Otto Preminger, who died earlier this week at the age of 80, was an unlikely knight in shining armor, and yet it’s true that he galloped to the rescue of the movies, won his fight and helped to inaugurate a new day.
The ride to the rescue might have been spurred, as it was, by his self-interest and his often irascible ways; still he had a hand in deflecting film history.
From 1934, the movies out of the major Hollywood studios had been made under the strict and moralistic terms of the Hays Code. The code worked because no film without its seal of approval could play in the country’s leading cinemas, which in the early days were owned by the studios that supported the code.
But by the mid-1950s, the studios had been forced by antitrust consent decrees to sell off their theaters. The code, no longer really enforceable, was tottering. Preminger gave it a large shove.
His first landmark film, demure by the standards of a present television sitcom, was “The Moon Is Blue,” starring the late Maggie McNamara, who was Oscar-nominated for her performance. The dialogue, as Preminger’s obituaries have pointed out in some amusement, contained such forbidden words as virgin , mistress and pregnant. In a more general way, the film defied the Breen office (which administered the code) because the heroine used her virginity as a tactical weapon.
Preminger released the film without a seal; it found plenty of theaters to play and, helped by a condemnation from the Catholic Legion of Decency, prospered at the box office.
Three years later, in 1956, he made another and far more substantial assault on the code. Narcotics addiction was one of the many subjects verboten under the code. Preminger filmed Nelson Algren’s tough novel “The Man With the Golden Arm” anyway, and again released it without the Production Code seal.
It was a grim and vivid depiction of the horrors of addiction (famously characterized as “the 35-pound monkey on my back” by Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, the card dealer with the golden arm).
What Preminger had twice made clear was that the code was no longer enforceable and, more importantly, that the code, written in the late 1920s, sorely needed revision.
A chasm had opened up between life as it was lived and life as it could be portrayed under the code. The issue was not morality vs. immorality, but reality and credibility vs. a make-believe world that rested on a hypocritical denial of the way things are.
Preminger’s two films succeeded, although the larger battle against the Hays Code was to take another decade, and further deep erosions of the moviegoing audience by the spectacular growth of television.
By 1966 “Suggested for Mature Audiences” crept into the language in the ads for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and in 1968 the Hays Code was finally swept away.
There were those, of course, who saw Preminger less as a white knight than a villain who had helped destroy the reticences--and the built-in, mandatory optimism--that characterized the Hollywood movies of the code’s era, when a chew of the earlobe was as steamy as things got and the good guys never did worse than break even.
But the other way to say it was that with the new rating system and the retiring of the Hays Code, the movies had come of age as a telling medium and as an art form.
It remained for “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969 to demonstrate that freedom of expression and licentiousness were not necessarily the same thing. That film’s story materials were scabrous, but its point of view was that of a morality play in which the wages of sin were amply demonstrated.
So Otto Preminger’s contribution to film history has to be seen, I think, as positive. The possibilities of exploitation were and are the downside risk of the new latitudes. Preminger’s own “Hurry Sundown” in 1967 was baleful proof of how deadly things could be when suggestiveness gets out of hand. (Critic Arthur Knight called it “Uncle Otto’s Cabin.”)
But an art form has to be measured by its peaks, and many of the outstanding films of the last 15 years could not have been made under the cautions of the old code, from “Tootsie” to “Terms of Endearment” and “Out of Africa.” Preminger’s shove helped.
Preminger will be remembered for the high points in his legacy: “Laura,” that sleek and marvelous melodrama; “Advise and Consent,” his crackling drama of politics; “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Carmen Jones,” “Exodus,” and even, for its historical relevance, “The Moon Is Blue.” There have been thinner legacies.