaking action and special effects, including the much-vaunted split arrow scene.
After being nominated four times prior, Curtiz took home the Oscar for Best Director in his fifth try with Casablanca, widely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s certainly the one film most think of when they hear the words classic movie, and for good reason. Casablanca is at once a stirring romance, a thrilling war-time adventure and a suspenseful drama. Of course, it features Humphrey Bogart in his most iconic role as Rick Blaine, a cynical American ex-pat who wants nothing more than to run his upscale nightclub and stay out of international affairs. Enter old flame, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who returns to Rick’s life after spurning him in Paris during the Nazi’s invasion. The performances are exemplary - Bogart and Bergman positively burn up the celluloid with their chemistry - while Curtiz managed to helm a timeless classic revisited by generations of fans.
James Cagney was at his Oscar-worthy best in this musical biography of real-life song and dance man, George M. Cohan. One of Curtiz’s most enduring pictures, Yankee Doodle Dandy is full of pageantry and patriotism, though the details of Cohan’s life were undoubtedly presented in the most positive and jingoistic way possible. But no matter, the film is still quality entertainment, especially Cagney’s iconic rendition of “Yankee Doodle Boy.” The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Curtiz’s fourth for Best Director.
Once again, Curtiz managed to illicit an Oscar-winning performances out of his leading actor. This time it was Joan Crawford, who was stellar as the titular long-suffering woman who harnesses her ambition to provide a better life for her materialistic daughter (Ann Blyth). Starting off as a waitress, Mildred becomes a restaurant owner with the help of a sleazy real estate agent (Jack Carson) and quickly grows it into a franchise, making her a wealthy woman. Ultimately, she enters into a loveless marriage with the formerly wealthy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) to improve her standing, only in the end to confront the possibility of ruin in more ways than one. Told in flashback – the opening sequence depicts the murder of Bergaron seemingly at Mildred’s hands – this classic film noir also earned a Best Picture nod at the Academy Awards.
While not the greatest artistic achievement of his career, White Christmas was certainly Curtiz’s most commercially successful picture. A far cry from Mildred Pierce and Casablanca, this holiday classic was warm and lighthearted, and featured strong vocals from Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, comedic charm from Danny Kaye, and fine dancing from Vera-Ellen. White Christmas struck just the right note in 1954 and went on to be a huge hit, while Crosby’s title cut remained a Yuletide chestnut for generations.
Okay, Elvis Presley wasn’t the most gifted of actors and for the most part made rather one-note movies. But here Curtiz was able to draw out a fine performance from the King, who played a young man who runs with a gang of dropouts by day and croons at a small New Orleans nightclub by night. Originally intended to be a non-musical turn for James Dean before his death, King Creole was of course transformed into a musical, though Presley’s performance was one of the few of his career that received uniform critical praise.
Notable for being his final movie, The Comancheros starred John Wayne as a Texas Ranger who takes on an outlaw gang running guns into Mexico. Curtiz was able to draw a quality performance out of Wayne – his best outside of his work with John Ford – though the director was quite ill during production. Still, he managed to get through filming with his typical professionalism, but died before it was released. Though not the best film on his resume, The Comancheros was a worthy cap to a venerable career.