Preminger, Otto

▪ American filmmaker
in full  Otto Ludwig Preminger 
born December 5, 1906, Vienna, Austria
died April 23, 1986, New York, N.Y., U.S.

      director-producer who defied Hollywood's Production Code with a series of controversial films and brought about the relaxation of censorship regulations. He also worked as a character actor, exploiting his Austrian accent, erect build, and intimidating persona, most notably in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953).

      The son of the attorney general of the Austrian Empire, Preminger himself earned a law degree from the University of Vienna in 1928, though he had also pursued a career in the theatre. During the late 1920s, Preminger studied acting with the legendary Max Reinhardt (Reinhardt, Max). He then opened his own stock companies, Die Komodie Theatre and Die Schauspielhaus, and in 1933 the aging Reinhardt named him producer-director of Vienna's renowned Theatre in der Josefstadt. Two years later Preminger, who was Jewish, immigrated to the United States.

      After staging his first Broadway play, Libel (1935), Preminger journeyed to Hollywood at the invitation of Joseph Schenck, chairman of the board of Twentieth Century Fox. There he learned Hollywood filmmaking techniques, directing two minor movies before running afoul of production chief Darryl F. Zanuck. Preminger returned to Broadway to direct several long-running plays, even acting in Margin for Error (1939). He also taught stage direction at Yale University from 1938 to 1941.

      Asked to appear in the film version of Margin for Error (1943), Preminger negotiated a deal to be named director as well. The success of the film resulted in a contract as actor, director, and producer—the last one an unusual concession for studios at the time. Laura (1944) established his reputation as a talented but tough director and also introduced his career-long themes involving human obsession. Preminger neither condemned nor condoned his protagonists' behaviour, and his films became known for their moral neutrality.

      More than for themes or style, however, Preminger earned a place in film history for refusing to accept the censorship of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Their Production Code Administration, which strictly regulated onscreen behaviour and language from 1934 through 1966, had not passed Preminger's The Moon Is Blue (1953) because it contained the words “pregnant,” “virgin,” and “seduce.” In 1955 it would not pass The Man with the Golden Arm because it dealt with narcotics addiction. Nevertheless, both films were released and became critical and popular successes. Preminger's films and certain rulings by the Supreme Court forced the MPAA to relax the code to consider the values of contemporary audiences.

 As Preminger's career progressed into the 1970s, his films grew more melodramatic and out of touch with popular tastes. As a result, his reputation rests primarily on the films he made during the 1950s and ʾ60s, including Carmen Jones (1954), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Exodus (1960), Advise and Consent (1962), The Cardinal (1963), and In Harm's Way (1965). Preminger was nominated for best director Academy Awards for Laura and The Cardinal. Anatomy of a Murder was his only film to receive a nomination for best picture.

Additional Reading
Gerald Pratley, The Cinema of Otto Preminger (1971); Otto Preminger, Preminger: An Autobiography (1977).

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Universalium. 2010.

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