December 24 is the birthday of the great film director Michael Curtiz (Mihály Kertész, 1886-1962). Curtiz was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, in what was then Austria-Hungary. His birth name was Manó Kaminer; he changed it to Mihály Kertész as a young man in order to sound more Hungarian, then changed it once again to sound more English when he moved to Hollywood in 1926.
Curtiz’s body of work is too big a topic for a single blogpost. He directed so many movies in so many genres, so many of them classics…it’s practically the entire Warner Brothers story…plus several years of European prologue. So today, we look at just a single slice of it, which I call “vaudeville“. Most, but not all, of them are musicals; almost of them star vaudeville veterans. and vaudeville is our first duty on this blog! My next post on Curtiz will be on his horror films, which we’ll publish here next October.
Mammy was Al Jolson‘s fourth feature length film, an obvious attempt to follow up on the themes of The Jazz Singer, with songs by Irving Berlin .More on the film, which documents the minstrel show tradition such as it was, here.
Under a Texas Moon (1930)
Under a Texas Moon was the second all-color, all-talking feature to contain exteriors, as well as the second western shot in color and the first all-talking, all-color western. Also it’s a musical! It stars Frank Fay, Raquel Torres (from Duck Soup), Myrna Loy and Armida.
Bright Lights (1930)
A Technicolor musical starring Frank Fay and Dorothy Mackaill, it was released in America in a truncated non-musical version after it was decided that the public was tired of musicals. Today, only a cut, black-and-white version is known to exist. Bright Lights is also John Carradine’s first film.
God’s Gift To Women (1931)
A perfect vehicle for star Frank Fay , originally conceived of a musical, but released as a straight comedy. It’s about a womanizer who finally falls for a woman and has to prove that he is on the level. The cast also includes Laura La Plante, Joan Blondell, Armand Kaliz and Charles Winninger.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
On any short list of Curtiz’s best known and loved films, this bio-pic of George M. Cohan and his performing family the Four Cohans memorably stars James Cagney and Walter Huston and features Eddie Foy Jr., Cuddles Sakall and Walter Catlett. It is easily one of the best Hollywood bio-pics and one of the truest movies about vaudeville. Much more on the film here.
This is the Army (1943)
Night and Day (1946)
My Dream is Yours (1949)
A remake of the earlier Warner Brothers musical Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934) starring Jack Carson, Doris Day (in her second film role), Adolphe Menjou, Eve Arden, Cuddles Sakall, Edgar Kennedy, and Franklin Pangborn.
Young Man with a Horn (1950)
I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951)
The Story of Wills Rogers (1952)
Will Rogers Jr plays his own father in this bio-pic, and does quite a good acting job! (Reminds me a little of Jimmy Stewart). Jane Wyman is his wife Betty. And a bunch of other stalwarts like James Gleason, Mary Wickes, Slim Pickens and Noah Beery Jr (as Wiley Post) round out the cast. And a cameo by Eddie Cantor as himself in blackface. A rare hagiography for someone who actually deserves a hagiography, it begins with loving shots of parks and monuments named in honor of Rogers, and follows it up with a couple of hours of Hollywood magic. It doesn’t stray too far from the facts, and we get to get copious snatches of Rogers’ act, accurately done by his son.
The Jazz Singer (1952)
An updated remake of the 1927 Jolson hit, and the first one to be a total talkie (the original was largely silent). The casting of Danny Thomas , a Lebanese Christian, in the quintessential Jewish role is a bit odd. but I’ve always found the film interesting, and I saw it long before I ever saw the original. While THomas would later be delightful own his own sitcom, this film is among the handful of exhibits that make the case that Thomas was not a movie star. Indeed, it was the last attempt to make him one. Thomas’s co-star in the film is Peggy Lee.
White Christmas (1954)
The Vagabond King (1956)
An adaptation of the 1925 operetta about Francois Villon, featuring Oreste, Katherine Grayson, Rita Moreno, Sir Cedrick Hardwicke, Walter Hampden (in his last film role), Leslie Nielsen, and Jack Lord, with narration by Vincent Price. This was very late in the game for this kind of vehicle.
The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956)
A picture about the successful career of the Tin Pan Alley songwriting team of Desylva, Brown and Henderson, authors of some of the biggest hits of the 1920s. The team are played by Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey and that supreme musical talent Ernest Borgnine.
The Helen Morgan Story (1957)
Ann Blyth stars as the original torch singer Helen Morgan. This film was originally intended as a vehicle for Doris Day, but she rejected the role as too tawdry for her wholesome image. Set in Morgan’s heyday of the 1920s, we watch two lowlifes, played by Paul Newman and Richard Carlson exploit Morgan and live off her, while she gradually descends into the alcoholism that will kill her.
King Creole (1958)
It’s terrific that Curtiz’s last musical would be his first and only rock and roll movie — a kind of pivot to another era. As it happens, King Creole is one of Elvis Presley’s best movies, thanks largely to Curtiz’s expert direction. Carolyn Jones co-stars. There’s something kind of perfect about starting with Jolson and ending with Elvis, yeah? Like I said, Michael Curtiz is pretty much the Alpha and the Omega.
To find out more about vaudeville and the allied variety arts please consult my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,