Joe May (November 7, 1880, in Vienna – April 29, 1954, in Hollywood), born Joseph Otto Mandel, was a film director and film producer born in Austria and one of the pioneers of German cinema.
After studying in Berlin and a variety of odd jobs, he began his career as a stage director of operettas in Hamburg before starting to make films from 1912 in Berlin. In 1902 he had married the actress Mia May(born Hermine Pfleger) and took his stage name from hers.
In 1914 he founded his own film production company, May-Film, and began to produce a successful series of crime films, whose detective hero went by the name of Joe Deebs. Some of these were directed by May himself, others by Harry Piel. (Around the same time May also worked on the Stuart Webbs series of detective films for another company). In 1917 he gave Fritz Lang one of his earliest breaks in the film industry as screenwriter on the film Die Hochzeit im Excentricclub (Wedding in the Eccentric Club) and Lang also worked on other May films at this time.
After the end of World War I in 1918 May’s company built film studios in the Berlin suburb of Weissensee and in Woltersdorf a village northeast of Berlin in Brandenburg. There he went on to produce and direct a series of popular and exotic adventure films, among them the monumental three hour long Veritas vincit (1919), the eight-part series Die Herrin der Welt (Mistress of the World) (1919–20) as well as the two-part adventure film Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb) (1921) starring Conrad Veidt and written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou.
These featured Mia May in leading roles and she regularly worked under her husband’s direction in a number of melodramas like Tragödie der Liebe (1922/23) costarring Emil Jannings. Their teenage daughterEva May (born 1902 in Vienna) tried to build her own career as an actress but committed suicide in 1924 after the end of her third marriage with the film directors Manfred Liebenau, Lothar Mendes and Manfred Noa.
Towards the end of the 1920s, May moved away from adventure films and produced more realist works, notable among them the World War I love-triangle Heimkehr (The Return Home) (1928) and the contemporary thriller Asphalt (1929). During the early years of sound film he worked as a producer for Erich Pommer at Ufa then for different production companies in Germany, Austria and France directing a series of multilingual versions in German and French among those is Ihre Majestät die Liebe / Son altesse l’amour (1930) one of the best musical comedies of the Weimar Cinema.
In 1933 he and Mia, along with many others in the German film industry, emigrated to the United States where he was able to establish himself as director, mainly for Universal Pictures, although his work was mainly on what would be regarded as B movies.
His most notable works of this period were the Kay Francis vehicle Confession, a remake of the 1935 German film Mazurka, The House of the Seven Gables and The Invisible Man Returns (1941). He also worked with the Dead End Kids during this period, helming two films, You’re Not So Tough (1940) and Hit the Road (1941), despite constant friction with his juvenile delinquent cast members.
Confession is especially interesting, in that May’s film is an exact copy of German director Willi Forst’s Mazurka, right down to the last fade and dissolve, with every shot timed to run exactly the same length, and using the same music as Forst’s original film.
May’s last film was the early Robert Mitchum vehicle Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Any More, made in 1944 for low budget Monogram Pictures. After retiring as a director, May managed the Blue Danube Restaurant in Los Angeles, and died on April 29, 1954, after a long illness. He is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.