Tuesday, January 19

The Directors: Otto Preminger

To say that this man was a challenge is a serious, multi-faceted understatement.  On the upside, without him it might have taken many more years to hack away at the censorship that stifled movies' creativity.  He also helped end the horrendous blacklist. On the downside was his behavior on film sets and his treatment of actors.  His tantrums were legendary.  He berated, belittled and insulted actors.  Some challenged him to fights, some wept, many said they'd never work with him again. 

Otto Preminger made a few great films and a number of quite splendid ones.  If he didn't start the film noir trend in America, he was certainly one of the pioneers.  Of course I was captivated by his work in this, my favorite genre.  His work showed an intelligence that focused on both objectivity and ambiguity.  He was always independent, sometimes to the consternation of his formidable boss.  One should never ignore his contribution to Hollywood, both on the screen and in the trenches.

Preminger was born in Vienna, Austria in 1906.  He and younger brother, Ingo, who would also come to America, were the sons of a prominent attorney.  The father hoped both would follow him in his profession but ultimately neither did.  Preminger became enamored of acting at a young age and could see nothing else.  After school he won a spot with the Max Reinhardt Theater while he also attended law school.  He actually obtained a law degree but would push it aside to study for his newest love, directing. 

In those early days he also began losing his hair but elected to shave it all off and keep it that way because his already imposing autocratic nature would be enhanced by the severity that baldness afforded him. 

Not long after Reinhardt elevated him to producer/director, Preminger met Joseph Schenck, the New York head of 20th Century Fox, who, impressed with Preminger's ego, boldness and certainty, offered him a job.  Preminger immediately accepted but first had a Broadway play to direct.  After that task was completed, he flew off to California, where he immediately clashed with another huge ego, Darryl F. Zanuck.  The difference, of course, was Zanuck ran the California studio.  Preminger always questioned authority and he wasn't about to let this little, cigar-chomping pipsqueak change anything.

After looking one another up and down and taking in all the gossip about the other, the two men settled in rather comfortably.  Preminger directed some minor little thing for the studio and then he and Zanuck had a bad falling out and Preminger took off for New York where he directed another play.  Then he worked as an actor, playing a Nazi, in a play.  Soon Fox beckoned and he was playing a Nazi again, in The Pied Piper.  No doubt playing a Nazi felt very natural to him.  Soon he would be nicknamed Otto the Terrible, Otto the Ogre and the Prussian. 

By 1944, his bridges mended again with Zanuck, Preminger was given the chance to direct a light comedy about a rich bride who must live as her poor GI husband does.  With the horrible title of In the Meantime, Darling (the most ill-fitting title ever for a Preminger movie), it starred Jeanne Crain whom the studio was attempting to turn into its newest screen goddess.  She was the wholesome, quiet type Preminger would come to eat for a mid-morning snack, but for some reason she escaped the kill, including in two subsequent movies they made together.

Two actors who obviously had no problem working for Preminger were Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney.  The director and the actor worked together five times and Preminger worked with Tierney four times.  The first time the trio came together was for arguably the best film any of them would ever do, Laura (1944).  I have written so much about Laura before, on the film itself and in pieces on Tierney, Andrews and Clifton Webb, that we won't go into it again here.  With the film under his belt, Preminger was even more of a force to be reckoned with.

Although Preminger was married, it was not a happy experience for either husband or wife.  The over-sexed director had many affairs.  He was known to become surly with actresses in his films who did not bed down with him.  Someone who did was lesbian stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.  Her husbands were gay as well as were most of her male friends.  But something about Preminger intrigued her and their tryst in 1944 resulted in the birth of a son.  That fact did not become known to the son until he was well into adulthood.

Flush from his meteoric success with Laura, Preminger expected the skies to open for him above Fox but instead Zanuck had him installed as just another contract director and not even an especially favored one.  He was thrown into A Royal Scandal (1945), concerning Russia's Catherine the Great, but it was more a boudoir comedy that an exercise in history.  Not a success, it may have stemmed from the fact that Preminger had zero humor.  Oddly, he and another temperamental personality, his star, Tallulah Bankhead, got along like old college chums.  They both directed their vitriol toward Fox starlet, Anne Baxter, playing a lady-in-waiting.  Preminger always had to have a whipping girl on his sets.  He called her a phony, off screen and on.

Before Dorothy Dandridge and Jean Seberg came along, Preminger's greatest attacks were directed toward another Fox starlet, Linda Darnell.  She greatly feared him but more than that hated his guts.  In time she didn't care who knew it and one who likely did was the big boss, Zanuck, since Darnell was in his office most days at 3 p.m. with the door shut.  It seems ironic that the beautiful Darnell and the gestapo-like Preminger would work together four times.

It began with 1945's Fallen Angel, a fascinating film noir which I recently discussed in my piece on Dana Andrews.  It was a tawdry tale of a drifter who takes up with a well-to-do spinster (Alice Faye) whom he doesn't love while cavorting with a trampy waitress (Darnell) whom he does love.  Frankly, Darnell was the best thing about the film and while Preminger certainly had a lot to do with that, he would get the performance out of her by constantly berating her in front of others.    Preminger was at the top of his game but unfortunately, the film was not a success.

The following year's Centennial Summer was not either.  Here we have a romance-musical, a format the director was not really right for.  It was Fox's attempt to duplicate the success of MGMs Meet Me in St. Louis.  Sisters Darnell and Crain were no match for Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien.  It has been suggested that Preminger is a great deal of the reason Darnell began her life-long love affair with the bottle.  She was terrified of him.

The following year, director and star were thrown back together in Forever Amber.  Zanuck had high hopes for the filming of Kathleen Winsor's naughty novel of 17th-century England and the country girl who wants to become nobility.  There are reams of paper on what went wrong on this film and wrong it was... from nearly every angle.  Preminger was forced to direct it and did so with an attitude.  After the leading actress was fired from the production, she was replaced with a newly-blonded Darnell, which made the director more furious.  Leading man, Cornel Wilde, who had worked with both in Centennial Summer, took Preminger aside and threatened him in some manner to lay off the flighty Darnell.  All the actors seemed miscast and the story unfolding on the screen just never seemed to come together.

Old reliable Andrews and the formidable Joan Crawford joined Preminger for Daisy Kenyon (1947) with its love triangle theme.  It may not be at the top of anyone's list but it was a decent film with truthful performances.  The Fan (1949), a reworking of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan, I quite enjoyed but it was not a success.  Preminger loved beautiful women and he certainly hit the bull's-eye with Crain and Madeleine Carroll in her final screen appearance.

Luckily, Preminger returned to his best genre, film noir, and to Gene Tierney for his next two films.  Whirlpool (1949) concerns a psychiatrist's wife who falls under the spell of a quack hypnotist.  While a lesser star in the Preminger galaxy, it still has moments of deft touches.  One piece of brilliance is character actor, Charles Bickford, who performed so well for Preminger in Fallen Angel

Andrews and Tierney both joined up for Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Andrews is again a cop but this time a troubled one with an attitude problem.  Preminger sure knew his way around film noir.  He was as dark and moody as the genre claimed to be.

On the Angel Face set with his stars

He made a perverse little film noir in 1952 called Angel Face which I loved and still do.  It concerns a rich girl who murders her father and stepmother while lusting for the family chauffeur whom she involves in her schemes.  It introduced Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum to my world, a circumstance that makes me happy to this day.  Simmons was enraged at the film's producer, Howard Hughes, over contract issues and was not in the best of moods.  Hughes enlisted Preminger to make her life difficult, which he was only too happy to do, and she grew to dislike him, too.  There was a scene in which Mitchum was to slap Simmons and Preminger thought the actor was being too soft on her so he had Mitchum slap her over and over.  Finally, fed up with it all, Mitchum slapped Preminger as hard as he could.  Is that how you want it done, Otto, the actor teased?

The fifties would be quite the decade for the bad boy director.  He was tired of the Hollywood status quo.  He hated the censorship and the blacklist and all the fear.  He thought studio heads and producers needed to man up, to borrow an expression of today.  When they didn't, he took matters into his own hands.  If it backfired on him, he was ready to kiss the movies goodbye and return to Broadway.  He wanted to open up all the closets and let out the taboos.  In due time he would make films on drug use, rape and homosexuality and anything else that he possibly could.

It started in 1953 with The Moon Is Blue.  The production code folks found the language too blue.  Words such a seduce, virgin and pregnant gave them a serious case of the vapors.  They refused to issue the sought-after seal of approval.  Without it, theater-owners would not show films.  The Moon Is Blue changed all that.  Preminger dug his heels in and won.  To this day, we owe Preminger a debt of gratitude.  Movies grew up.

The funny thing is The Moon Is Blue might have passed unnoticed because, despite stars like William Holden and David Niven, it's a silly, rather ridiculous movie.  Two older cads try to put the make on a naïve young woman, played by newcomer Maggie McNamara.  The following year she would become more famous as one of the trio in Three Coins in the Fountain.  On this film, Preminger made life very difficult for her.

He also made life very difficult for Marilyn Monroe the next year on River of No Return, Preminger's only western.  He seems such an odd choice for a western but despite how everyone on the film felt, I loved it.  Monroe?  Mitchum?  The Canadian Rockies?  Come on!  Preminger, like many directors, loathed the fact that MM had her ever-present drama coach on the set.  She wouldn't accept Preminger's direction unless her coach approved.  The actress and the director had screaming tantrums with one another.  He could only get his way by pushing her relentlessly, so much so that she broke her foot in a scene.  He didn't care.  She would say until the end of her life how much she hated him and the film.

African-Americans and opera occupied special places in Preminger's heart, despite the fact the many in Hollywood didn't think he had one.  Dorothy Dandridge ultimately would agree.  But in 1953 Preminger began putting together Carmen Jones, a reworking of the Bizet opera, Carmen.  He would have an all-black cast but not before he peddled his project to every studio in town, none of whom wanted anything to do with it.  Finally Zanuck agreed to take it on but Preminger would have his first taste of being an independent producer in addition to his directing chores.

Carmen Jones was a worker at a parachute factory.  Sexy as they come, she falls for an equally hot coworker whom she steals away from his innocent girlfriend.  Once the two are heavily into one another, she leaves him for another man.  The censors were again concerned that Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and all the other black performers would inject a little too much sex into the proceedings and Preminger had a rough go.  Of course, he won and Carmen Jones was released almost as Preminger wanted it.

Remembering that this is opera, both Dandridge and Belafonte, most accomplished singers, had their singing voices dubbed.  It seems too strange but opera voices they were not.  Preminger was hard on the entire cast and almost got into a fist fight with actor Brock Peters (the defendant, Tom, in To Kill a Mockingbird) and others.  He was rough on Dandridge, but not as much as he had been with actresses on other films or as much as he would be for their next pairing.  Carmen Jones would showcase Dandridge as no black actress ever had been and she would receive an Oscar nomination for best actress, a first.

Despite Preminger still being married, it had become an agreed-upon open relationship and he began a four-year affair with Dandridge.  It may not have been a good move for her career-wise and it certainly was quite damaging to her psyche.

Twirling Dorothy Dandridge around the floor

His 1955 movie with Gary Cooper, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, was not so successful, but the same year's The Man with the Golden Arm was a stunning success.  The fetid netherworld of druggies and drug-dealers had never been so blistering in its presentation and in 1955 no one could have given life to this script quite like Preminger.  The human wreckage of the lead character was magnificently played by Frank Sinatra.  His drying-out scene was arguably the most harrowing scene of its kind up to that time.  It's amazing that Sinatra, just as hellish on movie sets as his director, didn't come to blows with Preminger.  And it's equally amazing that Preminger didn't torture the nervous Kim Novak as he did with actresses like her, but it, too, was a good relationship.

In the late 1950s Preminger became obsessed with filming a story on Joan of Arc.  He determined a teenager would play the part and she would be a newcomer.  He decided to launch a worldwide search for the perfect girl.  When he came across blonde corn-fed, fresh-faced Jean Seberg from Iowa, he knew he'd found his Saint Joan (1957).  His treatment of the young neophyte is the stuff of Hollywood legend and detailed in my earlier piece on the actress.  He seemed to have a fixation on humiliating and torturing skittish actresses, all those who couldn't stand up to him.  He pounced on weakness.  It's been said his treatment of Seberg forever hampered her as an actress and a woman.  To add to everyone's woes, the film was a flop. 

Preminger, however, had signed Seberg to an exclusive contract and therefore hired her to star in Bonjour Tristesse (1958).  A delightful treatment of the Françoise Sagan novel, it concerned a teenager living with her playboy father in a villa on the French Riviera who is determined to bust up his newest romance.  Costarring David Niven and Deborah Kerr, it also didn't do very well although I think it's more highly-regarded now.  He handled Seberg harshly during the filming and dropped her contract when filming was completed.

At the source of his problems with Seberg on Bonjour Tristesse was that she had taken a boyfriend.  He was, of course, enamored of her (apparently he liked to watch her take baths) and then became coarse and punitive when he realized she was involved with someone.  Because he discovered Seberg, he, of course, thought he owned her.

At a premier with Jean Seberg

Much the same would happen to Dandridge when she signed on to costar with Sidney Poitier in Porgy and Bess (1959).  Her romantic involvement with Preminger had by this time ended.  The operatic story (by George Gershwin) of a crippled beggar and a whore in the black fishing community of Charleston, South Carolina, seemed like a worthy successor to Carmen Jones.  It began production under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian, who was fired, and Preminger took over.  (That same scenario had happened on Laura as well.)  Preminger was rough on most of the cast but his muscle was specifically directed at Dandridge and she collapsed under the weight.

Porgy and Bess became Preminger's third miss in a row... the death knell in Hollywood.  But he rebounded in a big way with Anatomy of a Murder (1959), one of the best trial movies ever.  The censors were snapping at his heels again because of the audacious language that centered around rape.  Oddly, considering the grim subject matter, everyone regarded the shoot as rather charmed.  Preminger was on his best behavior with James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott and Eve Arden.   

Exodus (1960) brought about one of Preminger's great moments of courage.  After having a devil of a time with the script, he hired blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo, insisting he use his own name instead of a pseudonym as he had been doing.  Preminger also married again during this production which should have put him in a good mood.  It may have been too gargantuan of a project for him.  In addition to script problems, he had problems with the Israeli government and he took a lot of heat over factual distortions. 

It didn't help that he had problems with some of his actors.  He loathed the Actor's Studio and how it taught students and yet three of them were starring in the film, Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J. Cobb.  Particularly corrosive was his relationship with Newman, who could be icy and petulant when he didn't get his way and he wanted script changes which Preminger wouldn't allow.  The two men barely spoke throughout the long filming.

The remainder of his films varied in quality but clearly his best days were behind him.  Advise and Consent (1962), a story of Washington hijinks with a dab of homosexuality thrown in, was a friction-free set.  Preminger then turned his attention to the Catholic church for The Cardinal (1963).  It and his next film, In Harm's Way (1965) are most famous in Hollywood circles for his blistering treatment of Tom Tryon.  Preminger regarded him as being weak so the actor got the director's standard gestapo treatment.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) was not as good as one would have hoped for but it's more noted for Laurence Olivier's public rants that Preminger was a very cruel director.  I enjoyed Hurry Sundown (1967) for its southern sensibilities but it became noted for its battleground involving Preminger and Faye Dunaway, for once not a weakling he so favored.  He apparently claimed he never hated an actor as much as he hated her.  Of course, he hadn't yet made Such Good Friends.

Skidoo (1969) with Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Frankie Avalon, is not only the worst movie Preminger ever made but could possibly be the worst movie anyone ever made.  Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) demonstrated that Preminger was worn out.  Such Good Friends (1971), about extra-marital affairs, was a snoozer but his out-and-out war with Dyan Cannon set Hollywood tongues wagging.  She, too, was no wilting violet, and Preminger's venom for her never dissipated.  Costar Jennifer O'Neill apparently found the director unkind.

Rosebud (1975) was a convoluted mess about a terrorist group that captures a millionaire's yacht with his five daughters on board.  It was an ill-conceived project, certainly not up to par with the Otto of the old days.  There were numerous casting problems as Preminger saw it.  He said to actress Kim Cattrall... Darling, you remind me of Marilyn Monroe.  Not in looks, of course, but in lack of talent.  And he fired leading man Robert Mitchum because the actor was drunk all the time.  He was replaced by Peter O'Toole (who was sober?).  His last film, the bleak The Human Factor (1979), quickly left theaters.

While suffering from Alzheimer's, Preminger died of lung cancer at age 80 in New York in 1986.

His career spanned five decades and contains some wonderful films, particularly in film noir.  I regard Laura as one of the finest films ever made.  He made some astonishing contributions to the film industry in terms of censorship but of course will sadly be remembered for being a bully.

Next posting:
20th Century Fox's most wholesome star


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