Otto’s Life in the Sausage Factory

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To view FilmStruck’s “Early Otto” theme, click here.

The Golden Age of Hollywood seems so all-American, so homogeneous in its style and so uniform in its production practices. Yet, many of its directors were Europeans who both contributed and conformed to the industry. One of those directors was Otto Preminger, and his Golden Age films are spotlighted by FilmStruck in their “Early Otto” theme. Five pictures are featured, including the film noirs Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), the melodrama Daisy Kenyon (1947), and the historical dramas A Royal Scandal (1945) and Forever Amber (1947).

The five films represent his first period of success when he was a studio director at Twentieth Century Fox. Though not entirely ungrateful for his opportunities, Preminger referred to his time as a studio director as “life in the sausage factory.”

Years ago, I picked up Preminger’s autobiography at a movie memorabilia shop for $4.00. Titled appropriately enough Preminger: An Autobiography, the slim tome was published in 1977, eight years before his death. I thought I would share his memories and perspectives on the five films that make up “Early Otto.”

Preminger devoted an entire chapter to Laura, which speaks to its importance, because the autobiography is only 189 pages. He took delight in revealing that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck had told him he would never direct it, only to be forced to ask him to do so after Rouben Mamoulian dropped the ball. He also spun the behind-the-scenes troubles to suggest that he knew all along that the actors and the script were good, but no one else knew it, including Vera Caspary (the author of the source novel) and Bryan Foy, the original producer. He claimed that no one wanted Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker because he was “effeminate,” until Preminger secretly shot him performing in a play to prove how good an actor he was.

After viewing Preminger’s final cut, Zanuck claimed he did not understand the ending, so he wrote a new one that was told from Laura’s narrative point of view. Preminger and the actors found it ridiculous, but they had to shoot it. At a private screening, Zanuck showed it to his “yes-men,” as Preminger called them, as well as columnist Walter Winchell. Winchell declared it was a great film except for the conclusion, which prompted Zanuck to instruct Preminger to restore his original. After the film became a hit at the box office, Zanuck began asking Preminger to his house in Palm Springs for weekends—a true measure of success at the studio.

Interestingly, Fallen Angel, the noir follow-up to Laura that is one of my favorite Preminger films, gets only one sentence in the book. Daisy Kenyon does not get a lot of coverage either, but Otto does have kind words about Joan Crawford. She generously gave him a set of lawn furniture when she visited his outdoor garden and noticed that his chairs were worn. After shooting finished, she gave him a set of gold cuff links, which was her habit with directors she liked. Preminger noted that he once attended a party in which he and three other directors were wearing the same cuff links. Both Fallen Angel and Daisy Kenyon featured Dana Andrews, who became a star in Laura. I believe Preminger understood Andrews’s strengths as an actor, because he stands out in each of these films; the two made five films together.

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A Royal Scandal figures prominently in Preminger’s autobiography. Ernst Lubitsch had asked him to direct it, and it is obvious that he admired the great director as did the other refugees from the German film industry. Unfortunately, the two disagreed over casting when Lubitsch secured Greta Garbo’s agreement to star in the film after Tallulah Bankhead had already been hired. Garbo had retired four years earlier, so it was a coup to get her interested in returning to Hollywood, but Preminger owed a debt to Bankhead. The actress had helped Preminger and his family stay in the country when they faced deportation. He wasn’t going to betray her. The two went to Zanuck, with Lubitsch convinced that the studio head would see things his way. But, Zanuck was influenced by the old Hollywood adage that you are only as good as your last film. Garbo’s last movie, Two-Faced Woman (1941) had flopped, while Bankhead was on a winning streak after starring in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944).

Bitter over losing this battle, Lubitsch took it out on Bankhead. He managed to snag the dailies before Preminger could look at them. He accused Bankhead of deliberately upstaging her costar, Anne Baxter, which upset the veteran actress. It was up to Preminger to smooth over the ruffled feathers.

Though Preminger admired Lubitsch, he described the film as out of touch with modern, postwar audiences. Lubitsch’s humor was situational not character-driven, according to Preminger, and the main character in A Royal Scandal, the Empress of Russia, behaved in ways that were not believable. Plus, old-world royalty seemed outdated after World War II. The film did not fare well. Disillusioned, Bankhead withdrew from films; she did not make another till Die, Die My Darling in 1965.

Preminger had nothing positive to say about Forever Amber. He had disliked the novel on which it was based, and Zanuck had to coerce him into the director’s chair. Fellow Streamliner Nathaniel Thompson has written about the film in his post on September 6, so I won’t repeat his insights and observations. Instead, I will piggy-back on Nathaniel’s comments about the film’s condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Because the novel had been condemned by the Catholic Church, Fox was careful to follow the rules and guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code during shooting. Still, the Legion of Decency was peeved that Fox had turned the book into a film despite their denunciation and condemned the film sight unseen.

Fox president Spyros Skouros asked Preminger to come with him to New York to meet members of the LOD to discuss their options. Three priests met with Preminger and Skouros, who began by pleading that the studio had spent $6 million on the film and could not afford to lose that amount of money. Unmoved, the priest in charge stated that the book had been condemned, so the studio should have known better. According to Preminger, Skouros was so panicked that he actually knelt and kissed the hand of this priest. The priest then suggested that Fox change the title, which was not a possibility given the publicity value of the name recognition. Skouros asked one of the priests to sit in the projection room with Preminger and suggest changes. As Otto noted, “It was painful.” After each reel, the priest had a litany of objections, including scenes in which characters kissed on the lips. The LOD finally approved the film, which became a box-office hit. Preminger, however, was disgusted by the experience and embarrassed by Skouros’s behavior.

In 1951, Preminger crossed swords with the LOD again over his film The Moon Is Blue. By this time, he had become one of the first independent producers after the fallout from the antitrust decree. In 1948, the Supreme Court forced the major studios to divest themselves of exhibition outlets and to alter distribution practices, creating cash flow problems. The big studios scrambled for ways to cut costs. Studio moguls were suddenly keen to make deals with stars, directors and other talent to reduce the length and costs of long-term contracts. Preminger took advantage of the situation to negotiate a new contract. His new contract allowed him six months a year to pursue his own projects, including his first—The Moon Is Blue.

When the LOD disapproved of the film, the Production Code refused to give it a code seal, which in the past had meant that theaters would not show it. But, Preminger and United Artists released the film without a code seal, and theaters showed it anyway. According to Otto, in small towns, priests stood outside the theaters taking down the names of parishioners who bought tickets.

It must have been satisfying to Preminger when The Moon Is Blue turned out to be a success. As an independent producer-director who could stand up to the LOD, Preminger had entered a new phase of his career. He had successfully left the sausage factory.

Susan Doll

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8 Responses Otto’s Life in the Sausage Factory
Posted By Arthur : September 11, 2017 9:59 am

Precisely because Clifton Webb was effeminate, he was a good choice for Waldo Lydecker. He loved Laura but could not consummate his love, hence his homicidal frustration and anger that she fell for someone who could.

Note, he was always in his bathtub sort of reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade. Speaking of sadistic, was not that characteristic ascribed to Preminger in later years?

Posted By AL : September 11, 2017 7:38 pm

SUSAN–don’t forget FROM MAINSTRRET TO BROADWAY. Tallulah played herself, the material was well written and Taluh’s delivery was hysterical. The film is awful, but Miss Bankhead’s scenes are REALLY funny…check it out…

Posted By Doug : September 11, 2017 8:36 pm

Arthur wrote:”He loved Laura but could not consummate his love, hence his homicidal frustration and anger that she fell for someone who could.”

This sounds like the situation found in 1965′s “The Loved One”-Mr Joyboy (Rod Steiger)seems somewhat effeminate, but is obsessed with the beauty of Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer).

Posted By Susan Doll : September 11, 2017 9:08 pm

AL: You are right about MAIN STREET. Wasn’t thinking of that kind of role. I do love Tallulah, though.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 11, 2017 11:32 pm

I just made it through Hurricane Irma in Florida. Thank you for posting comments; it helped me to focus on something else and feel a return to normalcy. I appreciate my readers so much.

Posted By swac44 : September 12, 2017 9:14 am

So glad to see you and your guests and pets (and Marty) made it through OK!

Still have never seen Forever Amber, but hoping to correct that soon, since I haven’t come across a Preminger title yet that wasn’t intriguing on some level. Those Fox films all have a unique flavour that makes them stand out, even with the studio’s interference. I must consult my copy of The Films of Otto Preminger by Gerald Arthur Pratley, who interviewed the director in the 1970s about each of his projects, adding his own thoughts along the way. As I recall, he didn’t have much to say about Daisy Kenyon then either, probably because he hadn’t seen it in 30 years, but a recent viewing of the film turned out to be most rewarding, with a very modulated performance from Crawford and a love triangle story steeped in noir style. But because of the style, you expect things to become way more dramatic than they turn out to be, but I guess that’s what keeps you watching.

Posted By Arthur : September 12, 2017 11:14 am

The last few minutes of LAURA are spellbinding.

Laura is listening to Lydecker’s radio program and suddenly he appears right there in the flesh, brandishing a shotgun. She tries to run in the cramped apartment. He chases her as the detectives pound on the door. He corners her. They break down the door. They reach her just as he aims. But they shoot first.

Interesting that Dana Andrews is not the one w kills Lydecker. He shoves Laura behind him as his partner shoots.

(By the way, if a gun is a phallic symbol, note how the impotent Lydecker overcompensates with a gigantic firearm.)

Finally, as the film fades to black with Dana Andrews bravely shielding his love, one wonders what their life will be like together. Rich socialite and stoic, poorly paid detective? But love conquers all. Or does it. . .

Posted By swac44 : September 12, 2017 12:12 pm

Laura also seems like an appropriate title to watch in the wake of the revival of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The film enjoyed a mini-resurgence in popularity in the early ’90s when some clever noir aficionados picked up on some similarities with Lynch’s work, such as the fact that a detective becomes obsessed with the late subject of his investigation, who is also named Laura, while the series featured a mynah bird named Waldo and another character named Lydecker. Laura also returns from the dead, sort of, in the form of dream sequences and the arrival of her identical twin cousin. Don’t ask me if there’s a Log Lady equivalent though…

There are probably some other connections, but it might take even more digging.

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