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Forgotten Hollywood: Otto Preminger

Dubbed the most hated man in Hollywood, director Otto Preminger directed 37 films over a 40-year career. Stories of his monstrous behavior on sets are legendary. He once confessed to actor Nicol Williamson that he was called “Otto the Monster.”

Jean Seberg, the Iowa ingénue he discovered and cast in St. Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, once said he was “the most charming dinner guest and the world’s most sadistic film director.” He reduced her to tears over and over by screaming at her on the set. According to “Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story” by David Richards, when Seberg was tied to the stake as Joan in St. Joan during the burning scene, the pyre actually caught fire. Preminger would not allow the flames to be put out until he had finished filming the scene, despite the terror of the actors and crew.


He screamed at actress and model Iman Haywood on the set of The Human Factor, “Don’t shout. Shouting should not be done by women. Only by men like me.” Iman went on to tell a reporter, “ … At first, he destroyed me with his screams. In rehearsal, before he started filming, he made me say one line 20 times and still he wanted me to say it again. I said no. I said I was leaving, and he let me go. He doesn’t realize he’s being hard on people. He just doesn’t know any other way to be.”

Preminger’s first wife, Marion Mill, left him because of his “violent temper.” He got into a fight with agent Swifty Lazar at the ‘21’ club in New York over the movie rights to the book “In Cold Blood.” He insulted Lazar and was punched by Lazar’s wife. Lana Turner walked off the set of Anatomy of a Murder as she couldn’t put up with his bullying.

Linda Darnell collapsed on the set of Forever Amber in 1947 because of his daily berating and was given ten days off by a doctor to recuperate. The Hartford Courant reported in 1992 that some 30 years after he worked with Preminger on The Cardinal, actor Tom Tryon said he was still shaken by the experience. Preminger screamed at him constantly, zoomed in on his shaking hands and kept firing and rehiring him, with the result that Tryon was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. Other actresses he abused in the same way were Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Dandridge. He said of Monroe: “Directing Marilyn Monroe was like directing Lassie. You needed 14 takes to get each one of them right.”


On the set of Angel Face, Preminger required Robert Mitchum to slap Jean Simmons in so many takes that Mitchum finally slapped him and knocked him down.

But for all his monstrous behavior, Preminger was also a game changer in Hollywood. He tackled taboo subjects, broke the back of the Hays Production Code (the industry’s self-imposed guidelines), and was one of those who shattered the infamous Hollywood blacklist of the middle of the last century, denying work to those who were believed to have had Communist sympathies.

He released The Moon is Blue without certification in 1953 when the Hays Code denied him their seal of approval for using the words “pregnant” and “virgin,” and the film became a box office hit, damaging the Code’s credibility. His 1954 film Carmen Jones had an all-Black cast, starring Dorothy Dandridge (with whom he had an affair), Pearl Bailey and Harry Belafonte. In 1959 he made Porgy and Bess, with another all-Black cast. In The Man with the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra in 1955, he dealt with heroin addiction and was again refused a certification from the Hays office. Once again, he released the film without the seal, an event which forced the Hays office to amend the Code. His Anatomy of a Murder was about rape and used the words “intercourse,” “sperm” and “sexual climax,” never before heard on the screen in 1959. He also cast the lawyer Joseph Welch (the man who spoke the famous words “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” to Joseph McCarthy in the hearings) as a judge in the film. He hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write Exodus in 1960 and gave him screen credit.


He could do all this because he started producing the movies he directed: later, he bought out his contract from Fox in 1954 and worked outside the Hollywood studio system, starting with The Human Factor, in which he invested $2 million of his own money.

Preminger was born in Witnitz, Poland, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1905, into a Jewish family. They moved to Vienna when Preminger was a child. Preminger studied to be a lawyer at the University of Vienna and worked as an apprentice to theater director Max Reinhardt. He also worked as an actor and director in Viennese theater for more than a decade before he arrived in New York in 1936, just before Hitler took Austria. After directing one play in New York, he moved to Hollywood and was hired by studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox. After falling out with Zanuck over the movie Kidnapped, Preminger moved back to New York and restarted his acting career; his most notable roles were playing Nazis – in the Clare Boothe Luce Margin for Error onstage, which he directed as well, and in the Fox film The Pied Piper. He also reprised his Nazi character in the film version of Margin for Error but made a deal to direct that as well. (His best-known Nazi role, however, was that of the commandant in Stalag 17 in 1953.)

When Zanuck joined the army in WWII, Preminger returned to Fox in Hollywood and started prepping to direct Laura. Zanuck returned and demoted Preminger to producer, giving the directing job to Rouben Mamoulian. Production difficulties caused Zanuck to fire Mamoulian and he then reluctantly give the job to Preminger. The movie was a critical and commercial success when it was released in 1944 and was nominated for five Oscars. Preminger built his reputation with Laura, still considered one of the finest film noirs on the screen. He was paid $1,500 a week to make it.


In the 1940s, Preminger made films like Fallen Angel in 1945 with Dana Andrews, one of four movies they made together; Centennial Summer in 1946, his first in color; Forever Amber in 1947 with Linda Darnell, which he called “the most expensive picture I ever made and it was also the worst;” Daisy Kenyon with Joan Crawford and Henry Fonda in 1947 and The Fan with Madeleine Carroll in 1948.

The contentious director had a distinctive style of working. He “cut” his films in the camera, using long takes so the editing was reduced, presumably to minimize studio interference in post-production. He eschewed close-ups, preferring two-shots. He favored ambiguous endings. And he always brought his films in on time and within the budget. He did a lot of publicity himself: he could be charming with the press, giving interviews in his German-accented English.

During the 1960s, Preminger’s career faded but he continued to make movies such as In Harm’s Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), all flops. Mitchum walked off his 1974 film Rosebud – the third time the two had worked together. According to Preminger, he told a drunk Mitchum to go back to his hotel and sleep it off, whereupon Mitchum packed his bags and left town, returning the money he was paid. He was replaced by Peter O’Toole. That film also failed. The Human Factor in 1979 was his last film, and barely got a release.


While Preminger never received an Oscar (he was thrice nominated for Golden Globes, once for the now-defunct Promoting International Understanding award for The Cardinal), twenty-two years after he died of lung cancer in 1986, his career as a director was celebrated with the publication of two biographies – Foster Hirsch’s “Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King” and Chris Fujiwara’s “The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger.” There was also a retrospective of his films at New York’s Film Forum and Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque.

Five of his films are in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” They are Laura (1944), Carmen Jones (1944), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Porgy and Bess (1959) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Preminger’s ashes are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.