Pasternak, Joseph Herman (“Joe”)

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Pasternak, Joseph Herman (“Joe”)

(b. 19 September 1901 in Szilágy-Somlyó, Hungary; d. 13 September 1991 in Beverly Hills, California), film producer whose pictures combined a romantic vision of life with glossy production values and a substantial amount of classical music.

Pasternak was the middle son in a family of nine children born to Samuel Pasternak, shammes, or sexton, of the synagogue in Szilágy-Somlyó, and Roza Janovitz, a home-maker. After attending the village school Pasternak supplemented the family income through numerous entrepreneurial schemes, and while his father served in World War I, Pasternak assumed his father’s duties at the synagogue. In 1921, with the support of an uncle in the United States, he emigrated to Philadelphia, where he worked in a belt factory. Moving to New York City, he found better pay as a cafeteria busboy. He gave extra portions to theater ushers, who in turn gave him free admission to movies.

Pasternak’s growing love for films led him to invest his savings in a sham course in becoming a movie star. In 1923 he took his “diploma” to Paramount’s Astoria studio in the borough of Queens in New York City, but he could find work only as a dishwasher in the studio canteen. However, he became personal waiter to prominent stars and directors. Given a chance to act, Pasternak failed; but the director Allan Dwan made him his third assistant director.

In 1926, despite promotion to first assistant director, Pasternak lost his job when Paramount began closing the Astoria facility. By this time, however, he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and undeterred, he set out to find film work in California.

After several months of unemployment, Pasternak and a partner shot a shoestring two-reel comedy, which he himself directed. Help Yourself, about a well-meaning busboy, was technically amateurish; but it attracted the interest of the director Wesley Ruggles, who made Pasternak his assistant at Universal Pictures.

In 1928 Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, dispatched Pasternak to Germany, where he worked with Paul Kohner in overseeing the studio’s European productions. From assistant director in Hollywood he became a producer in Berlin, and from 1929 to 1936 he made at least thirteen pictures, mostly light romantic comedies with music. Among the most successful were Fraülein Paprika (1931) and Pardon, Tévedten! (Scandal in Budapest, 1933), both with the Hungarian actress Franciska Gaál.

On 22 February 1931 Pasternak married his secretary, Margaret Fladder (also spelled Fladez), the daughter of a German-American film exhibitor in Berlin. They had no children.

The burning of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1933 led Pasternak to move production first to Vienna and later to Budapest. In 1936, when Universal shut down European filming, he returned to the United States, bringing with him the director Hermann Kosterlitz (Henry Koster). Four of his brothers and sisters accompanied him, but Pasternak’s father and other family members were unwilling to leave and later died in the Holocaust.

Pasternak and Koster arrived in New York on 24 February 1936; on 14 March, Carl Laemmle lost control of Universal Pictures. In Hollywood the new management, facing insolvency, sought to dissolve its contracts with Pasternak and Koster. By sheer perseverance the two forced the company to let them make one film. The picture was Three Smart Girls (1936) with Deanna Durbin. Its success—and that of the nine other Durbin-Pasternak films— saved the studio from financial collapse.

While producing Durbin’s second film, One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), Pasternak again fought the studio, this time about including long interludes of classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski, whom the studio regarded as “box office poison.” Although the film was a success, the strain of production contributed to Pasternak’s divorce from Margaret on 21 July 1937.

In 1938 Pasternak contacted Marlene Dietrich, whom he had met in Berlin. Although Dietrich had been declared “box office poison,” Pasternak saw her potential for comedy and persuaded her to take the role of a saloon-keeper in the western Destry Rides Again (1939) with James Stewart. The film’s popularity reignited Dietrich’s career and led her to make two more films with Pasternak.

Disagreeing with Universal about the handling of Deanna Durbin and discontented with his contract, Pasternak left the studio in 1941 to join MGM, where Louis B. Mayer offered him command of his own unit. At first Pasternak adhered to his taste for smaller musical films without large production numbers, but he soon gave way to MGM’s lavish style. He produced several celebrated musicals, including Anchors Aweigh (1945), in which Gene Kelly dances with the animated mouse Jerry; In the Good Old Summertime (1949), with Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), with Doris Day and James Cagney. Pasternak also promoted the careers of such stars as Kathryn Grayson, June Allyson, Margaret O’Brien, Jane Powell, and Esther Williams; and whenever possible he found parts for classical musicians like Lauritz Melchior and José Iturbi. On 9 January 1942, while working on his first MGM film, Pasternak married the dancer and actress Dorothy Darrell. The couple had three children.

Pasternak’s 1943 film Song of Russia, about an American conductor in love with a Soviet girl, was produced as a patriotic gesture for an ally in World War II; but it later excited suspicions of communist conspiracy in the House Un-American Activities Committee, which began hearings in May 1947. Pasternak himself escaped notoriety and continued to make pictures.

In 1949 Mayer brought Mario Lanza to MGM and entrusted his career to Pasternak. Lanza proved a singer and actor of great talent but difficult temperament. Pasternak shepherded him through four pictures, including the fictionalized but immensely successful biographical film The Great Caruso (1951). The strain of managing Lanza and dealing with the studio upheavals that ousted Mayer in 1951 jeopardized Pasternak’s marriage. Dorothy sought a divorce in 1952, but the couple reconciled before the decree became final.

As the studio system declined Pasternak continued to make one to two pictures a year but, despite hits like Where the Boys Are (1960) and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1962), he found himself out of touch with filmgoers’ tastes. As he said later, “We were growing older, and the audiences were growing younger.” The failure of his 1962 film Jumbo, even with musical numbers by Busby Berkeley, signaled the end of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical. In 1965, however, Pasternak produced a successful Elvis Presley film (Girl Happy) and another (Spinout) in 1966. In 1967, after more than twenty-five years at MGM, he left the studio to make his last film, The Sweet Ride (1968) at Twentieth Century—Fox.

In addition to his films Pasternak produced three telecasts (1964–1966) of the annual Oscar presentations for the Motion Picture Academy. He also published a popular recipe collection, Cooking with Love and Paprika (1966).

In retirement Pasternak worked for charities, including the American Parkinson Disease Association and the Masquers Club of Los Angeles. When approached by friends to make another picture, he would reply, “I couldn’t make a problem film if I tried.” He died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease in Beverly Hills, California, and is buried in Los Angeles.

Joe Pasternak’s life often seems a fairy-tale success story, though darkened by childhood poverty, the Holocaust, and uncertain studio politics. His eighty-seven known films— he claimed to have made 105—present a world without such dark presences. (“Some of them,” he said, “even lacked a plot.”) They celebrated things he often associated with memories of prewar Budapest: youthful idealism and good-natured families, festive cabarets, charming artists, sophisticated but innocent romances, and especially, music. “The only messages in my films,” he said to an interviewer in 1985, “were the kind thoughts the audience took home.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California, maintains an archive on Pasternak. He published an autobiography, written with David Chandler, Easy the Hard Way (1956). Pasternak and his family were featured in human-interest articles for Colliers (5 May 1951) and Saturday Evening Post (6 Feb. 1954). See also Films in Review (Feb. 1985) and The Annual Obituary 1991. Pasternak’s spiritual beliefs were the subject of a brief interview in Terrance A. Sweeney, God & (1985). Obituaries are in the Daily Variety (16 Sept. 1991), Los Angeles Times (17 Sept. 1991), New York Times (18 Sept. 1991), and London Times (20 Sept. 1991).

Alan Buster