Berman, Pandro Samuel

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Berman, Pandro Samuel

(b. 28 March 1905 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; d. 13 July 1996 in Beverly Hills, California), producer whose 118 films included many of Hollywood’s most literate and distinguished pictures, including the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals and memorable films of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Elvis Presley.

Berman was the oldest of three children born to Harry Michael Berman (formerly Pandrowitz) and Julie Epstein, Russian-Jewish immigrants. After unsuccessful ventures selling real estate, hats, and furs, Harry Berman, like others in his family, became a film salesman, joining World Films in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, shortly after Pandro’s birth. In 1914 he became branch manager for Metro Film Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri, taking Pandro in the evenings to sell films at neighborhood theaters. In 1916, when the family settled in New York City, Harry worked for Carl Laemmle, Sr.’s Universal Company, where he rose to the position of General Sales Manager for the United States. Before Harry became a film salesman, Julie Berman opened and operated a successful fur store. Once the family became prosperous, she became a homemaker.

In New York, Berman attended DeWitt Clinton High School; following graduation in 1923 he left school to pursue the film business in California. In 1922 his father had joined a partnership to organize the Film Booking Office, and Pandro was hired by the new studio as a script clerk, working on silent two-reel comedies. By 1926 he had risen to first assistant director to Tod Browning, Ralph Ince, Al Santell, and others, eventually becoming a film cutter.

Harry Berman died in 1925, and in 1927 Berman left the F.B.O. to join Columbia Pictures as head of the cutting department. He arrived just as the sound revolution was transforming production and editing. The same year, on 24 July, he married Viola Newman, a childhood friend; they had three children.

After six months Berman left Columbia, and with his new knowledge of sound filmmaking, he became chief film editor at the F.B.O.—now reorganized as Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation, makers of RKO Radio Pictures. By 1931 Berman had become the assistant to studio head William Le Baron, who gave Berman his first job as a producer. David O. Selznick became production head in 1931, firing most of Le Baron’s personnel but retaining Berman as his assistant. When trouble developed in making What Price Hollywood? (1932), Berman again was called on to produce. He continued as a producer at RKO until 1939, making sixty-eight pictures.

Selznick’s successor in 1933 was Merian C. Cooper, who during periods of illness left Berman in charge of the studio. Having seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in supporting roles in Flying Down to Rio (1933), Berman reunited them as stars of The Gay Divorcee (1934). The six Astaire-Rogers films that followed in the 1930s, especially Top Hat (1935), are generally believed to have saved the studio from insolvency. Many of Berman’s less financially successful pictures in this period are now considered classics, including Morning Glory (1933), with Katharine Hepburn, and Of Human Bondage (1934), with Bette Davis. For her role, Hepburn won an Academy Award.

At Cooper’s resignation in 1934, Berman, only twenty-nine years old, became RKO’s head of production. But he left the post after six months, preferring to develop his own pictures. Late in 1937, after the studio had gone through two more production chiefs, Berman reluctantly took up the task again. Under his leadership, RKO made some of its most memorable films, including Gunga Din (1939); Room Service (1938), with the Marx Brothers; and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), with Charles Laughton.

Tired of continual shake-ups and disagreements with management, Berman left RKO in 1939, despite the studio’s offer of twenty-five percent of the profits from his pictures. In 1940 he signed with Louis B. Mayer to become a salaried producer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), where he remained for twenty-seven years.

MGM provided Berman not only independence and stability but the production resources of Hollywood’s major studio. Mayer trusted him to undertake films even when the studio management doubted their prospects. Beginning with a string of moneymakers in the early 1940s, Berman moved to more artistically ambitious features like The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and Madame Bovary (1949).

As at RKO and most other Hollywood studios, the producer exercised the artistic control that was sought (but rarely achieved) by directors, including final editing. In the late 1940s, to preserve the creative authority of producers, he supported the organization of the Screen Producers Guild (later the Producers Guild of America) and later served on its Board of Directors. Berman argued that every picture needed the “stamp” of a particular artist; however, the artist might not be the director but the producer, the writer, or even the actor.

Elizabeth Taylor’s career developed largely through films that Berman produced, beginning with her juvenile role in National Velvet (1944) and continuing through Father of the Bride (1950), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Butterfield 8 (1960), for which Taylor won an Academy Award. Taylor also appeared in Berman’s Ivanhoe (1952), one of a series of English medieval romances that also included Knights of the Round Table (1953) with Ava Gardner and Robert Taylor.

The increasing sexual frankness of Elizabeth Taylor’s later films reflected Berman’s understanding of the social changes taking place among filmgoers. He had gauged audience desire for sophistication in the 1930s and domestic values of the 1940s. Now, he sought new subjects: realistic social issues like juvenile delinquency in Blackboard Jungle (1955), interracial romance in Bhowani Junction (1956) and A Patch of Blue (1965), sexual awareness in Tea and Sympathy (1956), and even the controversial pop-star magnetism of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957).

Berman’s associate producer on Jailhouse Rock and some later films was Kathryn Hereford Buchman, whom he married 10 July 1960, following a 1959 divorce from his first wife. Berman and Kathryn had no children.

Following a corporate shake-up at MGM, Berman joined veteran producer Lawrence Weingarten to form an independent company, Avon Productions, and began again to collect a percentage of the profits from his MGM films. By this time, however, the studio system was growing moribund. After 1957, Berman produced only ten pictures, although these included such important releases as Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), for which actor Ed Begley won an Academy Award. His association with MGM ended when he moved in 1967 to Twentieth Century-Fox; there, futilely hoping to avoid corporate bureaucracy, he made his last two films.

Berman retired in 1970, citing the diminished artistic role of producers and what he saw as a pervasive exploitation of sex in films. He pursued interests in real estate, construction, and oil; presented master classes in film at the University of Southern California; and participated in film retrospectives and seminars. In 1977 the Motion Picture Academy presented him with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, and in 1992 he received the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award from the Producers Guild of America. He died at his home of congestive heart failure and is buried in Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Though Berman claimed that he made “more failures than successes,” Joseph (“Bepi”) he produced at least forty films that were widely regarded as classics. His career spanned a Hollywood era when producers exercised artistic control, from the choice of literary properties, to casting, to details of art direction and editing. Berman saw to all of these with an intelligence and taste, in both his films and his personal manner, for which he was renowned. Soft-spoken and restrained, he demanded the best technical and production values to entertain audiences. He regarded the core of his job as script development, and in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter suggested this might be the result of his mother’s influence: “She used to make me read Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling’s poems,” he said, “and I think this really got me interested in the film business.”

Berman’s papers are collected at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California, also maintains an archive. Berman’s films are surveyed in John Douglas Eames, The MGM Story: The Complete History of Fifty Roaring Years (2d ed., 1989), and Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story (1982). See also Betty Lasky, RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All (1984). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (14 July 1996), New York Times (15 July 1996), and the London Times (17 July 1996). Berman was the subject of two oral history projects: Mike Steen, American Film Institute Oral History of Pandro S. Berman (1972), and Ronald L. Davis, Southern Methodist University Oral History Project: Pandro S. Berman (1978). The former was partially published in Mike Steen, Hollywood Speaks!: An Oral History (1974). After his retirement, Berman gave occasional interviews for television documentaries, including George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (1984).

Alan Buster