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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 518

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This is the grave of Otto Preminger.

Born in 1905 to a wealthy and powerful Jewish family in modern Ukraine, where his father was a prominent legal official in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Preminger didn’t stay there too long. In World War I, Russia invaded and took over his town. The Preminger family fled to modern Austria, where Preminger’s father got a job as a prosecutor in Graz. His father was actually offered the top legal position in the entire empire, but only if he converted to Catholicism. He refused.

After the war, Preminger plunged into the Vienna theater scene. He became an apprentice to the director Max Rhinehart in 1924 and starred in minor roles in several of his plays. Preminger started directing his own plays in 1925 and became one of the leading theatre directors of the late 20s. In 1930, an industrialist asked if Preminger would direct a film. Preminger didn’t particularly like the movies. But the money was good, so he agreed. It went well and he moved into that genre, directing several relatively minor German language films.

In 1935, Joseph Schenck and Darryl Zanuck were touring Europe to find quality directors they could bring to Hollywood. Having seen some of Preminger’s films, they targeted him. He agreed. His first couple of Hollywood films were minor productions. This was the studio system after all and a relatively new director from Austria did not get to pick his own material. But in 1937, Zanuck tapped him to direct Kidnapped, which was to be the most expensive Twentieth-Century Fox film made. But Zanuck and Preminger got into a huge fight in the middle of its production and the director was fired. Two years after coming to the U.S., he was unemployed.

Preminger was still a pretty big name in the theatre from his time in Austria, so he moved to New York and found a lot of work on Broadway, building up his own reputation as a major director. Some of his biggest productions were My Dear Children with John and Elaine Barrymore and Outward Bound with Vincent Price and Laurette Taylor. He himself found work acting as a Nazi in some comedies. Yale also came calling and he taught drama in New Haven twice a week. Also, because he became friends with Tallulah Bankhead, daughter of the Speaker of the House, Preminger got his family out of Austria before the Nazis could kill them all.

In 1942, Fox came calling again. Zanuck still hated him but had joined the military in World War II. William Goetz was running the studio for awhile. Preminger decided he would try the movies once more and sought to develop a big-time project while Zanuck was away. That was Laura. What an astoundingly great film, the first of his many great films with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney and also notably starring a great Vincent Price. Zanuck returned before its production and kicked Preminger out of the director’s chair. But Rouben Mamoulian was a disaster and the casting was all messed up. Somehow, Preminger actually got Zanuck to see straight and he again became director, with lots of control over production. The film was of course fabulously successful, earned Preminger a Best Director nomination, and gave him a little more control over his career.

But Zanuck did still hate him and still controlled which films he would create. He had to take over for an ailing Ernst Lubitsch on a remake of the old master’s Forbidden Paradise. The film did OK, but not great. Preminger got to make Fallen Angel in 1945, a good film with Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell. Zanuck then forced him to make Forever Amber, based on a slightly controversial book that the studio head wanted to make to exploit the headlines and make a big star out of whoever got the lead role. But the movie was bad. Preminger said it was “the most expensive picture I ever made and it was also the worst.”

The deal Preminger made with Zanuck was that if he made Forever Amber, he could then go on to make Daisy Kenyon. This is another astounding film, one of the best of the late 40s. Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, and Dana Andrews made for a high-powered and incredibly talented cast, all at the peak of their careers. Not every film Preminger made in the aftermath was great. His overall record is a bit mixed. But, and I guess this isn’t surprising for someone who came out of post-World War I Europe, he had no patience for the taboos and fears of America. So he routinely challenged conventions, the Catholic League of Decency, and all the other fearmongers of America. When he made The Moon is Blue in 1953, the Catholic League called for a boycott because the words “virgin” and “pregnant” were used. 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm was the first Hollywood film about heroin addiction. Even when he wasn’t pushing the envelope socially, he was making really solid films. A personal favorite is 1950s’s noir Where the Sidewalk Ends, another of his great uses of Dana Andrews, along with Gene Tierney and Karl Malden.

Then there was 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, possibly Preminger’s greatest film. This also got plenty of anger from the “decency” committee for its frank discussion of rape. With words such as “sperm” and “sexual climax” heard in a film for the first time in American history, the Catholic League nearly fainted. In fact, Preminger refused to make any more than one change–from “penetration” to “violation.” With his power, he could do that. This is widely seen as the first major blow to the production code, which would be completely gone within a decade. The idea that Jimmy Stewart of all people would star in some salacious film is ridiculous, but then look at the people we are talking about here. Preminger could do this because he took nothing from anyone, which also gave him a reputation as a bully and mostly actors hated him, including Laurence Olivier, who wrote about this in his autobiography.

Preminger continued working. He directed Porgy and Bess in 1959 that I know best from the Miles Davis soundtrack. I’ve never seen 1960’s Exodus and at 3 1/2 hours I doubt I want to, though I know it was a very personal project for Preminger being about the founding of Israel. Moreover, this film is notable because Preminger revived Dalton Trumbo’s blacklisted career for the screenplay.Advise and Consent came in 1962 and The Cardinal in 1963. Preminger received his second Academy Award nomination for the latter. It seems to be mostly forgotten today. I haven’t seen it in any case. Bunny Lake is Missing came out in 1965. That was probably his last major film. His late-career films were pretty much all flops. He was now behind the times. In 1967, he decided he would challenge southern racial relations and Hurry Sundown, but the casting of Michael Caine as a southerner was widely derided and the film was a commercial disaster. He then tried to make a hip 60s comedy. This was Skidoo. It was Groucho Marx’s last film. It was also seen as horrible. His last film was 1979’s The Human Factor, an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel. The studio barely bothered to promote it.

Preminger’s personal life was tempestuous. His marriage was a disaster, but he and his wife came to an amicable separation that included her appearing in public with him but nothing more. They were both free to carry on their own affairs. He had an affair with Gypsy Rose Lee that led to a son. He also dated Dorothy Dandridge for four years, during which he advised her to turn down the leading female role in The King and I, a very bad idea that she later regretted.

Preminger died in 1986 of lung cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Otto Preminger is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like me to profile more of the great film directors of the mid-twentieth century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Ford is in Ladera Heights, California and Billy Wilder is in Los Angeles. Honestly, one trip to the LA area would keep this series going forever. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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