People complain, as people ought to do, about the MPAA’s rating system, but it replaces a system that was even more restrictive than what we’ve got now. Producer and director Otto Preminger, a constant warrior against censorship, is celebrated with a four-film fest of newly restored films running Dec. 1-3 at the Smith Rafael Film Center.
“The Ottocrat” was known and feared as one of the most sulfurously tempered of directors. As an actor, he was a natural, playing shaven-headed Prussians in The Pied Piper and Stalag 17 and Mr. Freeze on TV’s Batman. As an early and especially independent producer, his work anticipates the indie films of today.
Where the Sidewalk Ends (screening Dec. 1) is a euphemistic title meaning “the gutter,” and that’s where NYPD cop Dana Andrews will end up if he can’t get help from Gene Tierney. One of Preminger’s least known films, this is a reteaming of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney from Preminger’s famous murder/romance Laura. Afterwards, film noir expert Eddie Mueller turns up onstage to grill Dana Andrew’s daughter Susan Andrews under the hot lights until she spills what she knows.
Described as “what fellas back home would call ‘a hot bundle,’ I guess,” Dorothy Dandridge is the highlight of Preminger’s 1954 remake of the Bizet opera, Carmen Jones (Dec. 3). Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics to the famous habañera (“Dat’s Love”) isn’t as easy on the ear as the French verses were, but the cast includes Diahann Carroll, the powerhouse belter Pearl Bailey and the intimidating Broc (later Brock) Peters as the sergeant who taunts Don Jose into a fight. As the unlucky Joe, Harry Belafonte is as nervous as a cat, and he contends with a dubbed tenor voice so different from his familiar mellow tones.
Despite the unsteady Belafonte, the movie works. A keen sense of design led Preminger to be the first director to hire Saul Bass. The eminent graphic artist came up with a title sequence in which animated scarlet flames consume a scrawled cartoon rose.
Preminger also gave Dorothy Dandridge her first major part. The sophisticated nightclub chanteuse coarsened her speaking voice and her diction to play this backwoods Carmen. (Marilyn Horne dubs her singing voice.) She is chemical as hell–a sensation in tight pink skirts and zebra-striped underwear–but Dandridge is also an affecting anti-heroine. She stands up to the male lust for possession until she’s destroyed, like a female toreador killed by the bull she was teasing. (Though she was the first black person ever to appear on the cover of Life magazine, Dandridge didn’t prosper; racist typecasting and gossip hurried her to a young end at 42.)
Preminger’s 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm (Dec. 2) is tamer than Nelson Algren’s drug novel, with Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, a Chicago jazz drummer going down the drain thanks to dope. Long visible in grimy public domain copies, the film was in desperate need of a new print and has finally been restored. Preminger’s daughter Victoria and eminent film historian David Thomson discuss this pioneering drama after the screening.
The aging of some of Preminger’s wares is apparent, no matter how pristine the print. His 1953 The Moon Is Blue (Dec. 3), a scandal in its day, it is now about as spicy as a Saskatoon burrito. It stars Maggie McNamara, a virgin as unassailable as Doris Day, up against a pair of polished seducers (William Holden, David Niven). It was a risky endeavor to release the film without the seal of the Motion Picture Production Code, but the gamble paid off with a 16-week stint on the Top Ten.
Maddened by the thought of the word “virgin” being heard on American screens for the first time, Catholic picketers from the Knights of Columbus turned up in droves. Little did they know the film was a resounding defense of the idea of waiting ’til you’re married. As Preminger’s unauthorized biographer Willi Frischauer put it, “The bark of the moralists was often worse than the bite of the producer.”
Frischauer and others have plenty of recollections of Awful Otto’s gentle, personable side. These anecdotes spoil the legend of a thundering tyrant, just as the sometimes terrible films he made (The Cardinal, Rosebud) mar the record of a true rebel.
An Academy centennial salute to Otto Preminger screens Friday-Sunday, Dec. 1-3, at the Smith Rafael Film Center. 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.454.1222. www.cafilm.org.
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