Otto Ludwig Preminger (5 December 1905 – 23 April 1986) was an Austrian American theatre and film director.
He is known for directing over 35 feature films in a five-decade career after leaving the theatre. He first gained attention for film noir mysteries such as Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), while in the 1950s and ’60s, he directed a number of high-profile adaptations of popular novels and stage works.
Several of these later films 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 Academy Award for Best Director. He also had a few acting roles.
Preminger was born in 1905 in Wiznitz (Vyzhnytsia), a town 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 in Galicia, 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 verge of an extraordinary career defending the interests of the Emperor Franz Josef. The couple provided a stable home life for Preminger and his younger brother Ingo, later the producer of the original film version of M*A*S*H (1970). Otto recalled:
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 but 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, he was already incurably stagestruck.
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.
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.
Zanuck promoted him to the A-list, assigning him a story called Nancy Steele Is Missing, which was to star Wallace Beery, who had won an Academy Award for The Champ a few years earlier. 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 called Danger – 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 the news that 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 since he would be 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 with Zanuck, the studio head accused Preminger of making changes in a scene with child actor Freddie Bartholomew and a dog.
Preminger, composed at first, explained that he had shot the scene exactly as written. Zanuck insisted that 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 that Fox wanted him to reprise his role in the upcoming film adaptation of Margin for Error.
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 once more, 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 player with Fox who was being groomed for stardom. Established 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.
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 in New York City 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. Their affair was depicted in the HBO Pictures biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Preminger was portrayed by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. According to this biopic, she ended the affair with Preminger upon realization that he had no plans to leave his first wife to marry her.
Otto Preminger died in New York City, New York in 1986, aged 80, from lung 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.