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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.

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