After Universal had followed up Dracula with the very successful James Whale's Frankenstein late in 1931, all the Hollywood studios pursued the horror bandwagon. As both Michael Curtiz and his art director Anton Grot had indirectly shown in projects like Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931) and Alias the Doctor (1932), staff with experiece of 1920s German expressionist techniques were the logical choices for this genre. However, due to the 1931 losses, all Warners directors except Mervin LeRoy were coming under closer supervision, while Jack Warner himself decided upon a color production clearly distinguishable from the Universal horror style. The chosen devices to this end were a contemporary American urban setting and the provision of studio supporting players with stereotyped character images.
To this extent Curtiz had to work within greater studio policy guidelines than usual, under Hal Wallis's supervision, on Doctor X (1932). The plot deals with reporter Lee Tracy's investigations into a series of murders by moonlight of, among others, a drug addict and a prostitute. He narrows his search to several medical research doctors under Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). Curtiz's direction is exaggerated, but the film is genuinely frightening and very lively, while its narrative flows in Curtiz's best manner even if the studio comedy interludes are an annoyance. Grot's sinister sets, coupled with the photography of Warners newcomers Ray Rennahan and Richard Towers, and the make-up special effects, create Gothic images that few horror films have equalled.
A sequence where Lee Tracy plunges a lighted oil lamp full into Preston Foster's face is especially horrific, and arguably the whole film is as good in the black and white prints seen on television as those in color. Not without reason did one contemporary review describe Doctor X as a "production that almost makes Frankenstein seem tame and friendly." Although the horror novelty was rapidly wearing off, Doctor X none the less gained Warners a respectable profit and imporved Curtiz's prestige at the studio.
Released in February 1933, The Mystery of the Wax Museum was another two-color process horror feature which carries the ideas embodied in The Mad Genius and Doctor X to a climax rarely surpassed in cinema horror history. Drug addiction, press cynicism, and mental and visual disfigurement were brought together in the story of contemporary New York museum-owner Lionel Atwill who uses corpses for his museum figures until he is uncovered by wisecracking reporter Glenda Farrell while attempting to transform her friend Fay Wray into a wax Marie Antoinette.
Under the supervision of Henry Blanke, with whom Curtiz had by now struck up a very harmonious working relationship, the production ingredients were much the same as for Doctor X, with Grot's sets and Rennhan's camera work delivering telling contributions to what can now be seen as a minor classic. Although the horror fad was on the wane in a fallen American market and, as was pointed out at the time, the film is "too ghastly for comfort," The Mystery of the Wax Museum did more than twice as well in Europe as in the United States and made an eventual profit of more than 800,000 dollars.
Director Michael Curtiz was one of the great Hollywood directors of all time. His prolific output in itself points to a most formidable talent. Moreover, apart from the fact that he gave David Niven's career a hefty push forward and discovered John Garfield and Doris Day, he catapulted Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland to stardom in Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade as well as guided James Cagney and Joan Crawford to their only Oscars for Yankee Doodle Dandy and Midlred Pierce respectively. In addition, the sheer number of different genres he handled--biographies, comedies, horrors, melodramas, musicals, mysteries, religious epics, swashbucklers, and westerns--has never been equalled. Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum are horror classics, and his only other outright horror movie, The Walking Dead, is well above average.
--JAMES C. ROBERTSON, from The Casablanca Man:
The Cinema of Michael Curtiz, 1995.
Curtiz's career went downhill after Mildred Pierce in 1945 and Life With Father in 1947. After a postwar boom that brought the studios peak profits in 1946 and good revenues in 1947, the movie industry went downhill, too, a victim of television and the government antitrust suit that forced the studios to divorce themselves from their theaters and to sell their movies on a picture-by-picture basis.
In the late forties, Curtiz formed a corporation to make movies for Warner Bros. He would put up 30 percent of the production costs and get 30 percent of the profits. But Curtiz had lost his box-office touch. Warners claimed that only one of Curtiz's eleven films, I'll See You in My Dreams (1951), had made a profit and that the others--including Lady Takes a Sailor (1949), Bright Leaf (1950), and his remake of The Jazz Singer (1953)--had lost a total of $4.6 million.
Curtiz died of cancer in 1962. The cancer had been diagnosed six or seven years before he died, but the family doctor did not tell him the truth. "Mike found out after he fell when he was directing his last movie, The Comancheros (1961)," says his stepson, John Meredyth Lucas. "When he was x-rayed, the bone looked like lacework. That was maybe six months or a year before he died. When Mike went to the doctor and asked why he hadn't been told, the doctor said, 'How many pictures have you made since your operation?' Mike said, 'Seven or eight.' 'How many do you think you would have made?' And Mike said, 'You're right.'"
When he died in 1962, Michael Curtiz was, according to most of the obituaries, seventy-two years old. He may have been older. "Mike would never tell us his age," says his stepson. "When they went to get passports and my mother saw Mike's age, she said, 'But it says you're ten years younger than I am.' And Mike said, 'Darling, it's simple. You lie.'" By the time he died, he had directed more than 150 movies.
--ALJEAN HARMETZ, from The Making Of
A selection of Michael Curtiz related films.
Find Michael Curtiz on eBay.com
A selection of Michael Curtiz related books.
A History of Horror
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