Dir: Michael Curtiz
'Casablanca' is one of those films that really is just as great as people say it is.
Sometimes people are put off by a film with a reputation for being great, because 'great' sometimes mean that it is five hours long, silent and in Mongolian.
But 'Casablanca' is great purely because it is so entertaining.
From the very first scene to the very last, it is the perfectly constructed entertainment.
It has great characters, great dialogue, a great location, great atmosphere, great acting performances, great wit, and great excitement.
I would like to say that whether young or old, whatever nationality you are, it would be virtually impossible not to like Casablanca.
What 'art' is - is a question that is often debated and explored. Certainly 'Casablanca' was not ever produced or intended to be 'art'. It was a commercial product, produced for the masses. Yet, in the perfect combination of its elements, and its mastery of the commercial film form, it takes the craft of film-making to a level that surely qualifies as art.
And yet it came from a director who was hardworking, dedicated, and skillful, but defied the definition of an artist.
Michael Curtiz was an actor and director at the National Hungarian Theater. At that time, his name was Mihály Kertész.
He worked for six months in Denmark, as assistant to the director August Blom, then took his film-making skills back to Hungary.
But his career in Hungary was cut short when the film industry was nationalised.
He went to Vienna and directed a number of films, one of which was released in the US as 'Moon of Israel', which caught the eye of studio boss Jack Warner.
He was forty years old when he arrived in the United States and changed his name to Michael Curtiz.
But over the next 34 years, he directed over 100 films.
Curtiz played by the studio rules. In the 30s, he would often shoot four films a year, sometimes sharing the role with other directors. It is probably fair to say that he was never considered a 'great' director in the same sense as Orson Welles or Chaplin, but he was an asset to the studio, and worked hard, brought films in on time, and produced solid work. He was well-compensated for his efforts.
He expected all around him to work with the same dedication and effort, and often had a hard time with actors. Fay Wray said of him, 'I felt that he was not flesh and bones, that he was part of the steel of the camera'.
In spite of his many years in the US, Curtiz often struggled with the English language.
There are many famous quotes of his mangled English, including:
"Don't talk to me while I'm interrupting."
"The scenario in't the exact truth, but we have the facts to prove it"
"It's dull from beginning to end. But it's loaded with entertainment"
"The next time I want some dumb son of a bitch to do something, I'll do it myself."
One time, Curtiz was shooting a western and he wanted a number of riderless horses. He called out, 'Bring on the empty horses'. Actor David Niven was so impressed, he used the phrase as the title of his autobiography.
He once berated David Niven on set declaring: "You think you know fuck everything and I know fuck nothing. Well let me tell you, I know fuck all!!"
Whilst setting up a scene in 'Casablanca':
Curtiz: "Wery nice, but I vant a poodle.
Prop master: "But you never asked for one. We don't have one!"
Curtiz: "Vell, get one."
Prop master: What color?
Curtiz: Dark, you idiot, we're not shooting in color!
[A few minutes later, Curtiz is called out to see a standard poodle.]
Curtiz: Vat do I vant with this goddam dog!
Prop master: You said you wanted a poodle, Mr. Curtiz.
Curtiz: I vanted a poodle in the street! A poodle. A poodle of water!
Curtiz won the Academy Award for 'Casablanca', which must have raised his artistic reputation, but he carried on as a studio director, shooting two films a year for the next three years.
In the late 1940s, he demanded a better deal and profit participation, but the films he directed under his new contract did not make a profit. Curtiz dropped rapidly from favour, and he always felt bitter that the studio he had been loyal to and made a lot of money for over the years did not repay his loyalty. He said, "You are only appreciated so far as you carry the dough into the box office. They throw you into gutter next day".
But outside Warners, Curtiz stayed just as busy, continuing to make at least two films a year, often for Paramount, for whom he made 'White Christmas' and later 'King Creole'.
Critics and historians sometimes have a hard time with Curtiz. He is often considered a 'journeyman' director, who tackled all genres, with no individual signature style, and who of course made so many films that it is like looking at the combined output of a dozen modern directors. But of course, a great film like 'Casablanca' is not the work of a talentless hack. So, critics become conflicted.
"Workhorse directors, who were reliable, professional, and ready to take on whatever assignment was thrown at them, formed the solid foundation of the classic Hollywood studio system. And foremost among them was Michael Curtiz. Thrillers, weepies, war movies, comedies, horror, film noir - the Hungarian-born Curtiz tackled them all." - Philip Kemp
"Neither a common theme nor a consistent style exists to confirm him as an auteur, yet his solid craftsmanship and an ability to elicit, if not the best, then the 'starriest' performances from his actors made him a superior purveyor of polished hokum." - Geoff Andrew