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Overview for Pandro S. Berman
Pandro S. Berman

Pandro S. Berman



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Also Known As: Died: July 13, 1996
Born: March 28, 1905 Cause of Death: congestive heart failure
Birth Place: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA Profession: Producer ... producer film cutter assistant director editor


An accomplished film producer and studio executive, Pandro S. Berman rose through the ranks to become RKO Pictures' resident boy wonder in the 1930s until setting up shop at MGM for the next 25 years. Throughout his career, Berman's films earned six Academy Award nominations for Best Picture while he juiced the stardom of Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Stewart Granger, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Taylor and Lana Turner. Notable during his time at RKO were the Hepburn vehicle "Morning Glory" (1933), an adaptation of "Of Human Bondage" (1934), and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals "Top Hat" (1935) and "Swing Time" (1936). After his guidance of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), he left RKO for MGM to produce the lavish "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941) while steering a young Taylor in her breakthrough film, "National Velvet" (1944). Berman had further success with "The Three Musketeers" (1948), "Father of the Bride" (1950), "Ivanhoe" (1952) and "Knights of the Round Table" (1953) before tapping into the youth market with "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955) and "Jailhouse Rock" (1957). After producing "Butterfield 8" (1960), which earned Taylor her first Oscar for Best Actress, Berman struggled to hang on while the old studio system fell upon hard time in the early 1960s. He left MGM in the mid-decade and ventured into independent producing until retiring in 1970, leaving behind an impressive career where he oversaw the making of over 100 films - many of which were of high quality and craftsmanship - during Hollywood's Golden Age.

Born on March 28, 1905 in Pittsburgh, PA, Berman was raised in a filmmaking home by his mother, Julie, and father, Harry M. Berman, the general manager of Universal Pictures and the Film Booking Office (FBO) during the silent era, with the latter studio eventually becoming RKO Studios. After attending DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City, Berman entered the entertainment industry as an assistant director for the likes of Tod Browning, Ralph Ince, Alfred Santell and Mal St. Clair before becoming the chief film editor at FBO. A prolific but minor production company specializing in routine but enjoyable action pictures and comedies, FBO put Berman to work on the likes of "Fangs of the Wild" (1928) and "Stocks and Blondes" (1928). When RKO Studios formed in 1929 from the merger of FBO's studios under the umbrella of RCA during the advent of the talkie era, Berman became an assistant to producers William LeBaron, Charles R. Rogers, and later, David O Selznick. Before long, he was handling producing responsibilities himself, cutting his teeth on the landmark early gangster film, "Bad Company" (1931).

Berman was still in his late twenties when he became RKO's most important producer on the lot, earning comparisons with another "boy wonder," MGM executive Irving Thalberg. He produced Katharine Hepburn's third film, "Morning Glory" (1933), which won her an Academy Award and marked the first of 14 collaborations he would enjoy with the actress. Berman assisted Bette Davis' rise to full-fledged stardom while on loan for his adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's fictional masterpiece, "Of Human Bondage" (1934). That same year, he oversaw "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), his first film to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The latter also marked the inauguration of Berman's signature achievement at RKO - producing the eight iconic vehicles of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. "Top Hat" (1935) would also garner a Best Picture nomination; the series went on to yield such classics as "Swing Time" (1936), "Follow the Fleet" (1936) and "Shall We Dance" (1937). As he would through much of his career, Berman adroitly kept the lavish production values of his films from swamping their narrative drive, while his attention to detail served to complement his stars rather than overwhelm them.

But Berman had his ups and downs at RKO. Hepburn's popularity eroded rather abruptly with a series of somewhat precious costume dramas, and Rogers and Astaire were regularly nervous about being known only as a team. At his best, however, Berman found ways around his problems, teaming Rogers and Hepburn to brilliant effect in "Stage Door" (1937), his fourth film to net an Oscar nomination, following Hepburn's starring vehicle "Alice Adams" (1935). In 1937, he was promoted to head of all studio production at RKO, overseeing such triumphs as "Love Affair" (1939), starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer; "Bachelor Mother" (1939); and "Gunga Din" (1939), while helping establish the studio's distribution agreement with Disney for its features, beginning with the smash hit "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937). Unfortunately, RKO never had a true mogul at the helm like most of Hollywood's other major studios. Ownership changed hands many times, with the result being that key decisions were made without consulting Berman. He soon became fed up with the situation and jumped ship in 1940 to MGM, following a long courtship. He did, however, leave in a blaze of glory; his last major RKO effort was a masterfully produced version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), with Charles Laughton in the title role.

MGM was a decidedly steadier home base for Berman from 1940 until 1965. While the studio's glossy house style meant that producers' efforts seemed less personal, Berman's professionalism responded well to the enormous reserves of craftsmanship and talent on hand. Having established his reputation with musicals, he copped an early triumph with the staggeringly lavish "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941), which possessed an all-star cast of James Stewart, Judy Garland, Jackie Cooper, and Hedy Lamar while cementing sexpot Lana Turner's own stardom. Berman also produced several key films in Elizabeth Taylor's career, beginning with her adolescent breakthrough in "National Velvet" (1944), one of the most beloved children's classics of all time. On occasion, Berman oversaw the occasional burst of oddball brilliance, perhaps best exemplified by eccentric auteur Albert Lewin's adaptation of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945). But much of Berman's tenure was occupied with the star vehicles, literary adaptations and period pictures he had handled so well at RKO, like a Technicolor remake of "The Three Musketeers" (1948), starring Gene Kelly as d'Artagnon; the Robert Taylor noir thriller "The Bribe" (1949); and Elizabeth Taylor's first grown up performance in the light comedy "Father of the Bride" (1950), which earned Berman his fifth Best Picture nomination.

Berman helped Robert Taylor's postwar stardom receive a much-needed boost through such handsome historical epics as "Ivanhoe" (1952), Berman's sixth and final Best Picture nominee, and "Knights of the Round Table" (1953). Meanwhile, British matinee idol Stewart Granger insured his transition to Hollywood success via Berman's productions of "Soldiers Three" (1951) and "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1952). Amidst the lavish historical adventures, Berman took the unusual step of producing the gritty social drama, "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955), which featured a young Sidney Poitier. But this landmark, if somewhat overrated study of inner-city school violence also pointed to the importance of the emerging teen audience, which appeared to be confirmed with his production of one of Elvis Presley's best feature vehicles, "Jailhouse Rock" (1957). He returned to more adult fare with the adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" (1958), starring Yul Brynner, and the amusing, but ultimately forgettable comedy "The Reluctant Debutante" (1958), with Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall. Berman had one of his last great successes with the enjoyably trashy "Butterfield 8" (1960), which delivered Elizabeth Taylor her first Academy Award for Best Actress.

Despite the myriad of changes occurring both in Hollywood and at his home studio, Berman stayed with MGM as the studio system was in serious recession and a major shift to youth-oriented films was underway, with big-budget studio movies flopping left and right. His last efforts there included several worthy and intense small-scale dramas: a good adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962) and the sensitive, acclaimed "A Patch of Blue" (1965). Berman left MGM and signed with 20th Century Fox in 1967, but his brief tenure at the studio was rife with frustration. A reunion with director George Cukor on "Justine" (1969) was so bogged down with haggling during production that the result was fated to disappoint. Berman went on to earn his last producer credit on the negligible Elliott Gould comedy, "Move" (1970) before slipping into retirement. In his later years, Berman proved a likable and articulate interviewee on several documentaries about Old Hollywood, including "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey" (1985) and "Hollywood: The Golden Years" (A&E, 1987). For the most part, however, he stayed out of the public eye until his death of congestive heart failure on July 13, 1996 at 91 years old.

By Shawn Dwyer

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