Had Otto directed the Bowery Boys in this...he would have had a hit. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Margin for Error, the 1943 comedy/romance/mystery/propaganda piece from Fox, based on Clare Boothe Luce's Broadway play (which in turn was loosely inspired by a true story), directed by and co-starring Otto Preminger, with Joan Bennett, Milton Berle, Carl Esmond, Howard Freeman, and Poldi Dur along for the bumpy ride. A misfired mishmash of contrasting aims and styles, Margin for Error finally winds up only satisfying people who want to see Preminger play a Nazi again...and that's amusing for all of about five minutes. No extras for this sharp black and white fullscreen transfer.
A U.S. troop ship, bound to smash the Nazis. On board, Private Moe Finkelstein (Milton Berle) is bound to roll a Little Joe during a furious crap game, one that is interrupted when Pete (Ralph Byrd) gets irate when "Heinie-sounding" Baron Max von Alvenstor (Charles Esmond) slaps a lit match out of Pete's hand, owing to the ship's blackout conditions. Moe calms everyone down, and tells the all-American story of how German Max came to fight the Nazis. A few years before, in New York City, NYPD patrolman Moe Finkelstein is assigned to perilous new duty: he and fellow Jewish cop, Officer Solomon (Joe Kirk), are to report to the Bowery to personally watch over the German consulate there, as well as safeguard the notorious Nazi German Consul-General, Karl Baumer (Otto Preminger). Finkelstein is outraged, and tries to quit, but his superior, Captain Mulrooney (Edward McNamara), tells him this order comes from the mayor himself, who wants to show-up the German Nazi government (which has been complaining about the demonstrations against its NYC consulate). And what better way to showcase America's free-speech democracy than to have a couple of all-American Jewish flatfoots guard some Nazi pigs? Good-natured Finkelstein, making the best of the situation, finally agrees.
Once inside the consulate, Moe doesn't realize he's in the middle of a hotbed of intrigue, both political and romantic. Baron Max von Alvenstor, Baumer's secretary, wants to know where all the money went that Berlin has sent to the consulate--money that's supposed to be distributed to puppet buffoons like Otto Horst (Howard Freeman), the pompous leader of the local American bund. Baumer knows exactly where the money is...because he's embezzled it for gambling purposes. And there's no way von Alvenstor is going to do anything about it, or else Baumer might destroy proud Aryan Max with the news that Max's Austrian grandmother was Jewish--thus potentially subjecting Max to deportation and a place in line at a concentration camp. Rat fink Baumer's evil extends to his farce of a marriage with Sophia Baumer (Joan Bennett), a Chezch national whose father, once the Czech ambassador to Berlin, is now being held in just such a camp...with a dread fate befalling him should Sophia leave Baumer. As an unwitting Moe settles into his new assignment, successfully beating time with Teutonic hotsie-totsie maid, Frieda (Poldi Dur), the jig is suddenly up for Baumer, who's recalled to Berlin--a dire situation the desperate, cowardly Baumer will stop at nothing, including massive sabotage, to avoid.
Really only notable today for the fact that this assignment led to dead-in-the-water Preminger's resurrection as a Hollywood director, Margin for Error may seem like it's unusual in some way for its time...that is until you see how those intriguing elements are fudged to begin with, while its contrasting, compromised plot mechanics and fuzzy, illogical character motivations largely result in a tonal mess. Margin for Error began as a Broadway play that noted playwright and future political figure Clare Boothe Luce fashioned as a means of spoofing the Nazi regime (among her many remarkable accomplishments, she is best known by movie lovers today as the author of the 1936 play, The Women, upon which the 1939 M-G-M classic was based). Luce used the true story of NYPD Captain Max Finkelstein's assignment to a specialized detail, gathered personally by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, that was responsible for guarding German Nazi officials in the Big Apple (a political statement by La Guardia that in turn was inspired by former NYC Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who did the same thing when notorious anti-Semite Herman Ahlwardt spoke in New York). Margin for Error, which premiered on Broadway in 1939, was directed by and co-starred Otto Preminger. Preminger, an Austrian Jew who had made a name for himself in Vienna acting and directing plays and movies, was brought to America in 1935 (good timing) by Joseph Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck to work at 20th Century-Fox. There he directed two B comedies before tackling the expensive Kidnapped in 1937, where his artistic clashes with screenwriter and studio head Zanuck caused Preminger to be ousted from Fox and blacklisted in Hollywood.
Returning to the stage, Preminger scored several successes, including Luce's Margin for Error, which ran for 264 performances, along with a 1940 tour of the comedy/mystery. Fox bought the movie rights to the play in 1941, and then promptly put it in turnaround once they realized (too late) that the movie's message would hardly be timely after so many other anti-fascist titles had already come out. Eventually, Margin for Error was green-lighted for production with Ernst Lubitsch at the helm; Preminger was asked to reprise his stage role in the movie version--an offer made not by Zanuck, who was now in the military (and who would never have asked Preminger back on the lot), but by Fox's acting head, William Goetz. When Lubitsch pulled out of the project, Preminger saw his last chance to get back behind the Hollywood cameras. He told Goetz he wouldn't star in the movie unless he directed, a deal Goetz only took when Preminger waved his salary in exchange for a one week trial. Preminger quickly threw out Lillian Hayward's script (Preminger didn't much care for Luce's play to begin with--an important fact later on), and had young scripter Samuel Fuller try and punch it up. At the end of Margin for Error's first week of shooting, Goetz offered Preminger a seven-year contract that included producing power--a sweet, sweet deal that enraged Zanuck when he heard about it, but one that put Preminger back in Hollywood to stay...despite Margin for Error's middling reviews and less-than-stellar box office when it premiered in October, 1943.
All of which brings me to my central question: what is with this fakakta movie? How much of Margin for Error is Luce, and how much is either Fuller or Hayward or Preminger, or all of them, isn't possible for me to say, because I've never read the play. However, if the several different accounts I've read about Preminger disliking the original play and the subsequent first screenplay are true, then it sounds like Fuller and Preminger get at least half the blame here. What struck me first and foremost when watching Margin for Error was the question of what, exactly, is it trying to say or be. Is it a comedy? When a parrot choking on a poisoned grape generates the only out-loud laugh in the whole movie, I'd have to say no (hambone Preminger would have been amusing if his Nazi shtick was backed up with actual funny lines, a necessity that somehow also eludes Berle: "Are you a Nazi?" "Naturally." "What's so natural about it?" Har har). Is it a mystery? Unlike the play, apparently, the body (guess who) doesn't turn up until the movie's almost over, with the solution of his/her murder hurried and not at all suspenseful. Is Margin for Error a romantic drama? There's absolutely no indication that Max and Sophia are attracted to each other...until the final reel, where they're suddenly falling into each others' arms and risking their lives for each other (poor Joan Bennett actually puts in a thoughtful, quiet performance...which is completely at odds with other elements here). How about a romantic comedy? Quite a bit of time is spent on Berle successfully romancing cute Poldi Dur, but it makes almost no sense that Berle, whom she knows is a Jew, could almost immediately break down her resistance (all those formative years of societal Nazi brainwashing kaput?) and score a date with her when such an occurrence would lead to her being shipped back to Germany for retribution (Preminger wouldn't immediately flip over her dating Berle?)
How about something more serious? Is Margin for Error a wartime drama with a patriotic message? Well, by 1943 that message about the dangers of Nazis was already thoroughly played (framing the story like a flashback only draws a line under its dated-by-1943 aspects). As for the well-meaning (and seemingly endless) speeches about what democracy in America looked like at the time--as well as the cheerful assimilation of different religions and ethnicities that Berle keeps bringing up--audiences back in '43 knew that was all hopelessly idealized, just as they do today. It may have sounded good to wartime audiences, sitting in the dark theaters, who needed such patriotic bolstering...but once back home in their neighborhoods, I'll bet some of that emotionally appealing speechifying rang a little hollow in actual practice (as it still does today, ironically, when the very notion of assimilation--E pluribus Unum--has been utterly vilified and rejected). Granted, you can have lots of fun (because you have to laugh for crying) comparing Berle's impassioned support of 1940s American freedoms that aren't on the table in these parts anymore; when Berle states his varied friends do, say, and think "what they want to," and that "if they don't like something the President does, they say so," I would suggest you google "conservatives and the IRS" just for laughs. But you don't have to look for contradictions between Margin for Error's confused platitudes and today's personal restrictions to be amused; there are enough inconsistencies right within the script to furnish those yoks (mind-his-own-business "keeper of the peace" Finkelstein doesn't have a problem with German businesses having their windows busted out during NYC protests against Nazis, while free speech-loving Moe impatiently views that right to sound off as conditional: "When a guy like Horst stands on his Constitutional rights to preach murder, there ought to be some Constitutional way to give him a military funeral,").
Even Margin for Error's so-called claim to fame with some critics--the constant references to our hero, Moe, being Jewish, an admitted anomaly during this period of Hollywood moviemaking--isn't all that special once you realize the movie isn't really going to do anything with his religion besides repeatedly having him say what he is: a Jew. The way Berle plays him (or rather more accurately, the way the character is written), Moe Finkelstein could be any fully assimilated New Yawk wisseass on the make: Italian Catholic, German Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, whatever. In showing a battle between a Jewish cop and a Nazi thug, Margin for Error thinks it's enough just to have its lead character say he's Jewish...without revealing what an American Jew is, or how he feels, or how he sees life through his own cultural prism. If that was one of the points of the movie--the supposedly featureless assimilation that occurs to all groups that come here (Berle's speech about his varied friends all being alike in America)--then Moe's weird, illogical passive/aggressive demeanor at the consulate makes no sense: he's friendly with Nazis; he's not friendly with Nazis...and then he's back to smiling at Preminger after threatening him. He offers Preminger friendly advice about staying away from guys like Freeman; he tells Preminger he can't wait to face him over a trench. He's all over the place. However, if he's supposed to be overtly Jewish...again, his weird, illogical passive/aggressive demeanor makes no sense.... Margin for Error's seemingly brave stand--an out-and-out Jewish hero--quickly shakes out to be a disappointing feint.
Disappointing, too, is Milton Berle's strangely flat turn here. If sadly due to the times, the movie couldn't have its Jewish hero coming out of temple cracking jokes about bonehead Preminger, or throwing out a Yiddish slang word or two (putz seems about right for talented, maddening Preminger), or imparting a pithy Jewish proverb to top vile Nazi Preminger's rantings, then couldn't the moviemakers have at least let Berle be Berle and have him be funny? Quite frankly: who cares if Milton Berle is a "good" actor here (as if being merely funny isn't somehow equivalent to doing good work in drama)? Berle proved many times during his career, in movies and on television, that he was capable of delivering a commendable "straight" performance (his turn in the notorious The Oscar was actually Oscar-worthy). So what? I don't want to see Berle merely be a "good" actor in Margin for Error when what the story calls for is for Berle to be on fire. In the movie's opening scene, we get just the briefest glimpse of Berle's energy during a crap game, before he shuts down for the remainder of the movie, transformed into a goofily-grinning schlub momentarily roused from time to time when someone writes a speech for him to deliver. This is the irreverent, rules-breaking, disrespectful American smartass I want battling Teutonic totalitarian Nazis on the home front? If Margin for Error couldn't commit totally to drama or propaganda, it at least needed to fully embrace its comedic framework. And if Berle couldn't be Berle, then Margin for Error needed Abbott & Costello, or The Three Stooges, or The Bowery Boys running up and down the consulate stairs, making time with the pretty frauleins, yelping and hollering and smashing into doors as they bashed Preminger around (can you imagine a movie history that included a scene between Preminger and Gorcey and Hall? Or Shemp?). At least that would have been more honest...and a whole lot more amusing.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.