May began his career as a director of low-budget crime films and, by the late 1910s, was running his own film empire comprising studios, laboratories and real-estate concerns. (One of several directors who got their start under contract to May was Fritz Lang.) After inflation put an end to his tycoon status in the mid-20s May worked as a director and producer for other companies; his greatest achievement of this period was the expressionistic "Asphalt" (1929), a classic "street movie" about a prostitute and a policeman. After being forced to leave Germany in 1933 May made quick stops in France and England before moving to the US, where he made mostly forgettable films. With his actress wife Mia May (he adopted her name rather than vice versa) he later ran Hollywood's Blue Danube restaurant.