|~M. B. Curtis~
Born: 1849 in Lipto Comitat Nagy Selmetz an Hungarian Town now known as Slovakia
Died: December, 1920 (age 68) in Los Angeles, California, USA
The Sanitarium (1910)
Samuel of Posen (1910) ... Samuel of Posen
M.B. Curtis (1899)
M. B. Curtis was a groundbreaking stage actor who was suddenly catapulted to national prominence,
fame and fortune in 1880 by starring in a play about a young Jewish immigrant who needs a job and gets
one as a drummer- a traveling salesman. (Curtis himself was a six year-old Jewish immigrant when his
family arrived in America). Curtis had the ability to mesmerize an audience with his comic antics using
his entire body and even his clothing to comic effect and critics reported that packed houses could not
stop laughing from the time Curtis walked on the stage until the curtain fell. One critic even said, as a
sophisticated New Yorker, he didn’t want to laugh, tried not to, but fell into hysterics with the rest of the
crowd. Critics described how a simple dry phrase, uttered by Curtis’ stage character, Sam’l, would
transform into an unstoppable reason to break into hysterics. His play broke records and took the entire
country by storm for many years. This portrayal was the first time in American history that a Jewish male
was allowed to portray a Jewish character on stage. Curtis literally paved the way for a tidal wave of
ethnic humor plays and for the next generations of ethnic film comedians like Al Jolson and The Marx
As times changed, Curtis, always the innovator, stared in one of the earliest silent movies in America
(1899), entitled, simply, “M. B. Curtis.” The few stills known of this one minute and forty-five second film
show the actor emerging from the stage curtains and dressed as a successful actor. The topic does not
appear to be about his famous stage character portrayal of Sam’l of Posen.
In 1910, as silent movie companies were gaining traction as an industry, Curtis was asked by the Selig
Polyscope Company to sell them the rights of his famous play to make a feature film of it. His friend
Francis Boggs (the man who started Hollywood) worked at Selig and was instrumental in getting Curtis
the film contract (Boggs signed for the Selig Polyscope Company). The movie was titled “Samuel of
Posen” (slightly different than the play’s title of “Sam’l of Posen”). Selig hired most of the original cast of
the play for the movie. At this time, movie audiences were tired of the many weak and repetitive plots
(one film critic said they would “shrivel your spine”) and so silent movie companies tried a new idea-
purchasing successful plays and books to make them into movies in an attempt to revive the popularity
of their industry. That is where Curtis came in. Selig released the movie in March of 1910 and produced a
poster which shared another movie release on it. It was released with the first movie adaption of the
“Wizard of Oz” book by Frank Baum. “Samuel of Posen” played across the entire country and in Canada.
Curtis often now went by the name “Curtiss.” The producers were impressed with Curtis’ acting on film
and hired him to perform in Fatty Arbuckle’s Selig movie entitled “The Sanitarium” later that year. Curtis
wanted to travel the world and produce documentaries for Selig but there is no evidence found of that
occurring as of yet. M. B. Curtis’ health had been declining due to his drinking following being tried three
times, charged with murdering a San Francisco policeman in 1891. The actor passed away in 1920, being
cared for by the very organization he helped fund and founded, The Actor’s Fund. Though Curtis’ film
career is just now being rediscovered, what Richard Schwartz’s biography of the actor reveals is Curtis’
big role - M. B. Curtis is the only citizen in the history of the United States to personally pay to light the
Statue of Liberty when Congress refused to do so days after the statue was dedicated in 1886. Now that is
a hard act to follow.
Biography by: Richard Schwartz
Schwartz wrote “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty, The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis” and it
contains stills from both of Curtis’ movies and an ad for Arbuckle’s in which he performs. In 2017, the
Library of Congress called Schwartz with the news that a fragment of Curtis’ 1910 movie had been donated
and they will be posting the restored portion of “Samuel of Posen” on their website. “The Man Who Lit Lady
Liberty, The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis” ISBN 978-0-9678204-5-3 is offered to readers
of Silenthollywood.com for a 30% discount when using the code SH1MW through Heyday Books.
Telephone: (510) 549-3564. Fax: (510) 549-1889
Many Thanks to Richard Schwartz, friend of SilentHollywood.com,
for images and biography of M.B. Curtis. You may click on the book
image to the right to purchase his book to read more about M.B.
Curtis and his incredible life.
SilentHollywood.com readers get 30% when ordering directly
through Heyday Books - use the code SH1MW.