Michael Curtiz 

  • Born:  1886
  • Died:  1962
  • Rank:  71
  • Score:  538.30
  • Awards:  Oscar
  • Nominations:  4 Oscars / DGA
  • Feature Films:  96
  • Best:  Casablanca
  • Worst:  The Egyptian

Top 5 Films:

  1. Casablanca – 1942
  2. Yankee Doodle Dandy – 1942
  3. The Adventures of Robin Hood – 1938
  4. Captain Blood – 1935
  5. Angels with Dirty Faces – 1938

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1935 – 4th – Captain Blood
  • 1938 – 2nd – The Adventures of Robin Hood
  • 1938 – 3rd – Angels with Dirty Faces
  • 1942 – 3rd – Yankee Doodle Dandy
  • 1943 – 1st – Casablanca
  • 1945 – 9th – Mildred Pierce

Michael Curtiz began as a director in his native Hungary, before coming to Hollywood at the start of the sound era.  Between all the things he directed in Europe and uncredited films, the IMdB lists him with 173 directorial efforts.  He was the effortless craftsman that Warner Bros. depended on throughout the studio era.  He constantly worked with the major stars of Warner (Bogart, Cagney, Flynn) and though he directed Joan Crawford to her Oscar, there is no question that he was considered a man’s director.  He had great range and could work in any genre.  Pretty much, if Warner needed him to direct it, he could direct it.  Even as the studio system started to fade away in the 50’s, Curtiz continued to work, directing all the way up until his death in 1962.

Yankee Doodle Dandy – #3 film of 1942

I’m sure there were people who knew what Cagney could do, knew that he was capable of much more than just playing a gangster.  But did they know he could sing?  Did they know how much he could do with his feet?  Could they know what they would see at the end of the film as he descends the stairs and breaks into a tap dance on his way down.

There’s no question that this film was made at the right time.  America had just entered the second World War.  There was a rallying cry of patriotism around the country.  So what better biopic to make than the one of one of America’s foremost patriots.  Like all biopics it whitewashes the life of its subject, but the basic aspects of George M. Cohan’s life were enough.  He was born on the Fourth of July.  He volunteered for World War I but was turned down because of his age.  He wrote two of the most patriotic songs in American history, one of which (“Over There”) became the rallying cry during WWI.  They cast Walter Huston, one of the great character actors of all time as Cohan’s father.  But did they know going into the film how pivotal it was to have cast Jimmy Cagney?

What Cagney gives us in this films is one of the great bravura performances in the history of film.  He embodies everything you could have wanted in Cohan, and more importantly, he could physically do the part.  Look at the clips on YouTube.  Look at the final scene when he dances down the stairs.  Look at the sheer physicality of his performance whenever he is on-screen.

Then there is, of course, the ending.  James Cagney was involved in two of the greatest endings ever put on-screen (one which didn’t involved a Michael Curtiz film – Mr. Roberts, but Curtiz made Casablanca which is also one of the greatest endings) and this is one of them.  My sister always found it sad that Cohan wasn’t recognized by the person on the street.  But that’s not really the point.  At this point, the song is bigger than him, bigger than all of them.  It is the rallying cry, and in 1942, it was the rallying cry that they needed to sing.  It is the absolute correct moment for this time, for this film, for this performance.

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