In a few months, we’ll publish Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film by Alan K. Rode. As the first comprehensive biography in English of the director of classic films such as Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and White Christmas (1954), this book highlights some fantastic stories about one of the film industry’s most complex figures.
Since it’s high summer and a number of us here at the press are devotedly tending home gardens, the following anecdote from the book really struck a chord. Curtiz was famously known for having a temper on set, but it seems that the legendary director did have great compassion for a garden’s most adorable scourge: bunnies.
The following is excerpted from the book:
The war years sped by for Curtiz. Long days at the studio were interspersed with leisure time on Saturday nights and Sundays at the Canoga Ranch. Though his dedication to polo began to taper off, Curtiz’s passion for shooting skeet remained constant. He wore a jacket around the ranch adorned with a sleeve patch that bore a “50” insignia, indicating that he’d successfully hit fifty consecutive targets without a miss.
World War II motivated everyone to support the Allied cause. John Meredyth Lucas [Curtiz’s adopted son] remembered “the war had gotten Mother out of bed.” Bess [Curtiz’s wife] became involved with the British War Relief Society during the early years of the war. She joined Virginia Zanuck and many other friends in supporting “Bundles for Britain.” Started in a New York City storefront, the wartime charity ultimately delivered $1,500,000 in clothing to a belt-tightened United Kingdom along with another million in cash.
Then there were the ubiquitous victory gardens championed by the government to support the war effort. Bess seeded a large plot adjacent to the main house to raise vegetables for the family table. Although she diligently tended the garden, it wasn’t productive; the local rabbit population became nighttime saboteurs. After an unsuccessful attempt to fence off the garden from the pests, Curtiz initiated an evening stakeout with his shotgun. After spotting a rabbit, Curtiz shot it in the leg, then experienced an epiphany as the injured creature piteously attempted to drag itself to safety. According to John Meredyth Lucas, the episode brought forth a compassionate side from Curtiz that was rarely witnessed on a film set:
Mike watched, horror-stricken. Then, calling for help, he carefully captured the wounded rabbit. We had a veterinarian we used for all our dogs. Mike had Mother get the vet out of bed and took the rabbit to the animal hospital. The rabbit made a slow but satisfactory recovery and was ultimately turned loose on the ranch again. “Why hell we need garden?” Mike asked Mother. “We doesn’t eat much vegetable.” Henceforth we bought our greens at the market. Mike had always loved rabbit cooked the French provincial way, but as far as I know, he never again ordered this dish.
Excerpted from Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film by Alan K. Rode, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky in October 2017.