So much of Otto Preminger's persona was severe and forbidding--the shiny bald skull, the tantrums, the thick Vienesse accent, the unrelenting work ethic--that I can't help but put him in the Jack Webb bin, which is to say that the more I think of it, the more Preminger's act seems to be a highly evolved form of comedy. Otto the Terrible was, in fact, a warm-hearted family man who clearly enjoyed his own persona and didn't mind sending it up here and there. I'm not saying that he wasn't really monstrous--clearly he could reduce co-workers to a dithering shambles of their former selves--but merely that he was his own best creation.

Comedy is noticebly absent from his canon--his one straight up attempt, "Skidoo", was a notorious flop when it was released in 1968. The film is a collision course between old Hollywood (Preminger and his stars, who include Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, George Raft, Groucho Marx, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney) and the hippie counter-culture (the music is by the very young Harry Nillson, Frankie Avalon is in it, etc.) Though long deplored as one of mainstream Hollywood's worst movies ever, "Skidoo" turned up at a film festival in Hollywood a few years ago and seemed to provoke an affectionate response. The film is posted on Youtube in ten parts and one can now judge (for free) the actual quality of the film versus its reputation. ( I must confess to having started out watching it with great enthusiasm only to turn it off at the end of part two). Clearly Preminger meant well by doing the film--it seemed, to the screenwriter Doran Canon, that the material spoke to the gentle and humorous Otto that was buried beneath the formal and cool exterior. You can't possibly go out and make a film with Groucho Marx playing a gangster named "God" and not, underneath it all, be something of a renegade yourself.

I had my own encounter with Preminger--in a manner of speaking. Actually it was with his house. In a manner of speaking. That is, it was with an article that belonged to the house. Dig:

Preminger's title sequences and poster art were famously designed by Saul Bass--and very cool/hip/ultra-sleek they were, too. So pleased with Bass's work was the director that he incorporated the designer's aesthetic into his personal life as well. Bass designed the lettering on the door of Preminger's offices at 711 Fifth Avenue (black doors, small white lettering: o t t o p r e m i n g e r.) Preminger's taste was severely modern--his home and office were identically decorated with only white and black furniture, Eames chairs, marble tables, and millions of dollars of modern art on the walls. Lots of speaker-phones (then very cutting edge) and Henry Moore sculptures. At his townhouse on East 64th Street (which sort of resembled Preminger--it was tall, hulking and bald looking), he had Bass design small white lettering with the address (1 2 9 E a s t 6 4) on the black front door, and a giant doormat, with the letter "P" on it, done in Bassian script. The house is a mere ten blocks from where I have resided, on and off over the years, in Manhattan.

One day, about five or so years after Preminger's death, I was passing the house and noticed that it seemed deserted. (It's since been sold and completely remodled in a fussy, Empire style that Preminger would have loathed). The Bass lettering was intact on the door, as was the monogrammed doormat. I looked at the doormat and thought, "what the hell is going to become of this artifact?" So I did what any self-respecting film geek would do. I took it. 

I didn't just take it then and there, on the spot, though. I contrived an elaborate and cowardly scheme to snatch it, involving a friend of mine (who was in on the robbery). My friend and I took a cab to the house, loudly discussing the renovation of the interior of Preminger's house that I had supposedly been hired to do. Then I garrulously explained that the doormat needed to be removed in order to be restored to its original glory. Further, I added that my assistant was off for the week and that it was a good thing we happened to be passing by the Preminger house as I could just jump out and take said doormat. By the time the cab pulled up to 129 East 64th, I had established an airtight alibi for my theft. Had the driver been questioned, he would have probably told a confusing story about two men who were renovating doormats. Doormat safely in hand, I had the cab take me back to my apartment.

For many years I hid the doormat guiltily in a closet. Later, when I moved to a house in LA, I took it with me, cleaned it and placed it on the front doorstep, turning it upside down so that the letter "P" now formed the letter "d"--which, of course, is the first letter of my last name. It sits there to this day. I wonder what happened to that friend of mine who helped me steal Otto's doormat? Anyway...

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