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Maverick in the Making: Otto Preminger at Twentieth Century Fox

15 Nov

This short biography of director Otto Preminger will help you enjoy the November 19, 2010 “Meet Me at the Movies” screening of Laura (1944). After the enormous critical and financial success of Laura, Preminger became at top director at the Fox studios where he directed musicals, comedies, and melodramas. 

Otto Preminger at work

Otto Preminger (1906-1986) was born and educated in Vienna, Austria. He earned a law degree, but only tried one case. Instead of pursuing a career in law, Preminger became the assistant to Max Reinhardt, the famous European stage producer-director. In the mid-thirties, Preminger made his way to Broadway where he caught the attention of movie executive Joseph M. Schenck. Schenck offered Preminger an unusual apprenticeship at the newly formed Twentieth Century Fox film studio.

At Fox, Preminger directed a few B-films before a dispute with Darryl F. Zanuck found Preminger back on Broadway alternating between acting and directing. During this time, Preminger also established himself as a capable actor in films. With his severe looks and Viennese accent, Preminger made a successful career for himself on stage and on film playing Nazis. Preminger leveraged this success to get back into film directing.

With Zanuck overseas during World War II, Preminger was asked to take over the producer-director roles for the film Laura since the original director, Rouben Mamoulian, had been fired. Preminger not only rescued the film from disaster, but turned it into one of the top films of the 1940s. At Fox Preminger directed many film genres: light comedies, melodramas, musicals, and costume epics.

"Fallen Angel" was Preminger's follow-up to "Laura."

Often neglected, Preminger’s work at Fox holds up remarkably well. The themes explored during his Fox tenure (adultery, child abuse, racism, police corruption) foreshadowed his later foray as an independent producer-director, often pushing the envelope and going against the oftentimes prudish conventions and film censorship of the day.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Preminger was a celebrity, which sometimes worked against his considerable talent as an important director in the history of American film.


Tierney is Tops

11 Nov

This short biography of actress Gene Tierney will help you enjoy the November 19, 2010 “Meet Me at the Movies” screening of Laura (1944). Tierney’s role as Laura Hunt made her a movie icon and one of the most popular movie stars during the 1940s. To movie goers for generations to come, she’ll always be “Laura…the face in the misty light.”

Gene Tierney in "The Return of Frank James"

Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, thought Gene Tierney was the most beautiful woman in movie history. During the 1940s, Tierney’s face was on the covers of countless magazines; women copied her look and wore clothes and accessories inspired by her movie roles.

From the moment she first appeared on the big screen, Tierney was a star. The critics weren’t always taken with her performances, but audiences loved her mix of exotic and girl-next-door beauty. She had a slight overbite, which Tierney refused to correct, when she came to Hollywood. In fact, she had it written into her contract that she had “control” of her teeth and hair. A clause like that may seem odd to us today, but during the reign of the major Hollywood studios it was unusual for an actor or actress to have those kinds of exceptions written into their contracts.

Tierney was far from a diva or prima donna when it came to performing on the set. Known for her professionalism and kindness with both cast and crew, her first husband, Oleg Cassini said Tierney wanted everyone around her to “be happy.”

Gene Eliza Tierney was born in Brooklyn, NY, on November 19, 1920. Tierney’s father, Howard Sherwood was a successful insurance broker. Her mother, Belle Lavina Taylor was a former physical education instructor. Gene had an older brother, Howard Sherwood Jr. and a younger sister, Patricia.

Tierney on the cover of "Life" in 1941

The Tierney family eventually settled in Connecticut where all seemed ideal. Gene attended the best private schools in the state. At the age of 15, she spent two years attending the Brillantmont school in Lausanne, Switzerland. At Brillantmont, she learned to speak fluent French, a skill she would display in several future film roles.

Tierney’s film career might have started earlier had it not been for her father. In 1938, Gene and her family took a trip to Hollywood. On a tour of the Warner Brothers studio, she was “discovered” by Anatole Litvak. The studio wanted to give the seventeen-year-old a contract, but her father didn’t think the salary was very good and that ended that, or so it seemed.

Instead of going to Hollywood, Tierney struck a deal with her father. She would pursue an acting career on the legitimate stage. It was Howard Tierney’s belief (and hope) that his daughter would soon tire of a career, marry well and settle down. But that was not to be.

Tierney helped sell a lot of hats in the 1940s.

Tierney’s stage debut was inauspicious at best: she carried a pail of water across the stage in What a Life! (1938). Larger roles soon followed and influential critics like Brooks Atkinson from The New York Times took notice. Her real break came when she played Patricia Stanley in the Male Animal (1940). Her reviews were terrific and all of Broadway was at her feet.

One evening, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox studios, attended a performance of The Male Animal. He thought Tierney had movie star potential and soon she was on her way to Hollywood.

Tierney’s first movie was The Return of Frank James starring Henry Fonda and directed by Fritz Lang. The movie was a hit, but Tierney’s performance was panned. The Harvard Lampoon went so far as to call  her “The Worst Female Discovery” of 1940. Tierney took that slight in stride, but she didn’t like the way her voice sounded. She said she sounded like an “angry Minnie Mouse.” Someone suggested she take up smoking cigarettes to lower the register of her voice. Smoking did lower her voice, but it would also contribute to health problems later in life.

Tierney is a Technicolor dream in "Heaven Can Wait."

Tierney may not have impressed the critics with her acting ability, but the public was enthralled with her beauty. As the new Hollywood “it girl,” Tierney made five movies in 1941, including Tobacco Road directed by John Ford, Sundown directed by Henry Hathaway, and The Shanghai Gesture directed by Joseph von Sternberg. Nineteen forty-one was also the year Tierney defied her family and studio by marrying a young fashion designer named Oleg Cassini. She and Cassini eloped against the advice of her parents and the brass at Fox.

The next year, Tierney starred in four movies, including Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake opposite Tyrone Power, Fox’s top male box office draw.

In 1943, Tierney starred in Heaven Can Wait with Don Ameche, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. The classic comedy filmed in Technicolor showcased Tierney’s radiant beauty. In the movie, her character aged from a young teenage girl to a middle-aged woman and mother. It was her performance as Martha Strabel Van Cleve that convinced Otto Preminger that Tierney had the right qualities to play the title character in the new movie he was producing.

Tierney with Vincent Price in "Laura"

During the filming of Heaven Can Wait, Tierney discovered she was pregnant. On October 15, 1943, Tierney gave birth to a baby girl, Antoinette Daria Cassini. Born premature, Daria had several handicaps: she was deaf, partially blind, and severely retarded. This devastated Tierney and may have been the beginning of her struggles with mental illness.

After the birth of her daughter, it wasn’t a surprise that Tierney was reluctant to get back to the studio for the next assignment they had lined up for her. The role of Laura Hunt did not appeal to Tierney. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Jennifer Jones, producer Otto Preminger wanted Tierney and lobbied Zanuck hard for her services.

Hired as the producer, Preminger constantly clashed with Rouben Mamoulian, The Mark of Zoro (1940), the studio-assigned director. After viewing early footage that Mamoulian directed, Zanuck fired him and hired Preminger to both produce and direct. Preminger had directed several films before, but none had brought him any great success or acclaim. Laura was based on a novel by Vera Caspary, a popular novelist and screenwriter, A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

"Laura..the face in the misty light"

Set among New York’s Park Ave. set, the movie is populated with society’s “upper crust,” if you will, a group that fascinated Preminger. Casting Tierney as the mysterious Laura was a risk. The audience had to believe that she was able to captivate all three of the male protagonists. The director was sure he had made the right choice and felt the same about casting Dana Andrews as detective Mark McPherson. At this point in his career, Andrews was still playing second leads. Zanuck’s first choice for the role was John Hodiak. Laura gave Andrews his first big role and it made him a star.

When the film was released in late 1944, it was an instant hit. Tierney was more famous than ever. And she would be forever identified with the film and its haunting musical score penned by David Raksin.

Laura was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Preminger) and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb). Preminger and Webb lost that year, but cinematographer Joseph LaShelle won for his masterful black and white photography.

Tierney’s performance, as well as Andrews’s, was neglected at Oscar time. Today Tierney’s performance is appreciated as one of the best of the actress’s career.
The American Film Institute named Laura the fourth best film in the mystery genre in 2008.

To learn more about classic movies, visit the Classic Movie Man blog.

The Remarkable Andrews

6 Nov

This short biography of actor Dana Andrews will help you enjoy the November 19, 2010 “Meet Me at the Movies” screening of Laura (1944). Andrews’s role as detective Mark McPherson was the prototype for the 1940s fedora-wearing hard-boiled detective. Director Martin Scorsese screened Laura for Leonard DiCaprio and the cast of Shutter Island to help them understand the look and feel he was after.

Dana Andrews looks at Gene Tierney's portrait in "Laura"

Dana Andrews arrived in Hollywood at the height of its golden age. One of the best and most dependable leading men during the 1940s, he created several iconic roles that are still with us today.

Andrews was born Carver Dana Andrews in Mississippi, the third of thirteen children born to Charles Forrest Andrews and his wife Annis. The family eventually moved to Huntsville, Texas, where his younger siblings (including actor Steve Forrest) were born.

After moving to California as an adult and after a few odd jobs, Andrews studied opera, planning to become a singer. He also began studying acting and performing at the famed Pasadena Playhouse where he was one of its most popular performers. Andrews signed a contract with producer Samuel Goldwyn and appeared in his first movie role in The Westerner (1940) starring Gary Cooper. The film was directed by the legendary William Wyler, who would later cast Andrews in one of his most famous roles as returning World War II veteran, Fred Derry, in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Early in his movie career, Andrews was cast in a variety of roles, most of which he pulled off quite well, including that of Barbara Stanwyck’s gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac, in the Howard Hawks classic Ball of Fire (1941). More important roles came his way throughout the early forties and by 1944, Andrews was receiving star billing, working alongside major stars like Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda.

In 1944, Andrews became a major star in his own right as detective Mark McPherson in Otto Preminger’s Laura. The film cast him opposite Gene Tierney as the mysterious Laura Hunt. The role made Andrews a hot property, and Tierney a film icon. Andrews’s work in Laura began an interesting, if not always successful, collaboration with director Otto Preminger. After Laura, Andrews would be directed by Preminger in Fallen Angel (1945), Daisy Kenyon (1947), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and In Harm’s Way (1965).

By the late 1940s, Andrews was a top leading man.

In the mid- to late 1940s, Andrews costarred with some of Hollywood’s great beauties including Linda Darnell, Jeanne Crain, Merle Oberon, Maureen O’Hara, Joan Crawford, Lili Palmer, Susan Hayward, as well as the aforementioned Tierney. Andrews and Tierney starred opposite each other in five films, with Where the Sidewalk Ends being their last. In addition to some of his legendary leading ladies, Andrews worked with directors like John Ford, Elia Kazan, Lewis Milestone, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, William Dieterle, and Tony Richardson.

Andrews worked with top directors, including Elia Kazan.

At the beginning of his film career, Andrews was often compared to Spencer Tracy. Both actors had a naturalistic, honest style of acting that, in the case of Andrews, was often overlooked, especially by modern critics and film fans. This lack of appreciation is revealed in the fact that Andrews was never once nominated for an Academy Award. It is hard to believe that his peers overlooked his roles in Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives come Oscar time.

In spite of the lack of acting awards, Andrews left us with a body of film work that most actors dream of having. Anyone who could read the line “for a charming intelligent girl, you’ve certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes” from Laura and make it sound like real speech, deserved at least a nomination in our books.

To learn more about classic movies, visit the Classic Movie Man blog.


“Laura” Starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews November 19 “Meet Me at the Movies” Event

6 Nov

The Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance (PDNA) invites you to “Meet Me at the Movies,” Friday November 19, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. at Sherwood Community Music School, Columbia College recital hall, 1312 S. Michigan Ave.

The setting for Laura is set amongst New York City’s upper crust, with Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating the murder of beautiful advertising executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). The suspects are some of her closest friends and associates including fiancé (Vincent Price), aunt (Judith Anderson), and mentor (Clifton Webb).

When production on Laura started, no one believed that the end product would we worth seeing. From the beginning the project was problematic. Arguments between studio boss Darryl Zanuck and the original director, Rouben Mamoulian ended in Mamoulian being fired. Zanuck then assigned Otto Preminger, already the film’s producer, to be its director too. The only problem: Preminger had never directed a motion picture before.

Under Preminger’s supervision, what began as a fairly ordinary murder mystery, turned out to be a critical and box office success. Tierney in the title role became a superstar and was forever identified with the beautiful, enigmatic Laura Hunt. Andrews, as Detective Mark McPherson, established himself as a major star and popular leading man. Webb, who hadn’t made a movie since the early days of talking pictures, earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Waldo Lydecker. Thomas M. Pryor, in his October 12, 1944 New York Times review called Laura “a top-drawer mystery.”

With some of the sharpest and wittiest dialogue ever recorded on film, Laura set the standard for 1940s film noir. Andrews’s portrayal of McPherson became a prototype for what would become known as the hard-boiled detective, influencing a generation of movie actors. Pryor from the Times put it this way: “Mr. Andrews is fast proving himself to be a solidly persuasive performer, a sort of younger-edition Spencer Tracy.”

The musical score by David Raksin is one of the most hauntingly beautiful movie themes ever recorded.

Admission to the movie is $5.

To learn more about classic movies, visit the Classic Movie Man blog.

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