Obituary: Pandro S. Berman

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The Independent Online
When Flying Down to Rio was first screened in 1933, it was Pandro S. Berman who noted the chemistry between the supporting players Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and decided to star them in The Gay Divorcee, launching the dance team's string of hit musicals. One of the greatest producers of Hollywood's golden era and a shrewd judge of talent, Berman played an important part in fashion- ing the careers of Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Taylor.

Described as "a darkly handsome dynamo" and "gruff and irascible", he was admired by Hepburn for his "complete lack of pretension" and by studio moguls for his ability to turn out films which were entertaining, technically expert and critically acclaimed.

He was born Pandro Samuel Berman in 1905 in Pittsburgh. His father was general manager at Film Booking Offices (FBO), both a film studio and distributuion organisation, and on finishing high school Pandro decided against going to college, instead joining the studio as assistant cutter. When FBO was incorporated into the newly-formed RKO, he was made their chief editor, then production assistant. When David O. Selznick became head of production in 1931, he chose for his first film a project developed by Berman from a Fannie Hurst short story. Berman was made associate producer of the film, Symphony for Six Million, which starred Irene Dunne and Ricardo Cortez.

Berman next worked with Selznick on What Price Hollywood? (1933), the first of several collaborations with the director George Cukor, and on Katharine Hepburn's first starring vehicle, Christopher Strong (1933). After Selznick left the studio in 1933, RKO had a string of production chiefs, but Berman, though he briefly held the post in 1934, preferred to produce individual films, and among them were most of the studio's biggest hits. Katharine Hepburn won her first Academy Award for her performance as an aspiring actress in Berman's production of Morning Glory (1933), and he approved the director John Cromwell's suggestion that they borrow Bette Davis from Warners for Of Human Bondage (1934), thus giving the actress her first substantial screen role.

When Astaire objected to a second teaming with Ginger Rogers (he did not want to become linked with another performer on screen as he had been with his sister on stage) Berman persuaded him to agree by improving the terms of his contract, giving him a percentage of profits (a rarity for the time) and complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented. Berman purchased the stage hit Roberta for their third movie, and hired Dorothy Fields to collaborate with Jerome Kern on a new fashion show number, resulting in "Lovely to Look At". Berman continued to ensure fine scores for subsequent Astaire-Rogers films by hiring the country's top composers - Kern, Irving Berlin (who drove the hardest financial bargain) and the Gershwins. Top Hat and Roberta were RKO's biggest hits of 1935, while the top money-makers in 1936 were Berman's productions of Follow the Fleet and Swing Time.

George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935), starring Katharine Hepburn, was, though, a disastrous failure and briefly turned Berman against the star- director team - it had been a pet project of theirs. Hepburn's career was in decline at this point, and Berman later stated: ''Who was to blame? We were, primarily. Kate was RKO's biggest star - she and Astaire and Rogers were the backbone of the studio . . . but we hadn't found Kate's right formula. She can't be namby pamby or stickily sentimental. She has to have a certain arrogance which audiences like to see humbled, but without breaking her spirit.''

The superb Stage Door (1937), directed by Gregory LaCava, was the perfect vehicle for Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, with an outstanding supporting cast that included Lucille Ball. Under contract to RKO since 1934, the fiercely ambitious Ball had become Berman's mistress and was rising steadily through the studio ranks. In 1937 Berman finally agreed to become the studio's head of production. He personally produced the studio's most expensive film, Gunga Din (1939) and the equally lavish Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), both enormous hits, and supervised production of the classic romance, Love Affair (1939) and the sparkling comedy Bachelor Mother (1939). He made a rare error in judgement when Hepburn told him she had read Gone with the Wind in galley form and begged him to buy it. He advised the studio against the purchase, stating that costume pictures were going out of style.

In late 1939, finding himself at odds with the new president George Schaefer's determination to have final say on all decisions, including creative ones, he left RKO to accept a long-standing offer from Louis B. Mayer to join MGM, where his first production was the hit musical Ziegfeld Girl. In 1935, when Enid Bagnold's novel National Velvet had first been published, Berman had tried to obtain the rights for Katharine Hepburn. Finding that MGM now owned the property, he was able to realise his dream of bringing it to the screen, having persuaded the 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor to go through a three-month regimen of huge breakfasts and steak dinners to get her to the requisite height in time for shooting.

He was reunited with Katharine Hepburn for Dragon Seed (1944), and the following year produced Albert Lewin's distinguished version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. A fruitful association with the director Vincente Minnelli began with Undercurrent (1946) starring Hepburn. ''Pan is a rough and ready guy,'' wrote Minnelli later, ''with absolutely no intellectual pretensions, but he's a marvellous guy - little wonder Kate adores him.'' When Minnelli and Berman were preparing Madame Bovary (1949) they considered the audacious idea of starring Lana Turner. The Breen Office, the official censor's office, already worried at the idea of a film about adultery, suggested that Turner carried a sexual implication, and that the makers would find it easier to stay within the code if they used an actress of more dignified appeal, like Greer Garson or Jennifer Jones, so Jones was cast.

In 1950, when Minnelli was preparing Father of the Bride, the production chief Dore Schary promised the lead to Jack Benny, and when Berman and Minnelli both objected that Benny would be hilarious, but unable to capture the underlying sadness that their choice, Spencer Tracy, would convey, they were told to shoot a test of Benny. The test made their point and the film, with Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor starring as father and daughter, became a classic, but Benny never forgave Minnelli or Berman.

In 1953, when Berman suggested that the studio should sign Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, then at the height of their television fame, to star in The Long Long Trailer, he had difficulty persuading the studio that people would pay to see stars who were regularly on television. He was vindicated when the comedy, directed by Minnelli, became one of the studio's biggest money-makers.

Adjusting to the times, some of Berman's later films dealt with more controversial subjects - The Blackboard Jungle (1956) with juvenile delinquency, Bhowani Jungle (1956) and Something of Value (1957) with foreign politics, Tea and Sympathy (1957) with prejudice and persecution. He produced Butterfield 8 (1960) for which Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Mark Robson's entertaining thriller The Prize (1963) and his final film at MGM, A Patch of Blue (1965). Becoming independent, he made two films at Fox, notably Cukor's version of Lawrence Durrell's Justine (1969), which he felt was hurt by under-casting. Of the leading actress Anouk Aimee, Berman wrote: ''She doesn't care about her career. All she is interested in is her lover of the moment.'' In 1970 he retired, and at the 1977 Oscar ceremony was given the Irving G. Thalberg Award for ''the consistent creation of profitable films.''

Tom Vallance

Pandro Samuel Berman, film producer: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 28 March 1905; married 1927 Viola Newman (one son, two daughters), 1960 Katharine Hereford (died 1993); died Beverley Hills, California 13 July 1996.