He directed more than 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 1960s, 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, 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.
He juggled a commitment to university (attendance of which his parents insisted upon) and to 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 comedic staging of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. His next appearance came the next month with William Dieterle (who would later move to Hollywood) in The Merchant of Venice. Other notable alumni with whom Preminger would work the same year were Mady Christians, who died of a stroke after having been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and Nora Gregor, who was to star in Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939).
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 plays, and from Berlin he imported Roar China!, a pro-Communist agitprop.
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.
William Goetz, who was running Fox in Zanuck's absence, was soon impressed with Preminger and offered him 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. He completed production on schedule, although with a slightly increased budget, by 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, 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 produce and direct Army Wives, another B-picture morale booster for a country at war. Its focus was on showing the sacrifices made by women as they send their husbands off to the front.
Zanuck returned from the armed services with his grudge against Preminger intact. Preminger was not granted permission to direct Laura, only to serve as producer. Rouben Mamoulian was selected to direct. Mamoulian began ignoring Preminger and started to rewrite the script. Although Preminger had no complaints about the casting of the relatively unknown Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, he balked at their choice for the film's villain, Waldo, actor Laird Cregar. Preminger explained to Zanuck that audiences would immediately identify Cregar as a villain, especially after Cregar's role as Jack the Ripper in The Lodger.
Preminger wanted stage actor Clifton Webb to play Waldo and persuaded his boss to give Webb a screen test. Webb was cast and Mamoulian was fired for creative differences. Laura started filming on 27 April 1944, with a projected budget of $849,000. After Preminger took over, the film continued shooting well into late June. When released, the film was an instant hit with audiences and critics alike, earning Preminger his first Academy Award nomination for direction.
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 cast Tallulah Bankhead, whom he had known since 1938 when he was directing on Broadway.
Bankhead learned that Preminger's family would be barred from emigrating to the U.S. due to immigration quotas, and she asked her father (who was Speaker of the House) to intervene to save them from the Nazis. He did, which earned Bankhead Preminger's loyalty. Thus when Lubitsch wanted to make the film into a vehicle for Greta Garbo, Preminger, although he would have been eager to direct the film that brought Garbo out of retirement, refused to betray Bankhead. They became good friends and got along well during filming. The film received generally lackluster reviews as the Ruritanian romance genre had become outdated, and it failed to earn back any gross revenue.
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. Linda Darnell played the doomed waitress. Centennial Summer (1946), Preminger's next film, would be his first shot entirely in color. 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 bestseller 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 $2 million on the production.
Only after turning to his revised script did Preminger learn Zanuck had recast Linda Darnell. Zanuck was convinced that whoever played Amber would become a big star, and he 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, and successfully lobbied 20th Century Fox to make changes to the film. Forever Amber opened to big business in October 1947, and garnered decent reviews. Preminger called the film "the most expensive picture I ever made and it was also the worst".
Preminger maintained a busy schedule, working with writers on scripts for two planned projects, Daisy Kenyon and The Dark Wood; the latter was not produced. Joan Crawford starred in Daisy Kenyon (1947) 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, 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 Lubitsch's sudden death in November 1947, Preminger took over. His next film was a period piece based on Lady Windermere's Fan. Over the spring and early summer of 1948 Preminger renovated Wilde's play into The Fan, which starred Madeleine Carroll; the film opened to poor notices.
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), 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.
The Academy Film Archive has preserved several of Otto Preminger's films, including The Man With the Golden Arm, The Moon is Blue and Advise & Consent.
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, after meeting 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, was unwilling to grant a divorce. 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 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.Die große Liebe (1931)
Under Your Spell (1936)
Danger – Love at Work (1937)
The Pied Piper (1942)
Clare Boothe Luce's Margin for Error (U.S.) also known as Margin for Error (UK) (1943)
They Got Me Covered (1943)
In the Meantime, Darling (1944)
A Royal Scandal (U.S.) also known as Czarina (UK) (1945)
Fallen Angel (1945)
Centennial Summer (1946)
Forever Amber (1947)
Daisy Kenyon (1947)
The Fan (U.S.) also known as Lady Windermere's Fan (UK) (1949)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
The 13th Letter (1951)
Angel Face (1953)
Stalag 17 (1953) (acting only, directed by Billy Wilder)
The Moon Is Blue (1953)
Carmen Jones (1954)
River of No Return (1954)
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (U.S.) also known as One Man Mutiny (UK) (1955)
The Man with the Golden Arm (1956)
Saint Joan (1957)
Bonjour Tristesse (1958)
Porgy and Bess (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Advise and Consent (1962)
The Cardinal (1963)
In Harm's Way (1965)
Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
Hurry Sundown (1967)
Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)
Such Good Friends (1971)
The Hobbit (1977) (voice of Elvenking)
The Human Factor (1979)
Preminger'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.