Otto Preminger’s Disorientation in ‘Danger—Love at Work’ and ‘Margin for Error’

[8 May 2014]

By Michael Barrett

Above: Danger—Love at Work (1937)

Two of Otto Preminger’s first films are now available on demand from Fox Cinema Archive. One is a loud screwball comedy, the other a WWII propaganda effort, and both display Preminger’s odd tendency to unbalance the story and characters.

In Danger—Love at Work, a lackadaisical New York lawyer (Jack Haley, remembered only and always as the Tin Woodman) attempts to conduct business with a family of stridently eccentric numbskulls who believe in “free living” and who have a beautiful blonde daughter (Ann Sothern, classed up more than usual).

In other words, it’s the territory of You Can’t Take It With You, George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer-winning play of 1936, which would become Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning film in 1938. In between, co-writers James Edward Grant and Ben Markson knocked off this variant. There’s also a dash of My Man Godfrey (1936), in that the audience is encouraged to laugh at people who are rich enough to be as wacky and subversive as they please. Actually, this film and perhaps the Kaufman/Hart play owe much to an earlier play and film called Three-Cornered Moon (1933), as witness the fact that Preminger’s film features stout character actress Mary Boland virtually reprising her role of the scatterbrained matriarch from that earlier movie.

The only real drawback to this determined frantic free-for-all is that everyone booms so piercingly, and none more unpleasantly than Edward Everett Horton, as the most bossy, overbearing “wrong fiancĂ©” in film history. On the upside, it’s got a dazzling array of character players to do the booming. John Carradine tears into his role as the daffy “post-surrealist” uncle who paints his masterpieces on ceilings and windows (not a bad idea), at one point informing his sister “I call it the love life of a cup and saucer”, to which she blandly replies, “My goodness, are they that way too?” Famous cartoonist Peter Arno “dubbed” his paintings, and it would be nice to see them in color.

Portly balding Walter Catlett is another batty uncle, little Etienne Girardot is the absent-minded scientist and paterfamilias, Bennie Bartlett is the annoying boy genius, Margaret McWade and Margaret Seddon (billed on the poster as “The Pixilated Sisters” from their vaudeville act and their roles in the previous year’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ) are crazy spinsters (again), Elisha Cook Jr. is a gung-ho junior chemist, Spencer Charters is Horton’s “hick” taxi driver, Charles Lane is a guy at the train station, and an uncredited Franklin Pangborn (currently unlisted on the IMDB page) is the dining car’s headwaiter. This ain’t the half of it.

There are not one but two Tarzan references. One involves another crazy relative called Uncle Goliath (Maurice Cass), and the other arrives in the charming scene where Haley and Sothern spontaneously burst into the title song while taking shelter in a barn. It’s the movie’s quietest and nicest moment, and a minor example of what we think of as Premingerian ambiguity. They spend the night chastely (or so we presume), but other characters believe differently and have various opinions about it, and the movie implies that Sothern’s character was ready to take the initiative. Whether anything happened or not, she’s willing to take advantage of it.

When the frame is packed with arguing characters (including Carradine declaring marriage an outdated bourgeois institution for trapping men), it foreshadows the way Preminger’s later widescreen efforts accommodated many points of view, and the film as a whole—shrill and uneven as it may be—encourages this director’s vision of moral disorientation that leaves viewers without a compass.

Margin for Error (1943)

Margin for Error (1943)

It’s curious that this can be noticed in an early and minor screwball comedy, and it’s even more noticeable in the even more minor Margin for Error, which came about in a funny way. Because of friction with Darryl F. Zanuck, Preminger didn’t work at Fox or in Hollywood again after Danger—Love at Work, although it was successful. Instead he did a lot of Broadway work, having a hit directing and appearing in Clare Boothe Luce’s Margin for Error. When invited to Fox (in Zanuck’s wartime absence) to reprise his role of the Nazi villain in the film version, he offered to direct at no extra charge, and that’s how he got his foot back in Hollywood’s door.

Luce’s play had been written before the US entry into war to rally a warning about the Nazi threat; the film was rewritten with the main story placed in flashback. Lillie Hayward, known for horse and dog stories like the same year’s My Friend Flicka, gets the script credit, but Preminger later stated that he’d brought in an uncredited Samuel Fuller to revise it. It’s not hard to hear his blunt anger in some of the dialogue.

The story is based on the true incident of a Jewish policeman assigned to guard the German consulate in New York before the war. The TCM website reports that the real-life captain, Max Finkelstein, committed suicide in 1940 over a different matter, and the film changed the name to Moe Finkelstein. Milton Berle is perfectly at ease as the cop, a rare semi-dramatic role for him. Preminger is the smirking consul, who practically wears a “Kill me” sign on his bald forehead, like a prospective victim in an episode of Murder She Wrote ; he’s playing for WWII what similarly autocratic perfectionist director Erich Von Stroheim played for WWI.

The household is full of people who are ready to split the scene or Preminger’s skull, including his hangdog wife (Joan Bennett), whose Czech father is in a concentration camp; the aristocratic aide (Carl Esmond) who tries to be loyal but may have a Jewish grandmother; and a pretty maid (Poldy Dur) who can’t get lipstick in Germany. Howard Freeman plays the portly weasel who leads the German-American Bund and a gang of saboteurs. For an hour, we’re not sure if this movie is a satirical comedy or serious drama; the question remains unclarified by the bird-icide of a parrot called Mr. Churchill, who always caws “Ridiculous!” Preminger hates a critic. The last 15 minutes become a whodunit as far-fetched as any of this whimsically tricky era.

Preminger had a lot of experience as a director before he made these movies, and the closer one studies his output, the more one perceives that the very unevenness of these early projects bespeaks a filmmaker who sets about very precisely to be ambiguous. One may not know how to approach these movies or quite grasp the stories shapes, but they’re not dull. Margin for Error looks great, with every detail in Edward Cronjager’s photography as sharp as a bayonet. The earlier film has ragged moments, with some damage to the left side of the print in several scenes.

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