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Otto Preminger: The Taboo Breaker

Otto Preminger: The Taboo Breaker

Austria has a really good history of actors, writers, and directors who come abroad to Hollywood. There was Erich von Stroheim, whose perfectionism roiled everyone, but his work would be validated decades later. Billy Wilder fled over from Nazi Germany and quickly set himself up to be one of the finest writer-director-producers ever with his range from comedy to melodrama to film noir, winning six Oscars in the process. Two more of Austria’s exports, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Christoph Waltz have continued the tradition of bringing their European sensibilities – and their accents – over to the U.S. But there was one person who challenged Hollywood’s Production code and will to talk about the series subjects out in the open, contrasting the family-friendly world in the 1950s.

Otto Ludwig Preminger was born on December 5, 1905, in what is now the town of Vyzhnytsiain in Ukraine. Until the First World War, it was called Wischnitz in the old Austria-Hungry empire. His younger brother was Ingwald “Ingo” Preminger, who would also get in the film business, first as an agent, then as a producer. Ingo’s most noted film was M*A*S*H, which was written by his former client, Ring Lardner Jr. Another client of his was blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who Otto would approach at a crucial point in their careers. The Preminger’s left Wischnitz when the First World War commenced, heading to Vienna for safety. Here, Otto would do most of his studies and became interested in the theatre during his teen years. In the twenties, Preminger worked in theatre and became a director himself, working on plays with provocative subjects he would return to in his filmmaking.
Image result for The Great Love otto Preminger
But at the same time, the twenty-something Preminger knew nothing about movies, so when he was approached in 1930 to direct an adaptation of the play, The Great Love, for the screen, he was surprised to have been asked. Still, Preminger accepted the job because it was something to do while the theater was closed for the summer. The Great Love received positive reviews from critics and fans alike, although Preminger saw it as amateurish compared to his later works. Preminger went back to directing plays when, in 1935, he received an invitation by Joseph Schenck, co-founder of the newly formed 20th Century Fox, to meet him in person. Schenck, scouting new talent in all film-related professions to bring back to Hollywood, convinced Preminger in thirty minutes to move to Hollywood and become a film director. The first two films were B-pictures and were, at best, tepid, but Preminger was hired for a big-budget film called Kidnapped in 1937. He reluctantly took the job even though he did not understand the story and simply shot what was on the page. But Darryl F. Zanuck was not happy with what Preminger had done and fired him from the picture and the studio.
Back in New York City, Preminger would direct a successful string of plays and even a part-time directing gig at Yale when he got a second chance at 20th Century Fox. This time, with Zanuck in the Army during World War II, interim studio head William Goetz brought back Preminger to direct the film version of Margin For Error, based on the play Preminger directed and starred in. Goetz would sign him to a contract as both director and actor, sweetened by Preminger being allowed to serve as his own producer. His first breakthrough was 1944’s Laura starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, which earned Preminger his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. The rest of the 1940s brought in mixed reviews for his work, as well as more conflict with Zanuck, who accepted his return but still mistrusted his judgment on casting and script changes. Yet, one of those films, Forever Amber, a film Preminger was asked to finish after the original director was fired (in a reverse from Kidnapped), the film was condemned by the powerful Catholic Legion of Decency condemned it for what they saw as celebrating a promiscuous woman giving birth to a child unmarried. This gave Preminger ideas for his future films at challenging these taboos.
Preminger believed, in the changing times, that movies could and should confront these realities Hollywood censorship, the newly formed blacklist, and the Legion of Decency wanted to keep off the screen. In 1953, Preminger released the comedy The Moon Is Blue without the Production Code’s seal of approval because of, “an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity, and virginity.” Two years later, The Man With The Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra portrayed the struggle of drug addiction (although not named, it is implied to be heroin) that, knowing it wouldn’t get the seal of approval either, Preminger released it straight away instead of viewing it for the censors. The film was successful critically and commercially.
1959’s Anatomy Of A Murder starred James Stewart as a defense lawyer for an Army Lieutenant charged with murder after learning his victim had raped his wife. Based on true events, the courtroom drama uses language regarding the rape in terms mild today, but harsh for public hearing back then. This time, it was given the seal of approval and is considered a key moment for when the Production Code was ending, as well as receiving an Oscar nod for Best Picture. Playing the judge of the trial was Joseph Welch, the lawyer who successfully challenged McCarthyism and brought down the infamous Senator who accused many figures of the government of communist sympathies. Another film, 1962’s Advise & Consent, starred Henry Fonda as the nominee for Secretary of State who is scrutinized heavily by the Senate and its President pro tempore, played by Charles Laughton. When the nominee commits perjury, his sketchy past is discovered, including an alleged homosexual relationship which was mostly illegal back then.
During this successful period, Preminger’s personal life was caught in between his professional work. In 1954, he directed Carmen Jones, a modern musical adaptation of the opera Carmen, starring Dorothy Dandridge. Preminger and Dandrige would start an affair lasting four years, during which Preminger told her to turn down The King & I, something she regretted later. Dandridge also found herself pregnant by him, but the studio paid for an abortion. For Carmen Jones, Dandridge became the first woman-of-color to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (Lead). In 1957’s Saint Joan, Preminger cast the unknown Jean Seberg in the lead role and personally sculpted the film to make her performance the biggest breakthrough Hollywood had ever seen. The film, and Seberg’s performance, was panned heavily.
Seberg was then cast in Preminger’s next film, Bonjour Tristesse, and while shooting in France, she met her first husband. The film received mixed reviews, but Seberg’s performance was praised by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, setting up Seberg to become a key fixture in the French New Wave. One other key event with Preminger was, after finishing Anatomy Of A Murder, his announcement that his next film, Exodus, would be written by Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo had been blacklisted years before for his communist beliefs, as noted in the biographical film about him, and features a scene in where Preminger goes home and pitches him the book. This, plus Kirk Douglas also announcing Trumbo as the screenwriter for Spartacus, ended the blacklist and brought back those who had the write under pseudonyms or went to Europe for work. One of them was Ring Lardner Jr., who co-wrote Forever Amber before his blacklisting.
The rest of Preminger’s career after Advise cooled down, starting with the thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing starring Lawrence Olivier, which had mixed reactions but has been reappraised as Preminger’s last masterpiece. His later films through the 70s were flops and received negatively, ending with his last release, The Human Factor, in 1979. In between, he played Mr. Freeze in two episodes of Batman, plus provided his voice for the TV movie The Hobbit. Retiring in New York, Otto Preminger died of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease on April 23, 1986, aged 80. He was survived by his son, Eric, the product of an affair between Preminger and burlesque dancer Gypsy Lee Rose, who would provide the story for the famous musical, Gypsy. Today, his legacy is in the vault with the Academy Film Archive and currently on the Criterion Channel.
Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)

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