On the occasion of his 108th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
Born in Dresden, Germany, on August 10, 1902, author and filmmaker Curt (originally Kurt, and occasionally Curtis) Siodmak was one of the most prolific practitioners of horror, science fiction, and fantasy on both page and screen, and died of natural causes in his adoptive California town of Three Rivers on September 2, 2000. He had some fifty films to his credit as a scenarist, yet his work as a director was always overshadowed by that of his brother Robert (1900-73), an Academy Award nominee for The Killers (1946), with whom he and fellow future émigrés Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann made the seminal documentary Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1930). Before coming to America, Robert directed Curt’s work in Der Mann, der Seinen Mörder Sucht (Looking for His Murderer, 1931), Girls Will Be Boys (1934), and La Crise est Finie (The Slump Is Over, 1934), yet when hired in Hollywood to direct Son of Dracula (1943), he promptly fired Curt, who received only story credit, and hired Eric Taylor to rewrite him.
According to Curt’s 1992 curriculum vitae, “I went through the First World War in Germany with its pointless slaughter, tribulations, and hunger. After that harrowing time, inflation wiped out the financial security of my family. That era of national decay was succeeded by an explosive bloom of culture in Berlin and for me six years of success as an author and screenwriter. Being a compulsive writer, I had 14 novels published between 1929 and 1933 and wrote seven motion pictures besides—some of which are still on the screen….I had a formal education at the German Universities of Dresden and Stuttgart, as well as the University of Zurich, Switzerland, where I received a degree in mathematics, a discipline that inspired me to write science fiction books. The task of a science-fiction writer is to project the future, as he sees it, on his own time. I predicted the laser beam in 1930, radar and the importance of the aircraft carrier in 1933 [in his novel F.P. 1 Antwortet Nicht (Floating Platform 1 Does Not Answer), filmed in German, French, and English versions].”
A former engineer, Siodmak got his first screenwriting experience in 1922 by, as he put it, “translating English title cards for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops [sic] comedies into horrible German four-liners,” and in 1931 he married Henrietta Erna de Perrot, to whom he was wed until his death. The couple had gotten another early brush with filmmaking when they signed on as extras for the silent SF classic Metropolis (1926), in order to gain access to the closed set and get a newspaper story on the film and its director, Fritz Lang; like Lang, the Jewish Siodmak faced and fled the growing menace of National Socialism, although he later joked, “every night I say ‘Heil Hitler!’ because without the son of a bitch I wouldn’t be in Three Rivers, California, I’d still be in Berlin!” As he continued in his c.v., “The Nazis stopped me from making a living in Germany. I was forced to emigrate and to learn a new language in order to continue my profession as an author. I went to France, as did many other refugees, then to England, where I found work at the British International Picture Company.
“After that episode I was under contract at Gaumont British Pictures, where I wrote the script for the motion picture Transatlantic Tunnel . It was the first British picture to use an English and American cast—including Walter Huston, Fay Wray, Richard Dix, and George Arliss. When the British film industry collapsed in 1937, I went to Hollywood. There I wrote [and/or] directed about 40 motion pictures for Universal, RKO, and other companies. I even went up the Amazon River for Universal to shoot two motion pictures, which healthwise was not a good idea. During World War II, I was a member of the OSS, the secret service of that time.” Hired at Universal through his friend Joe May, with whom he worked on The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman (both 1940), Siodmak wrote The Wolf Man (1941) and, like John L. Balderston in the 1930s, was central to the ’40s mythology of the studio’s classic monsters, also credited on Invisible Agent (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944) as well as Son of Dracula.
Siodmak wrote his best-known novel, the oft-adapted Donovan’s Brain (1942), between assignments on such films as the Boris Karloff vehicles Black Friday, The Ape (both 1940), and The Climax (1944); Jacques Tourneur’s classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943), produced by Val Lewton, and Berlin Express (1948); and Robert Florey’s severed-hand thriller, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). His screenwriting work in the ’50s followed the general trend away from horror and back to his SF roots with Riders to the Stars (1954), an Ivan Tors production directed by co-star Richard Carlson, plus Edward L. Cahn’s Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and the screen story for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion saga, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). One of the films Siodmak wrote and directed in that decade, The Magnetic Monster (1953), was another Tors production built around footage from Gold (1934), a German film by F.P. 1 director Karl Hartl, while the others are certifiable cult classics: Bride of the Gorilla (1951), Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), and Love Slaves of the Amazon (1957), which he also produced.
Among his few forays into television, “The Face in the Tombstone Mirror” was the shelved 1958 pilot, scripted by Catherine and Henry Kuttner, for Tales of Frankenstein—a series to be produced by Columbia and Hammer Films after the latter’s success with Curse of Frankenstein (1957)—on which Siodmak had director, associate producer, and story credit. Little more successful was No. 13 Demon Street, a series produced by Kenneth Herts and Leo Guild of Herts-Lion International, for which he directed all but one of the episodes and also had a hand in writing several; appropriately, thirteen were made, shot in Stockholm’s Nordisk Tonfilm Studios with a rapidly declining Lon Chaney, Jr., starring as “the cursed narrator.” While shown in Sweden with subtitles, the series never found a buyer in the U.S., so Herts hired editor Herbert L. Strock, the uncredited co-director of both The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars, to cobble three episodes into an ersatz feature film, The Devil’s Messenger (1961), with new framing footage of Chaney as Satan.
After his last screenplays were filmed in his native Germany—Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, 1962), with Terence Fisher directing Christopher Lee as Holmes, Das Feuerschiff (The Lightship, 1963), and Ski Fever (aka Liebesspiel im Schnee, 1967), which he also directed—Siodmak returned to his first love, writing novels. In Wolf Man’s Maker: Memoir of a Hollywood Writer, posthumously published in a revised edition by the Scarecrow Press in 2001, he noted, “For me, writing motion pictures was just a way to make a living. I never took that craft as seriously as writing my novels. I was never content with my motion picture work, whose credits, by their very nature, I shared with many others: the director, actors, film cutters, wardrobe designers, special effects specialists, and a host of others….Since writing a screenplay is only a part of the end result, a motion picture, like a promiscuous woman, belongs to many. But a novel has only one author. Even should its conversion into a motion picture be a failure, the novel still stands pristine on its shelf.”