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James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) © Warner Bros
Film Journeys

Michael Curtiz

August 14, 2018

For this, our 58th Film Journey, we’ll be taking a look at a handpicked selection of career highlights from prolific and legendary film director Michael Curtiz. Although most of his better-known films were made in the 1930s and 40s, he had a career that spanned 55 years; directing 178 movies. In terms of number of tickets sold, he is one of the most successful film directors ever.

This week sees a very limited theatrical rerelease of the 1945 classic MILDRED PIERCE, directed by Curtis and starring Joan Crawford as a hard-working mother who inches towards disaster as she divorces her husband and starts a successful restaurant to support her spoiled daughter. Whilst this film is only being shown in 3 cinemas in the UK, (Glasgow, Sheffield and Dublin if the mood takes you), we thought it would be fun to explore three of his most famous movies in a bid to jostle a memory or perhaps encourage further viewing from a new audience.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA (1942) © Warner Bros

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA (1942) © Warner Bros


Our first film is CASABLANCA (1942). This is probably his most well known film starring Humphrey Bogart as Ric the owner of a bar, Ingrid Bergman plays Isla an old flame, Paul Henreid as Lazlo, a rebellious resistance leader and Claude Rains who gives a fantastic turn as the local Chief of Police.

You could distil the storyline down to a single sentence such as, ‘a cynical bar owner eventually protects an old love and her partner from the Nazis’; but this film is so much more than that. At times a drama, at times a comedy, it’s also an allegory for America’s role in the Second World War – indeed, the screenplay is littered with references to how inactive America had been. At one stage Ric, the only American in the main ensemble states that he “sticks his neck out for nobody” – a think veiled critique of the US foreign policy of the era.

It’s also a classic love story, with Ric and Isla dealing with whatever was between them years before and how that fits into the scheme of things now she is with Lazlo.

Whilst everyone remembers the “Here’s looking at you kid” line, most also incorrectly remember another line from the movie. It’s often said that Ric says “Play it again Sam”, (referring to a piece of music that the bar pianist used to play for Ric and Isla when they were together); however the line is actually the rather more straightforward “Play it Sam”.

Brilliant film, superbly made and one that gets richer and richer each time you watch it.

James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) © Warner Bros

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) © Warner Bros


Our second film is another classic, this time the 1938 crime / redemption drama ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES in which a priest, played with ‘of-the-era’ steely determination by Pat O’Brien desperately tries to persuade a well known gangster, played with great rage by James Cagney, that he can change his ways in order to stop a group of street kids, (the at the time famous ‘Dead End’ kids), following his ways. 

Throughout the film Cagney plays his gangster tough guy role with no hint of remorse and the Dead End kids are thrilled by his every antic, until one day he’s caught and sentenced to be executed. The priest pleads with him to help change the path of the young boys who idolise him by either showing remorse or terror as he walks to his death. Right up to the last second Cagney refuses, but does he end up seeing the error of his ways and using his last moments to help the Dead End kids out of their seemingly dead end life? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Michael Curtiz often refused interviews, but Hollywood lore around him was legendary – especially around his English. Despite his English being less than ideal and his on-set temper often getting the better of him; the most successful director of the 30s and 40s got the picture made, and got it made well.

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen amd Danny Kaye in WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) © Paramount Pictures

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen amd Danny Kaye in WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) © Paramount Pictures


Our final choice for today is yet another well known classic brought to us by director Michael Curtiz; it’s WHITE CHRISTMAS from 1954, staring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.

It’s a delightfully light musical about a theatrical duo who become romantically involved with a sister act; teaming up with them to put on a Christmas show to end all shows in a bid to save the failing hotel run by their former army General, played by Dean Jagger.

As a musical the film is full of many classic tunes. We could fill the best part of an hour listening to the songs like ‘Mandy’, ‘I Wish I Was Back In The Army’, ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’ and, ofcourse, ‘White Christmas’; which was originally from the film HOLIDAY INN (1942).

So, that’s three classic films – all very different in story but all featuring the visual flare and style of Michael Curtiz.


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Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney


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