The bombastic Austrian-born film director and producer Otto Preminger (1906-1986) had a long Hollywood career making movies that defied conventions of the time.
Nicknamed “Otto the Terrible” for his legendary tantrums on Hollywood sets, Otto Preminger cajoled countless stars in dozens of films from the 1930s through the 1970s. His movies ranged from the delicately crafted suspense classic Laura , to the colossal epic Exodus, and included many commercial and critical successes as well as failures. Preminger had no single specialty, but his films ranged over a wide variety of styles and subject matters. His trademarks were his staunch independence and fierce control over all aspects of his films.
Preminger’s father, Marc, was a lawyer and onetime attorney general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Otto and his brother Ingo both earned law degrees in Vienna, the latter of whom ended up as a Hollywood agent. Otto was a teenager when he first started acting in plays in Vienna. At 17, he starred as Lysander in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and at 19, he was already managing a Vienna theater. By 20, he was mostly bald and had earned his law degree. He spent his twenties becoming one of Europe’s most successful theatrical producer-directors and at 26, he directed his first film, Die Grosse Liebe.
Preminger was Jewish, and in 1935, he thought it wise to leave Austria to escape the Nazi threat and take up an invitation to direct Broadway plays in the United States. In New York, he directed Libel, a minor success and the next year, went to Hollywood to make the films Under Your Spell and Danger, Love at Work for Daryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox.
After clashes with Zanuck, Preminger returned to New York and directed the plays Outward Bound, which had a 19-month Broadway run, and Margin for Error, in which Preminger also acted–playing a Nazi official. By 1941, Zanuck was in the Army and Preminger was invited back to Hollywood and remained under contract with Fox as a director, producer, and actor until 1952. In 1942, Preminger played Nazi heavies in The Pied Piper and They Got Me Covered, and the next year, he directed and acted in a film version of Margin for Error. In 1944, he directed the comedy In the Meantime, Darling.
Hollywood Studio Days
Relations between Zanuck and Preminger remained cool until 1944, when Preminger persuaded the studio heads to let him produce and direct the suspense story Laura. Starring Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews, and Gene Tierney, Laura was a critical and commercial success. Many considered it Preminger’s finest film. Halliwell’s Film Guide called Laura “a quiet, streamlined little murder mystery that brought a new adult approach to the genre and heralded the mature film noir of the later forties.” Preminger received an Academy Award nomination for Laura.
During the rest of his tenure with Fox, Preminger churned out a number of films, few of them notable. Tallulah Bankhead starred in his 1945 costume drama A Royal Scandal. It was followed by Where Do We Get from Here in 1945, Centennial Summer, and Fallen Angel in 1946, Forever Amber and Daisy Kenyon in 1947, That Lady in Ermine in 1948, The Fan in 1949, Whirlpool and Where the Sidewalk Ends in 1950, The Thirteenth Letter in 1951, and Angel Face in 1952.
Taking on the Censors
In 1953, Preminger, who had grown to resent Hollywood, quit 20th Century Fox and formed his own company, Carlyle Productions. For the rest of the decade, Preminger produced and directed several taboo-breaking films.
Preminger had directed a highly successful stage production of Hugh Herbert’s light sex comedy The Moon Is Blue, and he made it into his first independent movie in 1953. Starring William Holden and David Niven, the film was notable only for defying the strict Hollywood production code. Preminger insisted on the play’s original dialogue being used in the film, including words such as “virgin,” “pregnant,” and “seduce,” terms that were taboo in films of that era. The Moon Is Blue was the first commercial feature to be released without a seal of approval from the Motion Pictures Association of America, and it earned a “condemned” rating from the powerful Roman Catholic Legion of Decency. It also was banned by local censorship boards until Preminger won a U.S. Supreme Court case ordering the film to be shown.
In 1954, Preminger directed two movies: River of No Return, a successful Western with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum that was one of the first features shot in wide-screen Cinemascope, and Carmen Jones, a musical adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen, with an all-black cast, including Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and Pearl Bailey. In 1955, he brought to the screen The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, a military justice drama with an all-star cast including Gary Cooper, Rod Steiger, and Ralph Bellamy.
In 1956, Preminger directed Frank Sinatra as a junkie in The Man With the Golden Arm. It was Hollywood’s first serious look at drug addiction and included sensational scenes of Sinatra’s character going “cold turkey” to kick his habit. The film was banned in Boston among other cities, but again Preminger went to the courts and beat the censors. Though it caused a sensation, critics didn’t think much of the way Preminger had lightened up his subject and tacked on a happy ending. Diana Willing in Films in Review called it “a very inferior film…. The script is inexcusably clumsy, the sets are unbelievable, and the casting is ridiculous.” Nonetheless, Preminger’s challenge to the studios’ rating system proved a success. In the late 1950s, the code was liberalized, and Preminger’s films paved the way for directors to tackle formerly taboo subjects frankly and openly.
He followed The Man With the Golden Arm in 1957 with Bonjour Tristesse, based on a novel by Francoise Sagan, was about a teenage girl who becomes enmeshed in his father’s womanizing and ends up causing a death. David Niven, Deborah Kerr, and Jean Seberg starred in the film. Seberg also appeared that same year in Preminger’s film of George Bernard Shaw’s play about Joan of Arc, Saint Joan. Shot in Great Britain and adapted for the screen by Graham Greene, the film was a flop, and Seberg’s performance was universally panned.
Master of the Set
By the late 1950s, Preminger had developed a reputation as a tyrant. He kept firm control over all aspects of his film company, including scripts, casting, advertising, and even camera equipment. In 1959, Preminger brought another all-black musical, Porgy and Bess, to the screen, starring Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., and Diahann Carroll. Samuel Goldwyn’s Columbia Pictures produced the film. On the set, Preminger and Goldwyn argued about every detail.
Also in 1959, he produced and directed the box-office smash Anatomy of a Murder, a riveting courtroom drama starring James Stewart. Preminger got the film publicity during its filming by firing its star, Lana Turner, and replacing her with Lee Remick; by casting in the role of the judge a non-actor, Joseph N. Welch, who was famous as the Army’s chief counsel during the televised anti-communism hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy; and by bringing jazz great Duke Ellington onto the set to liven up the score. Donald Chase noted in Film Comment that Anatomy of a Murder had “a buzzing low-key energy that never falters over 2 hours and 40 minutes.” The film also provoked controversy for its realistic rape scene, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture of 1959.
In 1960, Preminger unleashed his epic Exodus, based on Leon Uris’s best-selling novel about the founding of the state of Israel. Preminger again displayed his knack for publicity. To cast a mob scene, he sold lottery tickets to 30,000 people and delayed the prize drawing until morning, to keep the extras around all night. The prizes turned out to be tickets to the opening of Exodus. He also made headlines by using as his screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted by Hollywood since the McCarthy hearings. With a cast of thousands, including Paul Newman, Exodus was a big-budget, 220-minute extravaganza that failed to impress audiences or critics.
In 1961 Preminger directed the successful Advise and Consent, a political thriller adapted from a best-seller by Allen Drury. Entertainment Weekly critic Tim Purtell termed it “a hornet’s nest of a drama about United States senators squabbling over a controversial cabinet nominee…. one of the savviest of all films about politics.”
Hits and Misses
Preminger’s pace had begun to slow. In 1963, he brought out The Cardinal, a long-winded but visually arresting film about a young priest’s rise to power in the Catholic Church. Andrew Sarris, author of Confessions of a Cultist, noted that “Preminger is much better with image than with actors.” Two years later, Preminger directed In Harm’s Way. In A World on Film, critic Stanley Kauffmann called it “one more guts-and-glory naval saga complete with John Wayne as a crusty commander and an ensign son who finally does him proud.” Kauffmann added that Preminger “has a reputation–deserved–for intelligence and cultivation, and another reputation–equally deserved –for shrewd exploitation of mass tastes.”
Preminger clearly was fading in the late 1960s. In 1967, he directed Hurry Sundown, a melodramatic story about race relations with Jane Fonda and Michael Caine. In 1968, he made Skidoo, considered a feeble attempt to appeal to the counter-culture of the era. In 1970, Preminger followed with what was regarded as another flop, Tell Me That You Love Me, Julie Moon. Starring Liza Minnelli, it was the story of a disfigured girl, a gay paraplegic, and an introverted epileptic who live together. Writer Elaine May penned Such Good Friends, which Preminger released in 1972, a “satiric parable which alternates between sex comedy and medical expose,” according to Halliwell’s. Preminger’s next film, the 1975 release Rosebud, about Middle Eastern terrorists, was ignored by the public, as was his final film, The Human Factor, released in 1979.
In his personal life, in 1971 after the death of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Preminger revealed he was the father of her son, Erik Kirkland, who became his chief assistant. In 1986, at the age of 80, Preminger died of cancer at his home in Manhattan. Critics sharply disagreed on his legacy. Sarris noted: “His enemies have never forgiven him for being a director with the personality of a producer.” And Purtell contended: “Of all big-name Hollywood directors, possibly none has had as bad a rep as Otto Preminger. Admired in the ’50s by French critics and new-wave filmmakers, he was largely dismissed in this country for what were perceived to be superficial, self-important films…. He deserves better…. Preminger made intelligent, literate entertainments that were models of screen clarity.”
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