Joe May was born Julius Mandl on November 7 1880 into a Jewish family in Vienna. In 1902, he married the Viennese singer Hermine Pfleger who later called herself Mia May, a name Joe would subsequently adopt in an attempt to deflect from his Jewish origins.
He studied in Berlin before becoming an operetta director in Hamburg. By 1912, however, he started directing his first films, making a name for himself with a series of detective films whose central character was Stuart Webbs, later changed to Joe Webbs.
Increasingly successful, by 1918 May had his own studio in Woltersdorf outside Berlin, where he produced and directed a string of monumental dramas, the original Das indische Grabmal among them, for which Fritz Lang - who forty years later remade it - wrote the screenplay. May became one of the most prolific and successful directors of Weimar Germany. Among his other films from the 1920 are, for instance, Tragoedie der Liebe, starring a very young Marlene Dietrich.
Betty Amman in Asphalt (Germany 1929), one of May's most famous films from his Berlin period
Following Hitler's rise to power in January 1933, May emigrated to the US, and like many of his fellow emigrants, May's American career never really took off. Although it has often been claimed that May's failure to reconnect with his erstwhile success was due to the financial disaster of his first US offering, Music In The Air, based on the stage play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, H.G. Asper in his book Filmexilanten maintains that it was rather because May was considered difficult and arrogant. Under contract to Universal, May made several horror films, a genre the studio had became identified with, among them The Invisible Man Returns (USA 1940) and The House Of The Seven Gables (USA 1940). Despite the films' success at the box office, Universal did not take up the option on May's contract, and after only a few more films, May literally disappeared into oblivion.
In dire need of money and a job, in the late 1940s May and his wife were forced to rely on disbursements from the European Film Fund, until they eventually decided to open a restaurant. Called The Blue Danube, specialising in Austrian-Hungarian cuisine, the restaurant was founded with financial aid of fellow emigrants, including Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch and Hedy Lamarr, who donated a total $ 12, 500. However, The Blue Danube also proved a financial disaster for it shut as quickly as it opened. In the light of the considerable success of emigrants such as Billy Wilder, Henry Koster, Walter Reisch, William Wyler or Robert Siodmak following their escape from Nazi Germany, it is easy to forget that for the vast majority of emigrants exile not only meant the loss of their country, culture and language, but also of their careers and ultimately, their existence.
Destitute and ill, May died in 1954 in Los Angeles.