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Norman Panama

Norman Panama

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Also Known As: Died: January 13, 2003
Born: April 21, 1914 Cause of Death: complications from Parkinson's disease
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois, USA Profession: Writer ... screenwriter director producer
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BIOGRAPHY

For thirty years (1936-66), this American screenwriter, director and producer of popular comedy fare worked mostly successfully in collaboration with college chum Melvin Frank, forming an unusual partnership in which they not only shared writing and producing duties, but also co-directed features. Panama and Frank met while undergraduates at the University of Chicago, where they formed a writing team. Migrating to Hollywood in 1938, they wrote comedy material for Bob Hope's radio broadcasts, eventually, working for Phil Baker and Rudy Vallee as well. In 1942, the duo was hired by Paramount and they contributed the story to the farcical Hope vehicle "My Favorite Blonde", in which the comic was the trainer of penguins unwittingly used to transport data for a female spy. Based on this success, Panama and Frank went on to script several lightweight but affable movies, including "Happy Go Lucky" (1943), wherein Rudy Vallee is chased by Mary Martin, and the Eddie Cantor musical "Thank You Lucky Stars" (also 1943). The failure of the all-star "Duffy's Tavern" (1945), which attempted to transfer a radio show to the big screen, might have signaled the end of their career had they not sent Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour to the Klondike in "The Road to Utopia" (also 1945) which earned the writing team its first Oscar nomination.

"Mr. Blandings Build His Dream House" (1948), in which Cary Grant wanted to move from the city to the country, solidified their success and led to several vehicles written, produced and directed in tandem. Their joint efforts ranged from slight comedies to well-crafted dramas. "The Reformer and the Redhead" (1949) was a minor romantic comedy in which June Allyson was a zoo-keeper's daughter courted by Dick Powell. The pair made the unnecessary 1951 remake "Strictly Dishonorable", based on a 1931 Preston Sturges' play. "Callaway Went Thataway" (1951), starring Fred MacMurray, was a spoof of Hopalong Cassidy while "Above and Beyond" (1952), a biopic of the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima showed their dramatic flair. In 1953, Panama and Frank earned their second Oscar nomination for the Danny Kaye vehicle "Knock on Wood" and the following year, they wrote what is perhaps their best known feature, the Crosby and Fred Astaire classic "White Christmas", with its memorable Irving Berlin title song. The duo followed with the superlative Danny Kaye swashbuckler spoof, "The Court Jester" (1955), which critic Leonard Maltin has deemed "one of the best comedies ever made". A rousing costume musical that offered Kaye one of his best screen roles, the film utilized every cliche but played them for laughs. Adding to the enjoyment was the excellent supporting cast that included Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Angela Lansbury and Mildred Natwick.

Unfortunately, Panama and Frank had difficulty finding a successful follow-up. "That Certain Feeling" (1956) was a lame comedy that miscast Bob Hope as a cartoonist. With the changing times, Panama and Frank headed to Broadway to adapt the Al Capp hillbilly comic strip "Li'l Abner" as a musical. They produced the show as well as wrote the book and lyrics to Johnny Mercer's music. A modest success on stage in the mid-50s, Panama produced and Frank directed the 1959 film version, which while well-acted, flopped. By this time, Panama and Frank had begun spitting duties, although they continued to write together. Panama alone directed the psychological drama "The Trap" (1958) and the final Hope-Crosby-Lamour match up, "The Road to Hong Kong" (1962). Panama and Frank continued to work together until 1966's "Not With My Wife You Don't", which Panama directed. Frank then elected to move to Great Britain and set up his own company and the 30-plus year partnership faded. (Frank would go on to thrive with romantic comedies like 1972's "A Touch of Class" and 1976's "The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox"). Panama continued to work within the changing structures of Hollywood. He directed the modest Bob Hope vehicle "How to Commit Marriage" and the failed horror spoof "The Maltese Bippy" (both 1969). Teaming with Albert E. Lewin, Panama went on to co-script and direct his last feature (to date) "I Will...I Will...For Now" (1975), a look at marriage and marriage counseling with Elliot Gould and Diane Keaton.

On the small screen, the new team of Panama and Lewin co-wrote (with Panama helming) the TV-movie "Coffee, Tea or Me" (CBS, 1973), about a flight attendant with two husbands and they contributed scripts to the Teresa Graves series "Get Christie Love" (ABC, 1974-75). Panama's last TV project was the Australian update of the comic strip "Barbaby and Me" (1976). In 1980, he and Lewin co-wrote the novel "The Glass Bed".

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