On this day in 1761, the great astronomer Jean-Louis Pons was born. Born into a poor family, he became a caretaker at the Marseille observatory. But he gradually learned the field—mostly on his own—and began making observations himself. He seems to have had something of a photographic memory for star fields. As a result of this ability and much work, he discovered 37 comets—more than anyone else in history. Oh, how I long for late 18th century France when there was equality of opportunity!
Another great scientist, James Prescott Joule was born in 1818. He is known, of course, for the conservation of energy. Or more precisely: he showed that heat and mechanical work are equivalent forms of energy. What is most remarkable about him (to me) is that the reason he was able to do all of his very precise experimental work was that he was a master brewer, from a brewing family. And Joule’s Brewery is still in existence! Beer and Physics. You know, that sounds like a hell of an idea for a blog!
The great American writer and film director Nicholas Meyer is 68 today. He wrote the best-selling novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which I haven’t read nor have I seen the movie. But he is best known for directing the two best Star Trek films: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. Since then, he hasn’t done much directing. He thinks of himself primarily as a writer, I think. And rightly so.
Other birthdays: the Dutch Golden Age master Wilhelm Marstrand (1810); one of the greatest chess players of all time, Emanuel Lasker (1868); illustrator Johnny Gruelle (1880); American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881); engineer and nutball, Howard Hughes (1905); journalist I F Stone (1907); Helvetica typeface creator, Max Miedinger (1910); actor Ava Gardner (1922); choreographer Robert Joffrey (1930); and singer-songwriter Ricky Martin (42).
The day, however, belongs to the great film director Michael Curtiz who was born in 1886. He is best known for directing Casablanca. To this day, I do not know why the film works so well. Yes, it’s very funny. Yes, it has some of our favorite actors. And yes, it’s great anti-Nazi propaganda from a time when most people didn’t know their full villainy. But there are all kinds of things in the film that normally I would hate. I think Ilsa behaves very poorly at the beginning, not giving Rick any space to be angry when he is clearly way over the legal limit. And then she acts like she’s a schoolgirl. Rich is too clean as the antihero and Laszlo is just too perfect generally. Yet somehow, it is still one of my favorite films.
But Curtiz didn’t just direct Casablanca. I won’t list all the great films he directed. But two that stand out to me are the Errol Flynn films Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He also did musicals like Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Jazz Singer. He could do anything and that is why, I think, he is not usually mentioned as one of the great directors. But I would argue that he understood the medium perfectly. He was the Martin Scorsese of his era. And I think eventually, film historians will come to see that.
Happy birthday Michael Curtiz!