When most film historians and scholars discuss the great American directors of the mid-twentieth century, names such as Billy Wilder, John Ford, and Frank Capra are often bandied about. Otto Preminger, despite over half a century in the film and theatre business and two Oscar nominations for best director, is rarely if ever mentioned. History has not been kind to the talented but volatile director.
The new book Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King by Foster Hirsch, paints a picture of an auteur with a reputation as a skilled professional who could finish films on time and under budget, to the satisfaction of studio heads like Darryl F. Zanuck. Unfortunately, Preminger also had a lifelong reputation of treating many of the actors in his movies like dirt. Needless to say, over the years Preminger amassed a long list of enemies, many of whom were more than happy to express their distaste of him to whoever would listen. Otto’s reputation as an ogre was no doubt furthered by his repeated acting stints as a Nazi in such films as Margin for Error and Stalag 17.
Otto was born into a fairly wealthy, Austrian, Jewish family. Otto received a law degree in Austria just as his father did. However, his passion was the theatre and consumed all of his time and energy. In 1935, after several years of success as a theatre director in Vienna, Preminger was offered the chance to come to America and work for the newly established 20th Century-Fox. By the 1940s Otto had established himself as a solid director under the Hollywood studio system and had a coveted seven-year deal with Fox. He also had a huge success with the 1944 noir classic, Laura. To top it all off, on August 27, 1943, Preminger had become a proud American citizen.
For many years Otto Preminger seemed to have a good idea of both what the American public wanted in its movies and what ideas would move the film industry forward. Preminger directed an all African-American cast in 1954’s Carmen Jones. Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. In 1955 Otto took on the subject of heroin addiction in The Man With The Golden Arm. During all of this, Preminger was leading a fight to prevent a film of his titled The Moon Is Blue from being tagged ‘indecent.’ The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in Preminger’s favor. The ruling would eventually lead to the dissolution of the Legion of Decency and the Production Code and lead to the establishment of what would eventually become the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968. But by the time Otto directed Jackie Gleason through an LSD scene in 1968's disastrous Skidoo, the times had passed him by.
Foster Hirsch, a professor of film at Brooklyn College, delves into each film and play Preminger directed. He doesn’t seem to have left any stone unturned. While definitely sympathetic towards Preminger — he wants the reader to understand he was a talented director and family man — plenty of space is given to those who Preminger treated badly. Preminger ran his sets using a lot of intimidation and fear tactics, which no doubt has affected his place in film history.
Hirsch deserves kudos for his exhaustive research in presenting a portrait of this talented but difficult man. He doesn’t dig too deeply into the director’s well publicized relationship with Dorothy Dandridge, except in regard to how it affected their work together. Preminger’s relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee, which produced a son, is covered briefly. Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, is not a book written for gossip hunters but rather a serious analysis of a controversial director who made an impact on twentieth century American film.