Of all the legends associated with the making of Casablanca, the most enduring is that Ingrid Bergman didn’t know whether her character would choose Rick or Laszlo at the film’s conclusion. This biopic attempts to use such aspects of the production to provide an insight into the film’s director. Yet while Casablanca may have started filming before its script was completed, Curtiz seems to have been completed before a script was even started.
Contending with an impatient Jack Warner, the Office of War Information and a prop-master who can’t understand his accent, Michael Curtiz’s life is further complicated when his estranged daughter arrives on set with hopes of rekindling their relationship. Will he abandon Hollywood and leave with her on a plane? Or will he stay and find an ending to his movie? And will he finally get the prop-master to deliver puddles instead of poodles? It doesn't take much to see that his problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world… and neither does this biopic.
The central conceit of using Casablanca to analogise Curtiz’s life is an intriguing exercise. After all, Casablanca itself has been seen as an analogy to the European theatre of war, with Rick’s American trying to stay on the side-lines (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) before finally becoming involved. But trying to draw a parallel between Rick’s heroics and Curtiz’s histrionics proves fruitless.
Whereas Casablanca overcame its difficulties to produce a cinema classic, this biopic's limitations are on full display. Cavernous empty soundstages contradict a rollcall of films supposedly in production, key roles are rendered ineffective by subpar performances and meaningless subplots highlight a sluggish script. Flamboyant camera moves, gimmicky injections of colour and an intrusive film score only succeed in further alienating the viewer.
As for the cast of Casablanca, only S. Z. Sakall and Conrad Veidt are depicted in any substantial manner. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre are all confined to the shadows which, despite a fine performance by Ferenc Lengyel in the title role, is where our understanding of Michael Curtiz remains.
Michael Curtiz did not arrange for his daughter Kitty to move from Germany to New York and then abandon her. Neither did Kitty arrive unannounced on the set of Casablanca where her presence was unknown to all, including Curtiz’s wife Bess Meredyth.
The director sent for Kitty in April 1930… The fourteen-year-old made the long journey from Bremen, Germany, on board the ocean liner Europa to New York and then by the cross-country train to Los Angeles. After settling in Hollywood, Curtiz paid for private tutors, including language and singing lessons… Kitty enjoyed becoming acquainted with the new stepmother – it was impossible not to warm up to Bess Meredyth – but she was a fish out of water in Hollywood.
Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film
By Alan K. Rode
Only one or two minor scenes from Casablanca are recreated in this biopic. The more memorable scenes are depicted in preparation.