Otto Motives, A Preminger Perspective

Dennis Harvey November 30, 2006

In an ideal world, privilege ought to come hand-in-hand with kindness — but in this one, being handed a seat at the top of the heap seldom makes for a pleasant personality. Director, producer and sometime actor Otto Preminger enjoyed a pretty painless ride from well-off family circumstances to well-connected professional beginnings, which then led without great struggle to his being one of Hollywood’s biggest behind-the-camera names for several decades.

Not a lot to be pissed off about, there — yet Preminger’s persistent image over those years was that of an on-set tyrant, “the film industry’s undisputed top screamer,” with a “reputation for wringing performances out of actors as if they were dirty washing.” An anonymous colleague quoted in the early ’70s called him “vicious, sadistic, cynical, ruthless and heartless… but charming.” Fabled (if questionably true) tales of horror abound, like his encouraging Robert Mitchum to really slap femme fatale Jean Simmons during a confrontation in “Angel Face,” or allowing an out-of-control fire to practically burn “Saint Joan’s” poor Jean Seberg at the stake for real before he shouted “Cut!” Directing a group of children in “Exodus,” he reportedly shrilled “Cry, you little monsters!”

While his actors and crew no doubt failed to find the act funny, there is some evidence to suggest Preminger knew when to turn on and off this monster-auteur side, and that he quite enjoyed his enfant terrible reputation (not to mention the publicity it brought). Whether his methods were really necessary for the realism and perfectionism he strove for (though critics often argued he fell well short) is an open question.

Regardless, Preminger did deliver. For at least 25 peak years out of the 40-plus he spent in the Hollywood coal mines, he delivered popular entertainments that were profitable, often prestigious, savvy reflections of their moment in public taste and “daring” subject matter. If his artistic value remains argued over 20 years after his death — as it was during much of his career — there’s still no doubting his importance as a maverick producer, a censor-defying trailblazer, and a guy who simply refused to be ignored.
He’s the perfect example of the kind of superficially adventurous yet stylistically conservative, bottom-line-minded director Oscar loves (though his three nominations never brought a win). So it’s logical that the Rafael’s three-day Salute to Otto Preminger comes courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, showcasing four features that institution recently restored. Curiously, given the long arc of his career, they’re all from the early 1950s. Nonetheless, this quartet provides a good sense of his directorial range and character.

The 1950s through the early ’60s were Preminger’s golden years — though the ones leading up to them weren’t so shabby, either. Son of a Jewish Viennese lawyer posted high in the ebbing Hapsburg monarchy’s circles of influence, he was allowed to pursue an interest in the theater so long as he followed dad’s footsteps in getting a law degree. He did, but to the family’s disappointment was by then already waist-deep in cultural affairs — first as an actor, then as a director. He finagled an apprenticeship under legendary stage director Max Reinhardt, wasting little time before starting his own short-lived but attention-getting theater companies.

Preminger only directed one film in his native German tongue, 1931’s obscure “The Great Love.” But by the mid-‘30s he was already finding Austria too small, too bourgeoise for his ambitions — and increasingly too unfriendly, as the neighboring Nazis shoved their doctrine down Austrian throats. Only Hollywood would do. Utilizing Viennese charm as well as sheer willpower, he made significant industry contacts and by 1936 was directing modestly budgeted features for 20th Century Fox. (On a more serious note, it was his ability to make the right contacts that would also soon allow him to get his aging parents out of Europe — barely saving them from the concentration camps.)

Studio chief Darryl Zanuck was pleased with this newcomer’s rapid progress, promoting him to an “A” production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure “Kidnapped.” But Preminger didn’t like the material, and when early shooting didn’t go well, he was replaced by another director. A furious Zanuck ensured his Hollywood career was, for now, over.

Preminger revived his own fortunes by returning to the stage, where he directed some Broadway hits — notably Clare Booth’s comedy “Margin for Error,” in which he himself played a nasty Nazi. The play was a success, but he was a smash. Suddenly Zanuck wanted him back — as an actor only. Preminger held out, saying he’d repeat his role only if he could direct the 1943 film version. Sweetening the deal, he offered to do the latter job for free, and on spec — if after a few days his work proved unsatisfactory, he’d step down. But the results were immediately encouraging, getting him back into Zanuck’s good graces.

The next year, however, he became the boss’s darling for keeps. Replacing another director this time (Rouben Mamoulian), Preminger took over a little mystery called “Laura” that became one of the biggest hits of the year. It revolved around a detective’s (Dana Andrews) obsession with a missing woman (Gene Tierney) who might or might not be dead — but in any case she left fascinated nearly all the men (including Clifton Webb and Vincent Price) that knew her. A fatalistic proto-noir with a haunting story and ditto theme tune (which topped the Hit Parade), Laura made the careers of all involved. It remains one of Preminger’s best efforts.

He spent the remainder of the 1940s on an uneven miscellany of projects, including farce (“A Royal Scandal”), musicals (“Centennial Summer,” “That Lady in Ermine”), one of the better Joan Crawford sudsers (“Daisy Kenyon”), plus “Fallen Angel” and “Whirlpool,” more moody noirs.

“Laura” stars Andrews and Tierney teamed for the last of five times on another such exercise, 1950’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” the first movie in the Rafael salute. He’s a cop who takes a little too much pleasure in roughing up lowlifes. She’s a poor-but-good girl whom he meets, romances, and is ultimately redeemed by after accidentally killing her hapless ex-husband. The kind of atmospheric, emotionally dark genre piece that once looked routine but stands up very well today, “Sidewalk” is a fine example of Preminger’s attraction toward hard-boiled realism, flawed heroes, and tormented relationships between the sexes.

While Preminger was never at his best handling comedy, it was this genre that next kicked up his fortunes a notch. “The Moon is Blue,” a “naughty” hit he’d directed on Broadway, seemed both promising and impossible as screen material — wasn’t the material just too lewd to get past the censors? The lead characters (William Holden, Maggie MacNamara) openly, even flippantly used terms like “virgin” and “seduce,” which in 1953 seemed practically pornographic.

Preminger simply decided to release the film without approval (or the cuts demanded) from the industry’s powerful Breen Office, inviting court battles and church-pulpit damnation. Naturally, the scandal made for big box-office, which in turn allowed him to set up his own production company — making him in effect an “independent” from now on selling his own product to the major studios. Once shocking, “Moon” is by all reports pretty tame and tedious these days. But its Rafael showing provides a rare opportunity to see a movie that fired one of the very first rounds against the Puritan censorship codes that held Hollywood in a headlock from 1934 to the mid-late 60s.

Preminger delighted in this controversy; henceforth, many of his films would take on hot-button topics. (His own image would also get a boost from his playing a really nasty Nazi in Billy Wilder’s classic “Stalag 17” the same year as “Moon” — a “raging Hun” role he didn’t discourage the public from confusing with his real-life demeanor.)

The next year’s “Carmen Jones” (also playing the Rafael) was risky simply for being a big-studio, big-budget, full-Technicolor production with an all black cast — as required by Oscar Hammerstein II’s translation of Bizet’s opera into a contemporary African American milieu. The mix of operatic, musical theater, and dated “ethnic” character writing has faded somewhat, as has Preminger’s somewhat stodgy direction. But “Carmen Jones” remains vivid for the talents it provided a rare celluoid showcase for, including the gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge (dubbed by future opera superstar Marilyn Horne), Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters, Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll. Many of them returned five years later when Preminger was drafted (once again replacing Rouben Mamoulian) to film the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”

The fourth Rafael feature is “The Man With the Golden Arm,” which was, if anything, even more daring in taking on a subject — drug addiction — that had been forbidden from screen portrayal (or even reference) for decades. Frank Sinatra gave one of his best performances as the cleaned-up heroin addict whose recovery doesn’t last long in the face of cops and former criminal employers who won’t leave him alone. Not to mention a suffocatingly clingy wife (Eleanor Parker) so awful that she fakes being wheelchair-bound to maintain a guilt-based hold over him. Aspects of “Man” seem naïve or overly melodramatic now, but it still has a real feel for inner city squalor and hopelessness.

After that, Preminger’s films were variable, but almost always Big News — expensive, starry, often controversial “events” debated by press and public. Sometimes they flopped with both, as in the case of “Saint Joan,” a windy version of George Bernard Shaw’s play that tapped a ton of ink from its nationwide search for an unknown to play the title role. Preminger finally selected cornfed Iowa teenager Jean Seberg, badgering her into a performance almost universally derided as too shallow and all-American for the demanding part. Stubbornly, the director then cast her as French novelist Francoise Sagan’s precocious, scheming young heroine in “Bonjour Tristesse,” which wasn’t much better liked at the time but today (both as film and as star turn) seems a fine drama.

Preminger liked to play at star-maker, though his protégés often fell flat. It speaks to his loyalty, however, that they (and anyone else who withstood his punishing on-set mood swings) were often given second or third chances in his movies long after their initial career “heat” had cooled. (On the other hand, numerous major-name actors — from Paul Newman to Dyan Cannon and Faye Dunaway — outright loathed working with the autocratic director.)

The next few years were expansive ones, with Preminger making long (up to three hours), lavish pictures that were generally big box office, though they had their detractors. “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) was a juicy courtroom melodrama hinging on (possibly fraudulent) rape accusations; “Exodus” (1960) a large-scale fictionalization of Israel’s founding. “Advise & Consent” (1962) provided an “explosive” expose of Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing, while “The Cardinal” (1963) did the same for the Vatican. (It also subjected future bestselling author and lead actor Tom Tryon to an even worse critical mauling than Jean Seberg had gotten). “In Harm’s Way” was a big war epic whose star John Wayne was too imposing for even Preminger to mess with — for once, he reportedly skipped the usual on-set screaming.

Then — like a lot of old-school directors groping their way into the Brave New World of the 1960s — Preminger began to slide. Actually, he plummeted — none of his movies would find favor again.

Some were among the most notorious duds of their day: 1967’s “Hurry Sundown” was a ludicrous pulse-taking of race relations involving such unlikely Southerners as Michael Caine and Jane Fonda. “Rosebud” (1975) was a deadly “thriller” with the extremely dissipated-looking Peter O’Toole as a journalist covering the kidnapping of five millionaires’ daughters (including then-unknowns Isabelle Huppert and Kim Cattrall) by Arab terrorists. That one was written by Erik Lee Preminger, the son Otto never knew he had (until the early ’60s) by former fling and famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee — though it is significant that the film went out with no screenwriting credit at all.

In a category all its own was 1968’s “Skidoo,” a supposed counterculture comedy that managed to involve hippies, gangsters, Jackie Gleason on LSD, Carol Channing go-go dancing, and Groucho Marx as “God.” Jaws dropped around the globe at just how disastrously wrong this went — particularly thanks to Preminger’s leaden touch — and tellingly “Skidoo” has never been released to home video or DVD. But it’s so bizarro that it’s become an object of cult worship via pirated copies made from rare TV broadcasts. It must be seen to be believed — once.

By the time of 1979’s “The Human Factor,” another disappointment (despite Graham Greene source novel and Tom Stoppard screenplay), the question wasn’t “What happened to Preminger?” but “Why does he still bother?”

He didn’t, thereafter — he retired, dying of lung cancer and Alzheimer’s in 1986. He’d had three wives, countless mistresses (one of them the ill-fated Dorothy Dandridge), several children, a lot of hits, a few misses, and overall a very good run. He made some movies that have aged like fine wine, others that have aged like wine… when it goes undrinkably bad. Was he more showman than artist? A real bully or just a former actor pretending to be one? No doubt he’d be thrilled to know we still aren’t sure.

“An Academy Centennial Salute to Otto Preminger” plays Dec. 1-3 at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 4th St., San Rafael. Tickets are $6.25-9.50. (415) 454-1222.