Michael Curtiz was one of Hollywood's most prolific and colorful directors. Born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest, he ran away from home at age 17 to join a circus, then trained for an acting career at the Royal Academy for Theater and Art. He worked as a leading man at the Hungarian Theatre before directing stage plays and then films. His first cinematic effort was Az Utolsó Bohém (1912), which was also the first feature-length film ever made in Hungary. Curtiz soon moved on to the more progressive Danish film industry, returning to his homeland in 1914 and serving a year in the Austro-Hungarian infantry before resuming his film career. While it may be arguable that Curtiz was Hungary's finest director, he was certainly its busiest, making no fewer than 14 films in 1917, most of which starred his first wife, actress Lucy Dorraine. When the Hungarian film industry was nationalized by the new communist government in 1919, Curtiz packed his bags and headed for Sweden, France, Germany, and Austria. He directed 21 European pictures in a seven-year period, including the epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1923), which was also the film debut of Walter Slezak.
In 1926, Curtiz was brought to Hollywood by Warner Bros.; going along for the ride was the director's second wife, actress Lili Damita, who later married Curtiz's frequent star Errol Flynn. (The director's third and final wife was screenwriter Bess Meredyth). Curtiz's first few American films were stylish but only moderately expensive. But not so 1929's Noah's Ark, a super-spectacular production which bombed at the box office but also firmly established Curtiz as a "prestige" director. It also set the standard for an utter lack of concern for the well-being of actors; several extras died during the climactic flood sequence, reportedly because Curtiz, hoping to incur genuine panic in his performers, had failed to inform them that they'd be deluged with tons of water. Most leading actors despised the dictatorial filmmaker, but were willing to work with him time and again due to his uncanny knack for turning out top-notch movies. While his detractors have noted that Curtiz's much-praised visual style was due more to Warner's team of cinematographers and art directors than to the director himself, few can deny that his films were among the best and most profitable that the studio ever turned out. Listing his greatest sound films would require a book, in itself, but a representative cross-section of Curtiz's creative contributions of the 1930s and '40s include: Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Casablanca (1942, and for which he won an Oscar), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), Night and Day (1946), and Life With Father (1947). Even in his professional dotage, he was responsible for one of the biggest box-office successes of the mid-'50s, White Christmas (1954). Curtiz died in 1962, one year after completing his final film, The Comancheros with John Wayne.