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Otto Ludwig Preminger was an American theatre and film director, originally from Austria-Hungary.
Preminger was born in 1905 in Wiznitz, Bukovina, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present-day Vyzhnytsia, Ukraine), into a Jewish family. His parents were Josefa (née Fraenkel) and Markus Preminger. The couple provided a stable home life for Preminger and his younger brother Ingwald, known as "Ingo", later the producer of the original film version of M*A*S*H (1970).
After the assassination in 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 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 secured a position as public prosecutor in Graz, capital of Styria. 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, which he refused to do. The next year, he relocated his family to Vienna, where Otto later claimed to have been born.
Preminger's first theatrical ambition was to become an actor. In his early teens, he 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 began to miss more and more classes in school.
When the war came to an end, Markus formed his own law practice. He instilled in both his sons a sense of fair play as well as respect for those with opposing viewpoints. As his father's practice continued to thrive in postwar Vienna, Otto began seriously contemplating a career in the theater. In 1923, when Preminger was 17, his soon-to-be mentor, Max Reinhardt, the renowned Viennese-born director, announced plans to establish a theatrical company in Vienna. 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 which Preminger had already missed by two days.
In 1930, a wealthy industrialist from Graz approached Otto 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 1931-35, he directed twenty-six shows.
On 3 August 1932, he wed a Hungarian woman, Marion Mill. The couple married only thirty minutes after her divorce from her first husband had been finalized.
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.
Preminger's first assignment was to direct a vehicle for Lawrence Tibbett. 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 gave Preminger the task of directing another B-picture screwball comedy film Danger – Love at Work. Simone Simon was cast but later fired by Zanuck and replaced with Ann Sothern. The premise was that eight members of an eccentric, wealthy family have inherited their grandfather's land, and the protagonist is a lawyer tasked with persuading the family to hand the land over to a corporation that believes there is oil on the property. One of the female members of the wealthy family provides the romantic interest.
In November 1937, Zanuck's perennial emissary Gregory Ratoff brought Preminger the news that Zanuck had selected him to direct Kidnapped, which was to be the most expensive feature to date for Twentieth Century-Fox. Zanuck himself had adapted the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. 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, while screening footage of the film with Zanuck, the studio head accused Preminger of making changes in a scene; in particular, one with child actor Freddie Bartholomew and a dog. Preminger, composed at first, explained, claiming he 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. Later, a representative of Zanuck offered Preminger a buyout deal which he rejected: Preminger wanted to be paid for the remaining eleven months of his two-year contract. He searched for work at other studios, but received no offers – only two years after his arrival in Hollywood, he was unemployed in the film industry. He returned to New York, and began to re-focus on the stage. 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. Preminger was offered a teaching position at the Yale School of Drama and began commuting twice a week to Connecticut to lecture on directing and acting.
Several of his films in this period dealt with controversial and taboo topics, thereby challenging both the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code of censorship and the Hollywood blacklist. The Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the comedy The Moon Is Blue (1953) on the grounds of moral standards. Based on a Broadway play which had not inspired mass protests for its use of the words "virgin" and "pregnant", the film was released without the Production Code Seal of Approval. Based on the novel by Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was one of the first Hollywood films to deal with heroin addiction.
Later, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with its frank courtroom discussions of rape and sexual intercourse led to the censors objecting 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 a first major blow against the Hollywood blacklist by openly hiring banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It is an adaptation of the Leon Uris bestseller about the founding of the state of Israel. Preminger also acted in a few movies including the World War II Luft-Stalag Commandant, Oberst von Scherbach of the German POW camp Stalag 17 (1953), directed by Billy Wilder.
From the mid-1950s, most of Preminger's films used distinctive animated titles designed by Saul Bass, and many had jazz scores. At the New 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. He also adapted two operas for the screen during the decade. Carmen Jones (1954) is a reworking of the Bizet opera Carmen to a wartime African-American setting while Porgy and Bess (1959) is based on the George Gershwin opera. His two films of the early 1960s were Advise & Consent (1962): a political drama from the Allen Drury bestseller with a homosexual subtheme and The Cardinal (1963): a drama set in the Vatican hierarchy for which Preminger received his second Best Director Academy Award nomination.
Laurence Olivier, who played a police inspector in the psychological thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), which was shot in England, recalled in his autobiography Confessions of an Actor that he found Preminger a "bully". Adam West, who portrayed the lead in the 1960s Batman television series, echoes Olivier's opinion. He remembers Preminger when he worked in a guest role in the series, as being 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. Preminger played Mr. Freeze in the "Green Ice/Deep Freeze" episodes.
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 flops. 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 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.
Preminger and his wife Marion became increasingly estranged. 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, instead eliciting 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 husband, Alexander Kirkland, from whom she was separated at the time. It was not until 1966, when Preminger was 60 years old and Erik was 22, that father and son finally met. In May 1946 Marion asked for a divorce. On a trip to Mexico she had met a wealthy (and married) Swedish financier, Axel Wenner-Gren. The Premingers' divorce ended smoothly and speedily. She did not seek alimony, only personal belongings. Axel's wife however, madly jealous of her rival, stalked Marion and was unwilling to grant a divorce. Marion claimed Mrs. Wenner-Gren attempted to shoot her at a post office in Mexico. Marion returned to Otto and resumed appearances as his wife, and nothing more. Preminger 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 he 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 it down as he believed it unworthy of her. She later regretted taking his advice.
Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder was nominated fPreminger's Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. He was twice nominated for Best Director: for Laura and for The Cardinal. He won the Bronze Berlin Bear award for the film Carmen Jones at the 5th Berlin International Film Festival