A World and Its King: Comparing Two Books About Otto Preminger

Well, here I am in eretz Israel...jet-lagged and so profoundly able to launch oh so energetically into the blog cosmos at 4:00 in the morning! Truth be told though, I've been working on this article for two weeks now — a labor of love.

As you may or may not know from previous blog entries, I am fascinated with the work of showman producer-director and master craftsman Otto Preminger, and the fascination has heretofore lasted a great number of years. His sense of mise-en-scene was impeccable, no one commanded the Cinemascope frame the way he did, few staged scenes as deliberately as he did, nearly no one orchestrated baroque camera movements as effortlessly as he did, few other directors were as much in the public eye as he was (Hitchcock was certainly the only one to ever rival him) and few other directors could transform virtual catatonics and introverts into embittered, delightfully entertaining raconteurs as a result of their contact with him. Look at disgruntled and eventually destroyed Preminger actor Tom Tryon for an example of this phenomenon. This is not to even mention poor Jean Seberg. Nicknamed "Otto the Terrible," Preminger had a reputation for his on-set rages. Upon recently meeting Dyan Cannon in Los Angeles and telling her how much I appreciated her in Preminger's Such Good Friends (1971), she responded without missing a beat, "Ohhh, I haaaated that man!" My friend, actress Karen Black, told me that, upon meeting Preminger about possibly taking a role in his Skidoo, she wanted nothing to do with "that man." A fine mix of disarming charm, flamboyance, recalcitrance, liberal conscience and classically Teutonic unpredictable rage-aholic fits, Preminger is by far one of most fascinating figures in movie history, and his reputation as a taboo-breaker is very apropos.

Within the past year, two books have been published about the iconoclastic, notoriously tempestuous filmmaker, his work and his life. I have read both, just completing the second of the two recently, and am prepared to analyze both books in comparison to one another. This, I feel, is fair as both have been published around the same time and serve the same function of shedding light on a justifiably infamous man's career. To paraphrase what Chris Fujiwara states in his respective book The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, there seems to be an emerging and startling recent interest in Preminger, and a great deal of it is revisionist. Many things might account for it, one being (as I previously covered in the Last Films blog entry) that he was one of the many classic Hollywood directors who seemed to self-destruct in a post-Code Hollywood, even despite the fact that he was the one largely responsible for originally storming the proverbial Motion Picture Code "Bastille" in the early 1950's and helping facilitate the eventual destruction of the Code with the help of some topical, taboo-shattering content, initially with his two films The Moon is Blue (the first to use "shocking" words like "virgin" and "seduce") and The Man With the Golden Arm (the first major Hollywood film to tackle the issue of drug addiction). Both of those films were the first two pictures to be released without the Motion Picture Code Seal of Approval. The words "climax" and "panties" were uttered in 1959's Anatomy of a Murder to considerable controversy, a trip to a gay bar was chartered in 1962's Advise and Consent and Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo was hired by Preminger to pen 1960's Exodus in what was the first explicit public display of anti-McCarthyism in American pop culture history. Preminger's all-time box-office bomb Skidoo (1968) has, for one, in recent years developed a very loyal cult following. Please note: Skidoo is the jaw-droppingly notorious shock-fest comedy where you can witness Jackie Gleason drop acid, Groucho Marx smoke weed and Carol Channing perform a striptease. The cult status has, in some parts of the country, reached a Rocky Horror Picture Show fever pitch!

About two years ago, I had the occasion of meeting Foster Hirsch, the writer of Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King at a packed, enthusiastic 35mm screening of Skidoo at the Museum of Modern Art during a Preminger retrospective (people in the audience were actually singing along during the film's certifiably crazy last act when it makes the preposterous, anarchic shift into the musical genre), at the time he was preparing the book. I spoke to him for about an hour after the screening about Preminger (mostly his misunderstood later works) and, he made an exquisite point during our conversation, and makes the same point in the book. He writes, "[In Harm's Way] is not a war film, in the same way The Cardinal is not a religious film and Advise and Consent is not a political film." Hirsch is keenly perceptive enough to recognize that Preminger's objectivity reigns tried and true throughout all his work, almost as a trademark because the same statement could be applied to all of Preminger's films, most of which having the ability to be considered highly Relevant (yes, with a capital R, mind you) and of interest to the then-current respective zeitgeists. About Skidoo, Hirsch writes, "An early shot in a packed hippie caravan indicates his outsider's viewpoint. The too-composed setup — a sedentary camera stares at the hippies as they sing, paint their bodies, embrace each other — places the audiences in the director's chair looking at a group of exotic others with a cautious, removed interest. Preminger enjoys the hippies, and makes no judgment about their drug-taking or their free love, but he is not capable of understanding or revealing them." This is so true. Preminger observes the world, but never enters it to scrutinize or give verdict to it. Yet, amazingly enough, he still enters punches and possesses an unmistakable sensibility where we know the objectivity is not derived through any lack of courage or antipathy.

If Hirsch's book is written more from the vantage point of a film historian, then Chris Fujiwara's The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger is much more written in the guise of a film studies scholar. Fujiwara penned the excellent Senses of Cinema article about Preminger. Both writes, when all is said and done, assume the perfunctory role of critic at the end of each individual chapter, which are, in both, separated by each of Preminger's films. Hirsch, while he never has difficulty or grapples to understand Preminger's evolution from epic filmmaker to intimate, personal filmmaker (Fujiwara notes the filmmaker's sudden 1970 shift to the 1.85 aspect ratio after always using 2.35 since its inception), he is much less tolerant and dismissive of his later work when the substantial evolution had been occurring, displacing blame on Alzheimer's Disease, which was never clinically diagnosed. Hirsch occasionally succumbs, I feel, to treating Preminger as little more than a historical curiosity, a novelty example of the temperamental director, and that is the chief liability of his writing in this book. While never facile or cursory in his analytical sparring with the director's later work, he nonetheless sometimes largely misunderstanding of the humanity of the later Preminger’s intricate characterizations. While I feel he is correct in labelling Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon as among the director's worst films, I feel he dismisses the brilliant Such Good Friends much too easily, even though he does cite Dyan Cannon's portrayal in the lead as one of Preminger's finest-ever heroines and praised Cannon's wonderful work. However, when I asked Hirsch to come down to Philadelphia a year and a half ago to introduce a rare screening of the difficult-to-see Such Good Friends, he begged off, instead requesting to introduce one of the more classic Preminger films. The screening never happened, due mostly to my juggling too many things at once at the time. Both authors will be the first to admit that Preminger's chief concern was not performance, but Hirsch, in his personal qualitative analysis of Preminger’s work, would first regard Preminger as a craftsman and a practitioner above all else, although he has a tender and warm interpretation of the deliberately ridiculous characters in Skidoo, namely that Preminger makes no judgments about anyone in the film — that they are human and just...are. He also describes The Human Factor as a final, and largely successful, attempt by Preminger to regain credibility with a very personal film when his star was all too obviously waning. However, compare the chapter namings in the two books. The two final chapters in Hirsch's book are entitled "Endgames" and "After the Fall". The two final chapters in Fujiwara's book are entitled "Before the Doors Close on This Whole World" and "The Human Factor". It is fair to assert that Hirsch's view of Otto's final years was rather more fatalistic and melodramatized in comparison to Fujiwara's respectfully sentimental nomenclature.

Fujiwara's book covers different bits of history that Hirsch's book misses, and vice versa. Fujiwara, however, it would seem has a much more forgiving and even positive regard for Preminger's later films. While recognizing this era in his filmmaking as the most uneven, he seems more intrigued and less hyper-critical than it would seem Hirsch is willing to acknowledge or even realize. For instance, Hirsch criticizes Preminger's propensity towards "withered flesh" nude scenes. In Such Good Friends, Preminger features the well-past-his-prime Burgess Meredith (who he directed in nine, count 'em, nine films) dancing in a loin-cloth fashioned from a hard-back book and a bit of string, fully exposing the septuagenarian actor's flabby rear-end. Hirsch writes about the scene, "The scene, which turns the flabby physique of the far-from-young Burgess Meredith into a spectacle to laugh at, casts doubts about Preminger's point-of-view and his control of the material." He levels the same criticism at a scene involving Cannon's seduction and stripping of the morbidly obese James Coco. Fujiwara writes, quite perceptively, "The scene[s] can be explained partly as Preminger's ironic reaction to the contemporary vogue for nudity in American film. Unclothing Burgess Meredith is Preminger's way of making fun of his audience for expecting nudity; it also relieves the erotic pressure of the film, letting it be about something other than eroticism." He also points out the fact that Preminger neglected in his later films to draw much benefit from the adoption of the MPAA rating system and the common acceptance in Hollywood of elements like nudity. The instances when it did happen "hardly seemed like plunges into prurience." Both books, however, are compulsory reading for anyone interested in Preminger, the destruction of the Production Code, the attempted survival of classic directors within the new Hollywood or the now-lost concept of what it meant to be a "showman" filmmaker. They do, however, serve different purposes. As mentioned, Hirsch's is historical and Fujiwara's is analytic.

I was hoping that one of the two authors would draw at least a brief parallel to like-minded showman producer-director Stanley Kramer. There exist startling similarities in the work of Otto Preminger and Stanley Kramer. Both directors were two of the primary Hollywood "showmen" of their times (e.g. "Stanley Kramer Presents" and "Otto Preminger Presents"), both were filmmakers personifying a rather fashionable Jewish liberal conscience, which is almost the anima of each of their canons, and both helmed films high on the topicality scale. I have listed some of these parallels below.

Skidoo (1968) vs. R.P.M. (1970)
Both explored the counterculture, post-Summer of Love, both during the tumult of 1968's Western sociopolitical landscape. Both were major failures, exhibiting the efforts of old "fuddy-dud" directors trying to get with the times. Both cast "over-the-hill" actors in the lead roles (Jackie Gleason drops acid in Skidoo, "hip" college professor Anthony Quinn sleeps with his co-eds)

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) vs. Bless the Beasts and Children (1971)
Both were explicitly films about outsiders who are uniformily cast away from society and looked down upon by the "normal world" at large. In Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, it is a group of three "cripples" who share a house together. In Bless the Beasts and Children, it is a group of heavily ridiculed misfit kids at a summer Western camp who try to save buffalos, whom they see as kindred persecuted spirits, from being slaughtered. Both are so-called "sensitive dramas" very in-tune to the "love-all" spirit of the time.

Hurry Sundown vs. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (both 1967)
Both dealt with race relations issues in the United States. Kramer's schmaltzy but much beloved take on miscegenation uses Sidney Poitier (along with Hepburn and Tracy). Preminger's film is a misguided and caricature-heavy potrait of the struggle between a white sharecropper, a black sharecropper and local land-developers and racist townsmen.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) vs. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Both were hot and heavy, and highly successful, courtroom dramas with moments of high melodrama and soft-spoken, gentlemanly legal protagonists (James Stewart in Anatomy and Spencer Tracy in Nuremberg...even McCarthy Era saint Judge Joseph Welch playing...a judge). Both were also very epic, yet intimate, and both were lengthy.

Skidoo (1968) vs. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Both were "Who's Who" comedy vehicles with respective huge all-star casts marketed heavily with the directors' names being a marketing tool on posters and promotional materials. I learned from the late Stanley Kramer's daughter and wife, Kat and Karen, that a sequel to Mad, Mad World is in the works. Come on, guys...how about Skidoo 2?

Rosebud (1975) vs. The Domino Principle (1977)
Both were ill-received thrillers, mostly with a conspiracy undercurrent. Both were considered poison to each director's respective career.

The Human Factor (1979) vs. The Runner Stumbles (1979)
Both dealt heavily with issues of morality and duty. Both were also modestly made and both were independently financed.

Such Good Friends (1971) vs. Ship of Fools (1965)
Both characterized a crowd of jetsetters living in privilege.

Preminger's 20th Century Fox melodramas vs. Kramer's Not as a Stranger (1955) and The Pride and the Passion (1957)

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