Otto Ludwig Preminger (5 December 1905 – 23 April 1986) was an Austro–Hungarian-American theatre and film director.
After moving from the theatre to Hollywood, he directed over 35 feature films in a five-decade career. He rose to prominence for stylish film noirmysteries such as Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945). In the 1950s and 1960s, he directed a number of high-profile adaptations of popular novels and stage works. Several of these pushed the boundaries of censorship by dealing with topics which were then taboo in Hollywood, such as drug addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955), rape (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) and homosexuality (Advise & Consent, 1962). He was twice nominated for the Best Director Academy Award. He also had a few acting roles.
Preminger was born in 1905 in Wiznitz (Vyzhnytsia), a town west of Czernowitz, northern Bukovyna, in today's Ukraine, then part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, into a Jewish family. His parents were Josefa (née Fraenkel) and Markus Preminger. Preminger's father was born in 1877 inGalicia, at a time when it was part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire. As an Attorney General of Austria–Hungary, Markus was a proud public prosecutor on the cusp of an extraordinary career defending the interests of the Emperor Franz Josef. The couple provided a stable home life for Preminger and his brother Ingo.
"My father believed that it was impossible to be too kind or too loving to a child. He never punished me. When there were problems he sat down and discussed them with me reasonably, as though I was an adult. I don't think my mother agreed completely with this method but she acted, as always, according to his wishes. I adored him. I had an affectionate relationship with my mother; she was a wonderful, warm-hearted woman, but she did not really play a large part in the formation of my character. Intellectually my father influenced me more than my mother."
After the assassination in 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, which led to the Great War, Russia entered the war on the Serbian side. Like other refugees in flight, Markus Preminger saw Austria as a safe haven for his family. He was able to secure a job as a public prosecutor in Graz, capital of the Austrian province of Styria. Preminger prosecuted nationalist Serbs and Croats who had been imprisoned as suspected enemies of the Empire. When the Preminger family relocated, Otto was nearly nine, and was enrolled in a school where instruction in Catholic dogma was mandatory and Jewish history and religion had no place on the syllabus. Ingo, not yet four, remained at home.
After a year in Graz, the decisive public prosecutor was summoned to Vienna, where he was offered an eminent position, roughly equivalent to that of the United States Attorney General. Markus was told that the position would be his only if he converted to Catholicism. In a gesture of defiance and self-assertion, Markus refused. He received the position anyway. In 1915, Markus relocated his family to Vienna, the city that Otto later claimed to have been born in. Although now working for the emperor, Markus was a government official, respectable, but not part of the highly-prized inner city. As a result, the family started their new lives with rather modest quarters. Vienna was still an imperial capital with an array of cultural offerings that tempted Otto, at ten already incurably stagestruck.
Preminger's first theatrical ambition was to become an actor. In his early teens, Otto was able to recite from memory many of the great monologues from the international classic repertory, and, never shy, he demanded an audience. Preminger's most successful performance in the National Library rotunda was Mark Antony's funeral oration from Julius Caesar. As he read, watched, and after a fashion, began to produce plays, he started to miss more and more classes of school. Austria's failing fortunes during the war had no impact on the Premingers. Markus moved his family to a more fashionable district in 1916.
As the war came to an end, Markus formed his own law practice. Markus instilled in both his sons a sense of fair play as well as respect for those with opposing view-points. As his father's practice continued to thrive in post-war Vienna, Otto began seriously contemplating a career in the theater.
In 1923, when Preminger was seventeen, his soon-to-be mentor, Max Reinhardt, the renowned Viennese-born director who had established his base of operation in Berlin, announced plans to establish a theatrical company in Vienna in a rundown 135-year old theater. Reinhardt's announcement was seen as a call of destiny to Preminger. He began writing to Reinhardt weekly, requesting an audition. After a few months, Preminger, frustrated, gave up, and stopped his daily visit to the post office to check for a response. Unbeknownst to him, a letter was waiting with a date for an audition Preminger had already missed by two days. Feigning illness, Preminger skipped classes and began to hover near the stage door hoping to encounter Reinhardt associate Dr. Stefan Hock, begging for another audition.
Preminger explained to his father that a career in theater was not just a ploy to excuse himself from school. This was a way of life, and it was the only one he wanted. In order to obtain his father's full blessing, Preminger finished school and completed the study of law at the University of Vienna. He juggled a commitment to the University and his new position as a Reinhardt apprentice. The two developed a mentor-and-protege relationship, becoming both a confidant and teacher. When the theater opened, on April 1, 1924, Preminger appeared as a furniture mover in Reinhardt's comedia staging of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. His next, and more substantial appearance came late in the next month with William Dieterle (who would also later move to Hollywood) in The Merchant of Venice. Other notable alumni who Preminger would work with the same year were Mady Christians, who committed suicide after having been blacklisted during the McCarthy era in Hollywood, and Nora Gregor, who was to star in Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939).
Reinhardt may have had reservations about Preminger's acting but he quickly detected the young man's abilities as an administrator. He appointed Preminger as an assistant in the Reinhardt acting school that opened in the theater at Schönbrunn, the former summer palace of the emperor. The following summer, a frustrated Preminger was no longer content to occupy the place of a subordinate and he decided to leave the Reinhardt fold. His status as a Reinhardt muse gave him an edge over much of his competition when it came to joining German-speaking theater.
His first theater assignments as a director in Aussig were plays ranging from the sexually provocative Lulu, and from Berlin he imported Roar China, a pro-Communist agitprop. Preminger displayed pleasure in discovering new talent, but also created pitfalls with his unruly temper and disdain for directorial collaborations.
In 1930, a wealthy industrialist from Graz approached the rising young theater director with an offer to direct a film called Die große Liebe (The Great Love). Preminger did not have the same passion for the medium as he had for theater. He accepted the assignment nonetheless. The film premiered at the Emperor Theater in Vienna on 21 December 1931, to strong reviews and business. From 1931-1935, Preminger directed twenty-six shows. Among the performers he hired were Lili Darvas, Lilia Skala, Harry Horner, Oskar Karlweis, Albert Bassermann, and Luise Rainer, who was to win back-to-back Academy Awards in 1936 and 1937.
It was not until the spring of 1931 that Preminger's carefree bachelor lifestyle was threatened when he met a Hungarian woman named Marion Mill. The couple married soon afterwards in the summer of 1932 in a plain ceremony on the bride's birthday, August 3, only thirty minutes after her divorce from her first husband had been finalized. The couple moved into an apartment of their own. Preminger immediately informed his wife that she could not pursue a theatrical career.
In April 1935, as Preminger was rehearsing a boulevard farce, The King with an Umbrella, he received a summons from American film producer Joseph Schenck to a five o'clock meeting at the Imperial Hotel. Schenck and partner, Darryl F. Zanuck, co-founders of Twentieth Century-Fox, were on the lookout for new talent. Within a half-hour of meeting Schenck, Preminger accepted an invitation to work for Fox in Los Angeles.
Sam Spiegel accompanied Preminger from Vienna to Paris by train. From Paris, Preminger on his own took another train to Le Havre, where he joined up with Gilbert Miller and his wife, Kitty, who sailed with him to New York in Normandie. Normandie arrived in New York on October 21, 1935. Upon the Premingers' arrival in Hollywood, Schenck introduced the couple to M-G-M's array of movie royalty, including Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo.
Preminger's first assignment was to direct a vehicle for Lawrence Tibbett, who Zanuck wanted to get rid of. Preminger worked efficiently, completing the film well within the budget and well before the scheduled shooting deadline. The film opened to tepid notices in November 1936. Preminger, proving to Zanuck's satisfaction that he was not a typical rebellious European hotshot, graduated.
Zanuck promoted him to the A-list, assigning him a story called Nancy Steele Is Missing, which was to star Wallace Beery, who had recently won an Academy Award for The Champ. Beery, however, refused to do the film, saying, "I won't do a picture with a director whose name I can't pronounce". Zanuck instead gave Preminger the task of directing another B-picture comedy calledDanger - Love at Work. French starlet Simone Simon was cast in the lead but was later fired by Zanuck and replaced with Ann Sothern. The premise told the story of a lawyer who must persuade eight members of an eccentric rich family to hand over land left them by their grandfather to a corporation for development. Reviews of the disposable farce, released in September 1937, were surprisingly pleasant.
In November 1937, Zanuck's perennial emissary Gregory Ratoff brought Preminger news Zanuck had chosen him to direct Kidnapped, the most expensive feature to date for the studio. Zanuck himself had adapted the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, set in the Scottish Highlands. After reading Zanuck's script, Preminger knew he was in trouble; a foreign director directing in a foreign setting? During the shooting of Kidnapped Preminger had the first of his notorious tantrums. While screening footage of the film to Zanuck, the studio head accused Preminger of making changes in a scene between child actor Freddie Bartholomew and a dog. Preminger, composed at first, explained he had shot the scene exactly as written. Zanuck insisted he knew his own script. The confrontation escalated and ended with Preminger exiting the office and slamming the door. Days later the lock to Preminger's office was changed and his name was removed from the door. After his parking space was relocated to a remote spot, Preminger stopped going to the studio. At that point, an official of Zanuck's offered Preminger a buyout deal which he rejected: Preminger wanted to be paid for the remaining eleven months of his two-year contract. Preminger searched for work at other studios, but received no offers. Only two years after his arrival in Hollywood, Preminger was unemployed. He focused on the stage with great success. Success came quickly on Broadway for Preminger, with long-running productions including Outward Bound with Laurette Taylor and Vincent Price, My Dear Children with John and Elaine Barrymore and Margin for Error, in which Preminger played a shiny-domed villainous Nazi.
A week after the opening of Margin, Preminger was offered a teaching position at the Yale School of Drama. He began commuting twice a week to Yale to lecture on directing and acting. Nunnally Johnson, a Hollywood writer impressed with Preminger's performance in Margin, called to ask if he would be interested in playing another Nazi in a film called The Pied Piper. In need of money, Preminger accepted on the spot. The film was to be made for Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio which had banished him. Even in the absence of Zanuck, who joined the Army after Pearl Harbor, Preminger did not expect to remain in Hollywood. After collecting a sizable salary for his work, Preminger was preparing to return to New York when his agent informed him Fox wanted him to reprise his role in the upcoming film adaptation of Margin for Error. Famed director Ernst Lubitsch was set to direct and Preminger was to appear onscreen with Joan Bennett and Milton Berle. Lubitsch withdrew not long after production began and Preminger saw his chance to gain back what he had lost in his falling-out with Zanuck, a chance to direct again. William Goetz, who was running Fox in Zanuck's absence, was persuaded by Preminger and took the bait.
With the script of Margin in shambles, Preminger hired a movie novice named Samuel Fuller, who was on leave from the Army, to rework the entire script. Goetz was soon impressed with his views of the dailies each night and offered Preminger a new seven-year contract calling on his services as both a director and actor. Preminger took full measure of the temporary studio czar and accepted. Preminger completed production on schedule with a slightly increased budget in November 1942. Critics were dismissive upon the film's release the following February, noting the bad timing of the release, coinciding with the war.
Before his next assignment with Fox, Preminger was asked by movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn to appear as a Nazi yet again, this time in a Bob Hope comedy called They Got Me Covered. Preminger hoped to find possible properties he could develop before Zanuck's return, one of which was Vera Caspary's suspense novel Laura. Before production would begin on Laura, Preminger was given the green light to direct and to produce Army Wives. Army Wives was another B-picture morale booster for a country at war, showing the sacrifices made by women as they send their husbands off to the frontlines. Cast in the lead was Jeanne Crain, a contract star for Fox who was being groomed for the A-list. Veteran character actor Eugene Pallette played Crain's father. Preminger clashed with Pallette and claimed he was "an admirer of Hitler and convinced that Germany would win the war". Pallete also refused to sit down at the same table with a black actor in a scene set in a kitchen. Preminger furiously informed Zanuck, who fired the actor, whose scenes had already been shot. Army Wives was given a new title, In the Meantime, Darling, and opened in September 1944, with an estimated budget of $450,000. Aside from the incident with Pallette, no other complications arose during the filming; the hurdles would instead come soon after during the shooting of Laura.
Zanuck returned from the armed services with his grudge against Preminger intact. Although he had been forgiven by Zanuck, Preminger was not granted permission to direct Laura, but only allowed to produce the picture. Instead, Rouben Mamoulian would direct. Mamoulian began ignoring his producer and even started to rewrite the script. Although Preminger had no complaints about the casting of Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, he balked at their choice for Waldo: Laird Cregar. Preminger explained to Zanuck that audiences would immediately identify Cregar as a villain, especially after Cregar's role as Jack the Ripper a year earlier in The Lodger. Preminger instead was ideally taken by stage actor Clifton Webb. Even after Zanuck made crude remarks about Webb's homosexuality, Preminger persuaded his boss to at least give Webb a screen test. The persuasion paid off and Webb was cast (and earned a long-term Fox contract), and Mamoulian was fired for creative differences.
Laura started filming on April 27, 1944, with a projected budget of $849,000. After Preminger took over, the film continued shooting well into late June. The film was an instant hit with audiences and critics alike, earning Preminger his first Academy Award nomination for direction, Clifton Webb a Best Supporting Actor nomination and Lyle Wheeler an art direction nomination. Joseph La Shelle won the Academy Award for his cinematography. The film propelled its two relatively unknown young actors Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews to the top of the Hollywood box office.
Preminger expected acclaim for Laura would promote him to work on better pictures, but his professional fate was in the hands of Zanuck, who had Preminger take over for the ailing Ernst Lubitsch on A Royal Scandal, a remake of Lubitsch's own 1924 silent Forbidden Paradise, starring Pola Negri as Catherine the Great. Before his heart attack, Lubitsch had spent months in preparation, and had already cast the film. Preminger, who had known Tallulah Bankhead before the start of the Nazi invasion into Austria, got along well with her. The film received lackluster reviews and failed to earn back any gross revenue. Bankhead would appear in only one more film, two decades later.
Fallen Angel (1945) was exactly what Preminger had been anticipating. In Fallen Angel, a con man and womanizer ends up by chance in a small California town, where he romances a sultry waitress and a well-to-do spinster. When the waitress is found killed, the drifter, played by Dana Andrews, becomes the prime suspect. Zanuck gave Preminger the task of convincing Alice Faye, the studio's top musical star of the late 1930s and early 1940s, to play the role of the spinster. Zanuck hoped Faye's appearance would boost the film's box-office appeal but many of her scenes were cut, which ultimately led to her departure from Fox. Linda Darnell was given the role of the doomed waitress.
Centennial Summer, Preminger's next film, would be his first to be shot entirely in color. Hoping to duplicate the success of MGM's 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, Zanuck enlisted both Preminger and composer Jerome Kern. The musical detailed two sisters in an idealized all-American working-class family, who become rivals over the same man. The cast included Darnell andJeanne Crain as the dueling sisters, Cornel Wilde as the object of their affections, and veteran stars Walter Brennan, Barbara Whiting Smith, Constance Bennett, and Dorothy Gish in supporting roles. The reviews and box office draw were tepid when the film was released in July 1946, but by the end of that year Preminger had one of the most sumptuous contracts on the lot, earning $7,500 a week.
Forever Amber, based on Kathleen Winsor's internationally popular novel published in 1944, was Zanuck's next investment in adaptation. Preminger had read the book and disliked it immensely. Preminger had another best seller aimed at a female audience in mind, Daisy Kenyon. Zanuck pledged that if Preminger did Forever Amber first, he could go to town with Daisy Kenyon afterwards.Forever Amber had already been shooting for nearly six weeks when Preminger replaced director John Stahl. Zanuck had already spent nearly two million dollars on the production. First, Preminger decided the script needed to be completely rewritten, and Peggy Cummins, the film's leading lady, would have to be replaced, because he regarded her to be "amateurish beyond belief". Only after turning to his revised script did Preminger learn Zanuck had already cast Linda Darnell in place of Cummins. The heroine in the novel was blonde, and Preminger was convinced it was necessary to cast a true blonde, Lana Turner, who was under contract to MGM. Zanuck protested, and was convinced that whoever played Amber would become a big star, and wanted that woman to be one of the studio's own. Zanuck had bought the book because he believed its scandalous reputation promised big box-office returns, and was not surprised when the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film for glamorizing a promiscuous heroine who has a child out of wedlock. Forever Amber opened to big business in October 1947, and garnered decent reviews. Preminger later recalled Forever Amber was "by far the most expensive picture I ever made and it was also the worst".
Throughout the five-month shoot on Forever Amber Preminger maintained a busy schedule, working regularly with writers on scripts for two upcoming projects, Daisy Kenyon and The Dark Wood. Preminger was finally relieved to be working on Daisy Kenyon. Joan Crawford starred alongside Dana Andrews, Ruth Warrick, and Henry Fonda. Variety proclaimed the film "high powered melodrama surefire for the femme market".
After the modest success of Daisy Kenyon (1947), Preminger, an avid careerist, saw That Lady in Ermine as a further opportunity. Betty Grable was cast opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The film had previously been another Lubitsch project, but after his sudden death in November 1947, Preminger took over. When the film opened to modest business in July 1948, it received better notices than it deserved as reviewers scrambled to discern traces of Lubitsch's hand. Preminger's next film would be another period piece based on a literary classic, Oscar Wilde's 1897 play Lady Windermere's Fan. Over the spring and early summer of 1948 Otto renovated Wilde's play into The Fan, which starred Madeleine Carroll. As Preminger expected, The Fan (1949) opened to poor notices.
Starting in the 1950s, Preminger's reputation rose to the point that he was commissioned to direct a number of prestigious projects with A-list casts and based on successful novels or stage works. Some of his most significant films of this period include:
- The Moon Is Blue (1953): controversially bucked the Legion of Decency's moral standards
- Carmen Jones (1954): a reworking of the opera Carmen in an African-American setting
- The Man with the Golden Arm (1955): based on the novel by Nelson Algren, one of the first Hollywood films to deal with heroin addiction
- Porgy and Bess (1959): a Hollywoodization of the George Gershwin opera
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959): critically acclaimed, quite explicit courtroom drama about rape-murder. Nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award
- Exodus (1960): filming of the Leon Uris bestseller set around the founding of the state of Israel
- Advise & Consent (1962): a political drama from the Allen Drury bestseller with a homosexual subtheme
- The Cardinal (1963): a drama set in the Vatican hierarchy which earned Preminger his second Best Director Academy Award nomination
- Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965): a naturalistic return to the mystery/thriller genre, set in England.
Preminger and author John D. Voelker in the trailer for Anatomy of a Murder
Several of these films broke new ground for Hollywood in tackling controversial and taboo topics, thereby challenging both the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code of censorship and the Hollywood blacklist. Forever Amber (1947) was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which successfully lobbied 20th Century Fox to make changes to the film. The League also condemned the 1953 comedy The Moon Is Blue, based on a Broadway play which did not inspire mass protests, for its use of the words "virgin" and "pregnant", and the film was notably released without the Production Code Seal of Approval. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) broke new ground with its exploration of the then taboo subject of heroin addiction, as did Anatomy of a Murder with its frank courtroom discussions of rape and sexual intercourse — the censors objected to the use of words such as "rape", "sperm", "sexual climax" and "penetration". Preminger made but one concession (substituting "violation" for "penetration") and the picture was released with the MPAA seal, marking the beginning of the end of the Production Code. On Exodus (1960) Preminger struck the first major blow against the Hollywood blacklist by openly hiring banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was credited under his own name for the first time in a decade.
From the mid-1950s, most of Preminger's films utilized distinctive animated titles designed by Saul Bass, and many had modern jazz scores. At theNew York City Opera, in October 1953, Preminger directed the American premiere (in English translation) of Gottfried von Einem's opera Der Prozeß, based on Franz Kafka's novel The Trial. Soprano Phyllis Curtin headed the cast.
Preminger also acted in a few movies; his most memorable role is that of the warden of a German POW camp in Stalag 17. In the 1960s Batman television series, Preminger was the second of three actors who played Mr. Freeze, in the two-parter "Green Ice/Deep Freeze." Adam West, who portrayed Batman, remembers Preminger as rude and unpleasant, especially when he disregarded the typical thespian etiquette of subtly cooperating when being helped to his feet in a scene by West and Burt Ward. This feeling was echoed by Laurence Olivier, who played a police inspector in Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). In his autobiography Confessions of an Actor Olivier recalled Preminger as "a bully". Ingo Preminger, who produced the 1970 M*A*S*H movie, was Otto Preminger's younger brother.
Beginning in 1965, Preminger made a string of films in which he attempted to make stories that were fresh and distinctive, but the films he made, including In Harm's Way (1965) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), became both critical and financial bombs. In 1967, Preminger released Hurry Sundown, a lengthy drama set in the U.S. South and partially intended to break cinematic racial and sexual taboos. However, the film was poorly received and ridiculed for a heavy-handed approach, and for the dubious casting of Michael Caine as an American southerner.Hurry Sundown signaled a rather precipitous decline in Preminger's reputation, as it was followed by several other films which were critical and commercial failures, including Skidoo(1968), a failed attempt at a hip sixties comedy (and Groucho Marx's last film), and Rosebud (1975), a terrorism thriller which was also widely ridiculed. Several publicized disputes with leading actors did further damage to Preminger's reputation. His last film, an adaptation of the Graham Greene espionage novel The Human Factor (1979), had financial problems and was barely released.
As they continued living together, Preminger and his wife Marion became more and more estranged. It was an open secret that the two had an arrangement, whereby as long as he promised not to seek a divorce, Preminger was free to see other women. In effect, he lived like a bachelor, as was the case when he met burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee and began an open relationship with her. Lee had already attempted to break into movie roles, but she was not taken seriously as anything more than a stripper. She appeared in B pictures in less-than-minor roles. Preminger's liaison with Lee produced a child, Erik. Lee rejected the idea of Preminger helping to support the child, and instead elicited a vow of silence from Preminger: he was not to reveal Erik's paternity to anyone, including Erik himself. Lee called the boy Erik Kirkland, after her separated husband, Alexander Kirkland. It was not until 1966, when Preminger was 60 years old and Erik was 22 years old, that they were to meet finally as father and son.
Although Preminger and Marion had been estranged for years, he was surprised when in May 1946 she asked for a divorce. On a trip to Mexico she had met a very wealthy (and married) Swedish financier, Axel Wenner-Gren. The Premingers' divorce ended smoothly and speedily. Marion did not seek any alimony, just a few personal belongings that would be picked up in a few days by her fiancé's private plane. Mrs. Wenner-Gren, madly jealous of her rival, began to stalk Marion and was not willing to grant a divorce. Marion even went as far as to claim that Mrs. Wenner-Gren attempted to shoot her at a post office in Mexico. Marion returned to the Preminger home feeling embarrassed and shamed. She resumed her appearances as Preminger's wife, and nothing more. Preminger was enjoying his escapades as a freewheeling man-about-town and had begun dating Natalie Draper, a niece of Marion Davies.
While filming Carmen Jones (1954), Preminger began an affair with the film's star, Dorothy Dandridge, which lasted four years. During that period, Preminger advised her on career matters, including an offer made to Dandridge for the featured role of Tuptim in the 1956 film of The King and I. Preminger advised her to turn down the supporting role, as he believed it to be unworthy of her. Dandridge later regretted accepting Preminger's advice. She ended the affair with Preminger upon realization that he had no plans to leave his first wife to marry her. Their affair was depicted in the HBO Pictures biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Preminger was portrayed by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer.
The niche of Otto Preminger in Woodlawn Cemetery
Otto Preminger died in New York City, New York in 1986, aged 80, from cancer while suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He was cremated and is interred in a niche in the Azalea Room of the Velma B. Woolworth Memorial Chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.