One of the main purposes of putting this site up is because Michael Curtiz is usually being dismissed as simply
being a craftsman and I feel there has not been any serious study of his stylisic or thematic
efforts. Critics seem to shy away because of his vast amount of films. It doesn't seem fair to me
that because a man wants to make films so passionately that he accepts the most diverse and even
inferior projects he should not be judged by his better work.
Although I know I set myself up for possible ridicule I recognise some reocurring themes in
his more important films. Mind you it could be that these themes are only recycled for dramatic
purposes; for example he could have gotten attracted to the below mentioned first theme because he
realised it would lead to a perfect third act.
So there is a doubt it was only the craftsman and not the artist who developed those themes but
that would make little difference to me.
1 The hero redeems him or herself by the ultimate sacrifice, this is often sacrifice of life
1- for Rocky Sulivan in "Angels with dirty faces" it is giving up the
myth of being a tough gangster on which he had worked on his whole life.
By acting cowardly at his execution at the request of his friend the priest
he showed the "angels" that his tough gangster image was no more than a front and so
abling the priest to win the backstreet-kids over. To die a coward is the ultimate sacrifice
2-For Rick in "Casablanca" it is giving up his great love Ilsa for Vistor or as it is put for the greater good;
Victor needs a strong woman by his side in his underground fight against the nazi's.
3-In the comedy "Life with Father" it is the controlling and
proud Clarence Day who has to bow to his family to let himself
be baptized; which is a very humiliating experience for this rational "head of the family".
4-In "The private lives of Elisabeth and Essex" it is Bette Davis who
has to send her great love Essex to the gallows to retain her crown; and Essex
goes eventually voluntarily to the gallows because he realizes his ambition
to share the throne with Elisabeth isn't a realistic one; they are both too proud and stubborn to share that throne.
5-in "Mildred Pierce" Mildred Pierce has to stop protecting her daughter. She has to
let her daughter carry her own responsibility for her crime of murder before she can start over
again: symbolised by the last shot in the film; the giant court-door through
which Mildred and her ex-husband walk toward the morning-light.
6- Spencer Tracy in "20.000 years in sing sing" holds his word to the warden to return to jail
although it will mean his death and he won't let Bette Davis take the wrap for
his murder because she would be locked-up too; he sacrifices his life to let her
7-Errol Flynn in "Charge of the light Brigade" goes into battle hopelessly outnumbered
to take revenge on the Surat Kahn who has murdered numerous mothers and children. This heroic
effort is given a human touch by the fact that he has lost his fiancee to his brother; so we
are left guessing again as in "Angels with dirty faces" is this a purely heroic and selfless
effort or is his action fuelled by an emotional shortcoming (in "Angels with dirty faces" real
(not played) cowardness and in "Charge of the light brigade" a suicide because he can't bare
dealing with the situation of losing ilsa (to his brother).
This ambiguity is an indication for the second constant theme in his work; because it points
at the human shortcomings.
2 The misguided ambition to become a God-like figure and the disasterous consequences of
For example: 1-in "The Sea Wolf" it is Wolf Larsen who believes "it is better to reign in hell than
it is to serve in heaven". So he created his own hell to reign over on his ship. But the
moment he showed any human weakness (his attacks of headaches and blindness) the crew
2-in "Elisabeth and Essex" the ambition to rule England makes Elisabeth send her only love
to death and thereby destroying her own self.
3-in "The Unsuspected" it is Claude Rains who plays the role of a serial killer who has his own
house decorated with angelic statures and admits in the film: "I rather enjoy playing God".
4-In "the egyptian" the ambition to become "Pharao" who is referred to as the living god.
the hero spends the remainder of his life as an outcast because he comes to the realization that
he wants to serve god.
5-The judge that condemns "Captain Blood" to death has himself a terrible cough; Dr. Blood
proficies the judge to death because God will punish him for his actions.
6-You can see the "Santa fe Trail" as a halfhearted attempt to avoid taking sides in the civil-war.
The only way to make watching the "SantaFe Trail" bearable is to see John Brown as a fanatic who's
(noble) actions of freeing the slaves turn him into a dangerous fanatic who sees himself as a jesus-like figure and
even takes his son's life for the greater cause. There are several images that portray him like that evangelic figure.
These two biblical themes are so timeless and universal that my guess is that movies like Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and Angels wirth dirty faces
will have an enduring appeal and will remain cult-classics. There are other themes in his work which derise from the above mentioned such as giving up worldly goods,
family and immigration.
copyright Arjan; The Mystery of Michael Curtiz