Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film

Photo of Michael Curtiz

Read the reviews for MICHAEL CURTIZ—A LIFE IN FILM

 

 

Hollywood’s Great Deluge

TCM will be broadcasting NOAH’S ARK on April 4, 2018 that will commence a month long spotlight on the films of director Michael Curtiz. Here is some background on the making of the film adapted from MICHAEL CURTIZ A LIFE in FILM

 photo of Michael Curtiz in 1928 on the set of NOAH's ARK

Michael Curtiz signed a contract with Warner Bros. while directing a film in France in 1926. After Curtiz disembarked in New York City, he had an extended conversation with Harry Warner about the biblical movie that the director had broached when the pair first met in Europe. Harry assured his new director that production would commence on his epic shortly after he arrived in Hollywood and met with brother Jack who was head of production at the studio. Curtiz was thrilled and continued working on his outline, titled Noah’s Ark, while on the train to the West Coast.

Arriving at the old Central Station, Curtiz felt like a stranger in a strange land. No one from the studio met him. He managed to locate and ride the streetcar from downtown to Warner Bros. studio located at 5800 Sunset Boulevard on Monday morning, June 21, 1926.

His initial meeting with Jack L. Warner could not have been more deflating. Ushered in to see the production chief, who was having the kinks worked out on a massage table, Curtiz brandished his Noah’s Ark treatment and eagerly inquired when he could start production. According to Curtiz, Jack replied, “We have decided not to do that. Leave your script on the massage table. You will make The Third Degree.”

It dawned on Curtiz that he had been caught up in the sibling infighting between Harry and Jack Warner. Jack had no intention of surrendering his prerogatives as vice president in charge of production to anyone, particularly his bossy older brother, who regularly sniped at him from New York. Jack regularly ignored Harry’s edicts regarding when Noah’s Ark or any other film would be made. It was a lesson the director never forgot. Curtiz assiduously avoided getting into the middle of future Warner family squabbles. The youngest Warner also believed—quite correctly—that before Curtiz could be entrusted to helm an expensive epic whose failure might break the studio, he needed to demonstrate success with more modestly budgeted films.

By 1928, Curtiz had five successful movies under his belt and Warner Bros. was flush with cash after the smash release of The Jazz Singer. The director’s long cherished epic was finally green-lighted by Jack Warner.

Noah’s Ark would also be the coming-out opus for the studio’s production supervisor Darryl F. Zanuck. The 25-year old whirling dervish would be making a quantum leap from scripting Rin-Tin-Tin films to his first major studio production.

The principal creative challenge was how to design a contemporary parallel story to the biblical flood that would unify the movie and resonate with audiences. After several false starts by Curtiz and Zanuck, Bess Meredyth (Curtiz’s future wife) composed a storyline that used World War I as a modern plot parallel to the biblical saga. As would be true of so many of Curtiz’s future films, the specific collaborative details between Meredyth and Curtiz on the Noah’s Ark treatment remains unknown. But in light of their already close relationship, it can be presumed that they jointly worked on it. Warner Bros. house scribe Anthony Coldeway finessed the Meredyth- Curtiz scenario into a Noah’s Ark continuity.

photo of Michael Curtiz and Bess Meredyth relaxing on the 1928 set of Noah's Ark 

Darryl Zanuck oversaw the details of the final script and decided that the film would open with a post-deluge matte shot of the ark on dry ground as Noah and his family offer prayers for their salvation. A montage of biblical settings and scenes of modern Wall Street avarice follows before the present-day story begins. The story was officially credited to Zanuck, whose name was emblazoned above that of the director on the opening titles. Curtiz understood the twenty-six-year-old’s craving for prestige. Credit grabbing by the principals of a major film was a standard Hollywood operating procedure that dated back to Cecil B. DeMille’s barn. Curtiz concentrated on directing the actors and staging spectacular sequences with large masses of people and animals in the midst of apocalyptic destruction. The results would be unforgettable, especially for the participants.

More than five thousand extras were costumed and made up in a vast array of tents reminiscent of an army camp. Many were sprayed with dark body makeup to appear more Middle Eastern. Reflectors and special lighting equipment were everywhere. Wranglers brought in elephants, oxen, lions, and numerous other animals for the ark embarkation sequences. Anton Grot’s production design rivaled Curtiz’s European biblical epics Sodom and Gomorrah and Moon of Israel: a tremendous palace set stretched 385 feet long and 85 feet high. Fred Jackman’s special effects department outdid itself with detailed glass paintings for matte effects, the construction of realistic miniatures for the wreck of the Orient Express, and the long shots of the Great Deluge. For the orgiastic festival highlighted by the sacrifice of Miriam, Curtiz designed a blueprint that detailed the position of every player down to the last extra—and used a siren to start eleven cameras rolling simultaneously.

Noah’s Ark cinematographer Hal Mohr believed that the majority of the flooding sequences could be achieved through the use of process effects intercut with close-ups involving a select group of stunt people and break-away temple sets constructed of balsa wood: “I knew . . . that Jackman could take a miniature of a tremendous amount of water, and tremendous columns collapsing, and blue-backing them over this action, make it look as if it was a one-piece film.”

But other than long shots of temple miniatures being flooded, Curtiz had no intention of relying on special effects for the Great Flood. A crew of 139 technicians constructed a system of three tanks holding four million gallons of water (or one million gallons under pressure, or possibly 800,000 gallons from a main reservoir, according to differing accounts from Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck) that would pour down myriad spillways (140, according to Zanuck) and topple the columns. The large number of extras directed to take their places had no idea what was going to occur. Outraged when he discovered the plan, Hal Mohr confronted Curtiz and Zanuck: “I said, ‘Jesus, what are you going to do about the extra people?’ He [Curtiz] said, ‘Oh, they’re going to have to take their chances.’ I said, ‘Not as far as I am concerned. I’ll never have anything to do with a thing like that.’ . . . They insisted they were going to do it the way they wanted to do it, so I told them to shove the picture and walked off the set.” Barney McGill took over photography for Mohr. Fourteen cameras ground away simultaneously as nearly every incandescent light in Hollywood illuminated the set. At a signal from Curtiz, the water from the tanks sped down the spillways.

The scenes of the Great Deluge that were printed are spectacular; the footage remains awe-inspiring. The damage inflicted was considerable. Dolores Costello who headed the cast recalled the ordeal as “brutal.” Interviewed by David Gill for Kevin Brownlow’s epic Hollywood documentary series, she called the movie “mud, blood, and flood,” and, after a pause, added, “There was much blood.” With a decided edge to her voice, she went on: “Mr. Curtiz had been told which were the breakaway and which were the permanent parts of the set. And they had longhorn steer in there and human beings and some dummies. But he put the human beings where the real set was and the dummies where the breakaway was because he wanted ‘realism,’ as he called it.”

Curtiz and Zanuck didn’t realize or gave no consideration to the force of the water. Walls of water came crashing down from multiple directions. The impact toppled and broke apart the sets, sweeping away everything in the water’s path. Propelled by the water, wood and other debris became deadly missiles. Extras were knocked down by wreckage while others swam for their lives with the panicked cattle. Dolores Costello fainted from the force of the water hitting her in the stomach and reportedly caught pneumonia. Star George O’Brien, who was rendered sightless by spirit gum makeup and was tied up when the water was released, had boards tear off both of his big toenails.

Noah's Ark flood scene - black and white still from 1928 classic showing millions of gallons of water pouring down on extras in costume

Was anyone actually killed? Hal Mohr claimed that one man lost a leg and “a couple of people were injured to the point that they never did recover.” Numerous contemporary accounts mention the deaths of three people but don’t provide any supporting documentation.

The Warner Bros. legal files and Noah’s Ark materials contain no details about any deaths. The files are also missing the daily production reports and any evidence concerning injuries, lawsuits, or the hospitalization of extras. There was nary a mention in a local newspaper of any difficulties or injuries occurring during the making of Noah’s Ark. It was as if the incident never happened.

Though it is possible that the eyewitness accounts might have been unintentionally embellished over the years, there is little doubt that a number of people were severely injured in what was clearly a case of gross negligence. The responsibility also rested on the shoulders of Zanuck, who backed Curtiz to the hilt. There are no recorded expressions of regret from Curtiz, Zanuck, or Jack Warner about the toll of the Noah’s Ark flooding sequence. In an Orwellian touch, the Noah’s Ark press guide gaily stated that there was “little need for the services of the hospital staff” at the studio during the filming.

Viewed retrospectively, the lack of documentation about the consequences of the flood sequence isn’t surprising. The files for Warner films produced during 1920s, now housed at the Warner Bros. Archive at the University of Southern California, are lacking the detailed production reports and related correspondence that are routinely part of the records of films beginning in the mid-1930s. Either the material was lost or discarded, or the studio removed it before the donation of the records to USC. It is also not certain if Warner Bros. documented the daily routine of filmmaking in 1928 with the administrative zeal that was applied during the following decades.

It is also possible that the news blackout was stage-managed by the studio. Still fresh in the public’s mind was the St. Francis Dam disaster that killed hundreds of people north of Los Angeles in March 1928. Hollywood studios at that time didn’t hesitate to protect their interests by any means necessary. The writer Budd Schulberg recalled the power wielded by the moguls: “Hollywood was like Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. The district attorney was on the studio payroll; you could and did commit murder, and it wouldn’t be in the paper.” The studios kept the district attorney’s office greased with cash in the form of campaign contributions while studio security chiefs colluded with the local police to quash scandalous incidents involving contracted talent.

During the Roaring Twenties and into the next decade, Los Angeles was the prototypical wide-open town. The Los Angeles Police Department resembled a crime family. A criminal defense attorney of the period observed: “You know, in Chicago the gangsters paid off the police but the gangsters did the job. In Los Angeles, the police were the gangsters.”

In 1938 L.A. Mayor Frank Shaw achieved the distinction of being the first U.S. mayor to be successfully recalled after a police captain was convicted of planting a bomb in the house of a Shaw opponent. District Attorney Buron Fitts, who was acquitted of perjury and bribery charges in 1934 and survived an assassination attempt in 1937, was believed to have accepted a bribe to drop the investigation into the 1932 death of Paul Bern, an MGM executive who was the husband of Metro’s star Jean Harlow. Jack Warner was impressed enough to hire Fitts’s head investigator, a man named Blayney Matthews, as his studio security chief. A former Warner Bros. employee described the taciturn Matthews as “the silent custodian of more studio secrets than even the Brothers.”

The Hollywood newspapers were similarly acquiescent to the wishes of the movie moguls. No reporter was going to bite the feeding hand by launching an investigation into why so many people were injured during the making of a movie. For the Warners, it was a simple matter to pay off anyone severely injured, or their families, while steering the episode away from the jurisdiction of law enforcement and keeping it out of the newspapers.

During an era before workplace safety laws and labor unions, movie studios were under virtually no obligation to protect employees on set or on location. Safety was usually a determination made by the individual; the studio’s attitude could be summed up by the adage “Do you want the job or not?” What made the Noah’s Ark debacle so scandalous was Curtiz’s and Zanuck’s apparent indifference to the safety of the untrained extras whom they put in harm’s way. Extras got a day’s pay and that was about it. There was little training beyond being made up and told where to stand and when to move. Curtiz specifically chose many of the extras based on their athletic heft. Local high school athletes and college football players who were selected, including John Wayne and Andy Devine, were grateful for the cash.

For “the goddamn murderous bastards,” as Hal Mohr labeled Zanuck and Curtiz, the most serious consequences of Noah’s Ark would be bad reviews. Zanuck privately described his first big production as a mess; the writer Arthur Caesar later castigated him for “taking a book that’s been a hit for nineteen hundred years and making a flop out of it.” But Noah’s Ark wasn’t a failure; it simply wasn’t a box-office hit on the order of The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings. With a cost of just over $1 million, it grossed more than $2.3 million, half of that amount accruing in foreign markets.

The film premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on November 1, 1928. Hosted by the actor Conrad Nagel, the gala affair included a chorus of singers drawing a curtain back to reveal a mock-up of the ark, complete with live animals. After the film concluded, the leading players came onstage, taking bows to thunderous applause. The Hollywood glit- terati then repaired to an opulent party at Bess Meredyth’s house.

Curtiz’s low-key demeanor at the premiere party was a mixture of delight and relief. Although he had successfully completed the picture that he had journeyed to America to make, he also realized that the flooding debacle might have cost him his career. By protecting themselves from scandal, Harry and Jack Warner shielded Curtiz from any potential back- lash and strengthened the mutual bonds of loyalty. As the champagne flowed and the actor Fritz Feld entertained on the living-room piano, the director could not be faulted for believing that he was on a rapid ascent, with more important pictures on the horizon.

Copyright 2018 by Alan K. Rode
No use without permission.

 

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