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AFI retrospective revives interest in the works of Michael Curtiz

Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart star in “Casablanca,” one of the films in the “Directed by Michael Curtiz” retrospective at the AFI Silver. COURTESY PHOTOPaul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart star in “Casablanca,” one of the films in the “Directed by Michael Curtiz” retrospective at the AFI Silver. COURTESY PHOTO  You must remember this.

Any classic-movie fan recalls the opening words of the theme song of “Casablanca” – and probably everything else about it. Even those who’s never seen the 1943 film about emigres struggling to get visas to America against the backdrop of Nazism and a doomed romance probably have of heard of the song (“As Time Goes By”) and most likely the film.

But members of both categories may not know the film’s director – Michael Curtiz. They can find out more in the retrospective featuring some of his works, entitled “Directed by Michael Curtiz,” on view at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center through March 25.

In addition to “Casablanca,” the films of the prolific Hungarian-born director include “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Sea Wolf,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.”

In all, Curtiz made about 100 films in the United States alone, said Alan K. Rode, a scholar who just published “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film” (University Press of Kentucky, 2017).  He describes his work as the first comprehensive biography of the director in English.

Rode was one of three panelists who discussed Curtiz and “Casablanca” last Saturday at AFI Silver Spring. The others were Meredith Hindley and Noah Isenberg, who also wrote books related to the much-beloved film. Margot Talbot moderated.

Rode is also introducing a few of the films in the retrospective.

The decision to highlight Curtiz’s films ties in with the publication of Rode’s book as well as with the 75th anniversary celebration, a year ago, of “Casablanca” and a recent retrospective at UCLA, according to Todd Hitchcock, AFI Silver’s Director of Programming.

“People often think of Curtiz’s movies as belonging to the stars, such as Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Casablanca’ or Joan Crawford’s ‘Mildred Pierce,’” Hitchcock said. “They don’t think about who directed them.”

He speculates that one reason Curtiz hasn’t received the attention other directors have is that he didn’t conform to the “auteur theory” many film critics espoused. “That means some directors fit a template, and used consistent stylistic tropes.”

Directors like Curtiz, in contrast, were master craftspeople who worked in several genres, with “no single-minded obsession,” Hitchcock added. “So, he gets short shrift with that model.”

Despite his talent, Curtiz had his flaws, which included womanizing – though Rode prefers to call Curtiz “a romantic soul in a strong libido” – and explosiveness. He was “constantly at odds” with Warner Bros about the changes the studio wanted to make.

“But he never jeopardized his own projects,” Rode said. “He lived to make movies above everything else. His shots were a blend of reality and artistry.”

There’s no question that those who have seen “Casablanca” once are likely to see it again. “It’s one of those films that if you pause, you will end up watching the whole thing,” Rode said. “It’s probably the most perfectly-cast studio movie ever made.”

It helped that Curtiz cast outspoken anti-Nazis as two of the leads and most of the bit players with real-life emigres escaping Europe.

“Warner Bros. was in the vanguard of making anti-Fascist films, going back to the 1930s,” Rode said.

Hitchcock hopes with the AFI retrospective, and books by Rode and others focusing on the time period and location of “Casablanca,” Curtiz will “finally get his due.”

On view tonight on March 22 are “Casablanca” and the movie “Breaking Point” with John Garfield.

Other films include: “The Unsuspected” on March 23; “Mildred Pierce” on March 24; “Flamingo Road” on March 25; and two double-features of lesser-known films.

The Curtiz film festival takes place at AFI Silver through March 25 at 8633 Colesville Road, in downtown Silver Spring. For Recorded Program Information, call: 301-495-6700. For showtimes and other details, visit www.afi.org/silver.  

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