The Hungarian Pioneers of Hollywood – Part One

Apr 29, 2020

Adolph Zukor, Michael Curtiz – maybe you already heard about these names, but don’t exactly remember where. Maybe you remember that these Hungarian immigrants were once among the ones who shaped and built Hollywood back in the Golden Age. So let’s dive into the stories of these two brave and talented filmmakers.

Adolph Zukor – the founding father of Paramount Pictures

Zukor Adolf was born in a small town in East-Hungary, Ricse, next to the Ukrainian and Slovakian border to a Jewish family of village grocers. Adolf lost his parents at the age of 15 so he decided to give it a shot in the USA and arrived there in 1888 – with 25 dollars in his pocket. First he worked at furrier’s shops in New York and Chicago and shortly after opened his own shop. He saw the first movie in 1893 and he immediately felt that this is the next big thing. So he partnered up with a nickelodeon (these were small booths, where cheap short films were screened) and started expanding his network with his partner. In order to gain capital against the trusts, he purchased the American rights of the French movie Queen Elisabeth which became a huge hit and earned him enough movie to grow bigger and create his first company, Famous Players in Famous Company. His idea was that it was the stars who attracted the audience and that the audience wanted to see longer, well-known stories, such as literary adaptations. That’s why he signed Sarah Berhardt and Mary Pickford. His company and Lasky Feature Film Company joined and this is how Paramount Pictures was born. Zukor became the new president instead of Cecil B. DeMille. He was not interested in the cinematic arts, he was interested in money. He was known to be a tough businessman and a reckless negotiator – he was called the “Napoleon of Hollywood”. In 1949 he was awarded an Academy Award for his enormous work in the industry. He celebrated his 100th birthday with a huge Hollywood party in 1973.

Michael Curtiz – the inexhaustible director with 160+ films

Michael Curtiz was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1886 as Manó Kaminer to a Jewish family. When he was young he became interested in acting, played in a circus, he even learned at the Academy but soon realized that he actually wants to be a director. He directed many plays and silent movies in Hungary then decided to learn even more skills in Europe: he joined the Danish film studio, Nordisk, later he worked for the German UFA GmbH studio in Berlin – without any language skills! In 1917 he became a studio director in Hungary and it became obvious that he is interested in two types of movies: easy, romantic stories and grand, spectacular historic movies. Jack and Harry Warner travelled to Hungary in 1927 just to see Curtiz directing in real life (by this time he already directed 60 movies). Soon they offered him a contract at Warner Studios, so Curtiz emigrated to the US. The audience loved his movies which were more of American movies than the movies of many American directors. His brilliant storytelling and directing skills were finally recognized when he received the Academy Award as best director for the forever classic, Casablanca. He discovered and put to the top Doris Day, James Cagney and Joan Crawford – the latter both won Oscars for their acting in his films. He had a reputation for having a monk-like work ethic (he directed 102 films during his Hollywood career in many genres from melodramas to Westerns and musicals) and strict attitude towards actors. But surely he will be most remembered by refining the film language of classic Hollywood.

That’s all for now about the great Hungarian pioneers of Hollywood. Both Zukor and Kertész left a huge legacy to us and also taught us about how the famous Hungarian wit and talent make its way even in the craziest circumstances.