Joe Pasternak was one of the most prolific and successful producers of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He worked with some of the biggest stars of the genre, such as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Deanna Durbin, and Esther Williams. He also helped launch the careers of many young talents, such as Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell, and Ann Blyth. He was known for his cheerful and optimistic films that appealed to the masses during the Great Depression and World War II.
However, behind his professional achievements, Pasternak had a personal tragedy that haunted him for the rest of his life. But his family and friends believed that his illness was triggered by the loss of his son, Michael, who was killed in a car accident in 1963.
Pasternak’s Early Life and Career in Europe
Pasternak was born on September 19, 1901, in Szilágysomlyó, Austria-Hungary (now Șimleu Silvaniei, Romania). He was one of eleven children of a Jewish family. His father was a town clerk and his mother was a seamstress. He emigrated to the US in 1920, when he was 19 years old, and settled in Philadelphia with his uncle. He worked in various jobs, such as a factory worker, a waiter, and an actor. He also studied acting in New York.
In 1922, he got a job as a busboy at Paramount’s Astoria studio in Queens, New York City. He quickly rose to the position of head waiter, earning $120 a week, including tips. He then quit to become an assistant director for Allan Dwan, working on films such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and It’s the Old Army Game (1926).
In 1928, Universal Studios sent him to Europe as an associate producer to work on German-language films for the international market. He produced several films in Germany, such as The Brandenburg Arch (1929), The Great Longing (1930), and The Rebel (1932). He also discovered and hired a young actor named William Dieterle, who later became a famous director in Hollywood.
Pasternak’s Breakthrough in Hollywood with Deanna Durbin
In 1936, Pasternak returned to the US and joined Universal Studios as a producer. He was assigned to make low-budget musicals with unknown actors. He soon found his star in a 14-year-old singer named Deanna Durbin, who had been dropped by MGM. Pasternak cast her in his first film, Three Smart Girls (1936), which was a huge hit and saved Universal from bankruptcy. He followed it with a series of successful films with Durbin, such as One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), Mad About Music (1938), and That Certain Age (1938).
Pasternak’s films with Durbin were praised for their charm, humor, and innocence. They also showcased Durbin’s vocal talents and her ability to sing both classical and popular songs. Durbin became one of the most popular and highest-paid stars in Hollywood, earning $400,000 a year by 1943. She also received an honorary Academy Award in 1939 for her “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth”.
Pasternak and Durbin had a close and respectful working relationship, but they also had some creative differences. Durbin wanted to play more mature and dramatic roles, while Pasternak wanted to keep her image as a sweet and wholesome teenager. In 1943, Durbin left Universal and signed with MGM, where she made two films with Pasternak’s rival, Arthur Freed. She then retired from show business in 1948, at the age of 27, and moved to France with her husband.
Pasternak’s Golden Age at MGM with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams
After Durbin’s departure, Pasternak also left Universal and joined MGM, the most prestigious studio in Hollywood. He was given a bigger budget and more creative freedom to produce musicals with the studio’s top stars. He worked with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams, Mario Lanza, and many others. He also introduced new faces, such as Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell, Ann Blyth, and Debbie Reynolds.
Some of Pasternak’s most notable films at MGM include:
- Anchors Aweigh (1945), a musical comedy starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as two sailors on shore leave in Hollywood. The film features Kelly’s famous dance with Jerry the Mouse, an animated character created by Hanna-Barbera.
- The Harvey Girls (1946), a musical western starring Judy Garland as a waitress in a frontier town. The film features the Oscar-winning song “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”, sung by Garland and a chorus of women.
- In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson as two feuding co-workers who fall in love through anonymous letters. The film marks the screen debut of Liza Minnelli, Garland’s daughter, who appears as a baby in the final scene.
- Summer Stock (1950), a musical comedy starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly as two performers who put on a show at a farm. The film features Garland’s iconic performance of “Get Happy”, wearing a black tuxedo jacket and a fedora hat.
- Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), a biographical musical starring Esther Williams as Annette Kellerman, a famous Australian swimmer and actress. The film showcases Williams’ spectacular water ballets and costumes, designed by Walter Plunkett.
- Hit the Deck (1955), a musical comedy starring Jane Powell, Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds, and Russ Tamblyn as four sailors and their romantic interests. The film features the song “Hallelujah”, performed by the entire cast in a lavish production number.
Pasternak’s films at MGM were known for their colorful and lavish production values, catchy songs, and energetic performances. They also reflected Pasternak’s optimistic and cheerful outlook on life, despite the hardships of the war and the postwar era. He once said, “I like to make people happy. I like to make them forget their troubles for a couple of hours and just relax and enjoy themselves.”
Pasternak’s Personal Tragedy and Final Years
Pasternak married Dorothy Darrell, a former actress and singer, in 1942. They had four children: Michael, Peter, Susan, and Jeffrey. Pasternak was a devoted and loving father, who often took his family to his film sets and premieres. He also supported his children’s education and careers, and encouraged them to pursue their passions.
However, in 1963, Pasternak suffered a devastating loss when his eldest son, Michael, was killed in a car accident at the age of 19. Michael was a student at Stanford University and a promising writer and poet. He had published a book of poems, titled The Youngest Son, which was praised by critics and celebrities, such as John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marlon Brando.
Pasternak was heartbroken by his son’s death and never recovered from it. He blamed himself for not being there for him and for not preventing the accident. He also developed Parkinson’s disease, which gradually affected his physical and mental health. He retired from filmmaking in 1968, after producing his last film, The Sweet Ride, starring Jacqueline Bisset and Michael Sarrazin.
Pasternak spent his final years in Beverly Hills, California, where he was cared for by his wife and his remaining children. He died on September 13, 1991, six days before his 90th birthday. He was buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California, next to his son, Michael.
Pasternak’s legacy as a producer of Hollywood musicals is still celebrated and admired by film lovers and historians. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, and was honored by the American Film Institute in 1986. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996, for his contribution to the musical genre. He is remembered as a man who brought joy and happiness to millions of people through his films, and who inspired many young artists to follow their dreams.