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Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent

Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent

Matthew Bernstein
Foreword by Robert Wise
Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 488
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  • Book Info
    Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent
    Book Description:

    The long, colorful career of Walter Wanger (1894-1968) is one of Hollywood’s greatest untold stories. An intellectual and a socially conscious movie executive who produced provocative message movies and glittering romantic melodramas, Wanger’s career started at Paramount studios in the 1920s and led him to work at virtually every major studio as either a contract producer or an independent. He produced a series of American film classics, including Queen Christina, Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a few notable flops, such as Cleopatra. This comprehensive biography brings to life a distinctive film personality and offers a new appreciation of the role of the producer in the history of American cinema.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9142-5
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Robert Wise

    Like any director working in Hollywood in the 1950s, I knew of Walter Wanger’s many pictures and his extensive film career. But I had never met him before he contacted me in the fall of 1957 regarding my directing a film about Barbara Graham, the first woman executed in California several years earlier. This real life story was finally released as / Want to Live!

    We met for lunch at the Brown Derby in Beverly Hills, then a favorite restaurant and hangout for many film people. In contrast to some film producers I had worked with, Walter was soft-spoken, quite...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Part One Personal History

    • 1 The Gentleman from the West (1894–1911)
      (pp. 3-12)

      Walter F. Wanger cut a distinctive figure in Hollywood. His colleagues spoke of his stylish Savile Row suits and his infinite charm. Jesse Lasky, Jr., who in the 1920s was at the Astoria, New York, studios where Wanger worked, described him as a “continental, worldly sophisticate”: “I can still see them in my mind—Walter Wanger, Joe Kennedy, wearing spats, carrying walking sticks, pearl gray gloves in their hands, derbies, striped trousers, you know. They dressed like diplomats.” “He had the air of a fellow about to be sent to the Court of St. James,” confirmed Leonardo Bercovici, who authored...

    • 2 The Boy Manager (1911–1914)
      (pp. 13-22)

      Throughout his life, Wanger was a devoted alumnus of Dartmouth College. In the mid-1930s, he created the Irving G. Thalberg script library and started a course in screen writing. He served as president of the college’s Alumni Association in the 1940s. Publicity profiles made his attendance there well known.

      What is less well known was that Wanger never completed his degree. He was “separated” from Dartmouth for academic delinquency in early 1915 before he could graduate. Wanger’s first sustained act of youthful rebellion was to ignore completely his coursework and the warnings of the college to pursue his own interests...

    • 3 Finding a Niche (1915–1919)
      (pp. 23-38)

      When he left Dartmouth in 1915, Wanger was determined to become a professional theater manager. But for all of his expertise in production values and promotion, the one element lacking at Dartmouth had been a sense of risk. All of his activities were financed by the college, and his audience, in isolated Hanover, was virtually captive. Now he faced the challenge of selling tickets to the general public. Wanger’s fledgling career in New York barely began, however, before it was interrupted by the advent of the Great War, an event that gave him his first and decisive contact with film...

  6. Part Two The Executive Apprentice

    • 4 Giving the Movies “Class” (1920–1924)
      (pp. 41-53)

      Sometime during the infamous Actors Equity strike of August-September 1919, Belasco’s star actor Holbrook Blinn gave a dinner party at his home in Riverdale. Among his guests were the Wangers and Lasky, then vice-president in charge of production for Famous Players-Lasky (FPL).

      Over dinner, Wanger recounted to Blinn and Lasky his triumphs on the Dartmouth campus, his associations with Barker, Marbury, and Nazimova, and the successful propaganda work he had done in Italy. Nearly four decades after that dinner, Lasky recalled how Wanger had impressed him on first meeting as being “bright, suave, and keenly conversant with the legitimate theatre.”...

    • 5 Organizational Demands (1924–1931)
      (pp. 54-70)

      Personally, Wanger was glad to be back at FPL, for he enjoyed the power and the contacts that his position afforded. Aside from the other studios’ most precious performers, such as MGM’s Greta Garbo, there was no major talent in, or attracted to, the film industry, from Griffith to George Gershwin, from Eisenstein to Erich Maria Remarque, whom Wanger did not meet, sign up, or work with during the 1920s.

      When FPL completed the construction of its new high-rise headquarters over the Paramount Theater in Times Square, Wanger occupied an imposing office with massive wood doors and walnut paneling on...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 6 Too Much Interference (1932–1934)
      (pp. 71-90)

      Eight years older than Selznick and Zanuck, five years older than Thaiberg, Wanger at thirty-eight was no boy wonder. Some believed that after stepping down from Paramount, Wanger had peaked early in his career. But his reputation as an outstanding scout and his imposing Paramount affiliation made him a valuable asset to any studio. In fact, Wanger spent the next three years bouncing from low-budget Columbia to lavish MGM, searching for an association and a position in the studio hierarchies which could give him the authority to make sophisticated dramas and political melodramas. This quest took him down the ladder...

  7. Part Three Going “Independent”

    • 7 Semi-Independent Production (1934–1936)
      (pp. 93-113)

      In 1934 as now, Hollywood “independent production” was an umbrella term, something defined negatively. As Staiger has noted, it referred to “a small company with no corporate relationship to a distribution firm” and one that produced only a few films a year. “B” film producers from Poverty Row were one example. “A” film producers whose work was distributed by United Artists—such as Charlie Chaplin and Samuel Goldwyn—were another.

      It was the latter brand of independence that Wanger sought upon leaving MGM. But in spite of his brilliant reputation and Wall Street connections, he lacked the multimillion dollar backing...

    • 8 A Fine and Daring Producer (1936–1938)
      (pp. 114-128)

      When Wanger moved to United Artists in the summer of 1936, he embarked upon a five-year venture that placed him squarely in the front ranks of progressive and innovative Hollywood filmmaking. He produced an extraordinary run of memorable films, including message movies such as Lang’sYou Only Live Onceand William Dieterle’s controversialBlockade;Ford’s stunningThe Long Voyage Home;box office hits such as Tay Garnett’s TradeWinds,John Cromwell’sAlgiersand Ford’sStagecoach;and his only film to combine entertainment with message making effectively, Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Even lesser efforts such asHistory Is Made at Night, Stand-in,...

    • 9 An Independent in Every Sense of the Word (1938–939)
      (pp. 129-150)

      In February 1939,Time’scritic devoted the bulk of his review of Ford’sStagecoachto introducing “a presentable young Dartmouth man,” Wanger, who belonged “in the forefront of Hollywood’s crusade for social consciousness.” After surveying his career, and noting that Wanger was “a prime exception to the rule that a college education is an insuperable handicap in Hollywood,” the critic got around to discussing the film. Its sympathetic portrayal of the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), the outlaw Ringo Kid (Wayne), and the inebriated Dr. Josiah Boone (Thomas Mitchell) was evidence not of Ford and Dudley Nichols’s inspired dramaturgy, but of...

    • 10 Having It All (1939–1941)
      (pp. 151-173)

      Wanger’s public glory was completely divorced from his troubled private life. After her London triumphs and performance inhush Moneyon Broadway in 1926, Johnston decided to abandon her show business career. “I could easily have gone on,” she told theBoston Heraldin 1940, “but suddenly, even more than being a Follies girl, I wanted to be a high school graduate. . . . Beauty without brains buys little happiness or material advantage.” While in London, she visited several medical clinics. Back in New York, she began working as a laboratory assistant at the College of Physicians and Surgeons....

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 11 Wanger at War (1941–1945)
      (pp. 174-194)

      “I have been struggling with the problem of motion pictures and mass enlightenment ever since the last war,” Wanger wrote an official of the Office of War Information seven months after Pearl Harbor. Though all Hollywood producers leaped at the sudden opportunity to prove the value of movies in wartime, Wanger alone acted with the confidence of an alumnus of the Committee on Public Information. Now was the time for Wanger and Hollywood to prove their great potential to elevate, motivate,andentertain their audience. As an OWI official wrote Wanger, “It is unfortunate that more of Hollywood's executives do...

  8. Part Four Bitter Teas and Reckless Moments, 1945–1952

    • 12 Fritz Lang, Incorporated
      (pp. 197-216)

      Diana Productions, Wanger’s first postwar semi-independent company, was formed in early 1945 with the highest expectations. Yet three years later, the venture went down in flames. At that time, Wanger sent his friend and attorney Bienstock a lengthy description of his difficulties with Lang. Lang was the company’s president, producer-director, and majority stockholder. In executive vice-president Wanger’s view, he was also the major reason for Diana’s downfall:

      The time he took and the problems he made are really fantastic and beyond human belief. The man is a Prussian to the fingertips when it comes to detail, and worries about something...

    • 13 Susan Hayward, Past and Present
      (pp. 217-236)

      For Wanger, the four-year period from 1945 to 1949 was as restless as his shifts in the early 1930s from Paramount to Columbia to MGM to Paramount again. Now, however, with remarkable energy, he often maintained affiliations with Universal-International, Eagle-Lion, Columbia Pictures, and RKO simultaneously.

      Throughout this interval of musical chairs at the different studios, Wanger produced two types of film in alternation. The first group consisted mostly of Technicolor action films: these includedCanyon Passage(1946) andTap Roots(1948) for Universal-International andTulsa(1949) and the black-andwhiteReign of Terror(1949) at Eagle-Lion. Like most historical films, these...

    • 14 The Price of Anglophilia
      (pp. 237-256)

      At age fifty-two, Wanger saw the $4.5 millionJoan of Arcas his Gonewith the Windand hisBest Years of Our Lives,the crowning glory of his career and the answer to all of Hollywood’s postwar problems. From the selection of the film’s property through its roadshow presentation in major cities,Joan of Arc,starring Bergman and directed by Victor Fleming, was conceived as a spiritual blockbuster. More significantly,Joan of Arcwas the first fully independent venture Wanger produced. Using the residuals from his distributed films and the accumulated, unproduced story properties his company held, he was...

    • 15 On the Way Down
      (pp. 257-278)

      “Let me tell you about Hollywood,” Wanger once instructed Lantz. “Two sets of bad reviews and the cook quits.” Wanger had had more than two. From 1949 onward, every project Wanger undertook and every hope he entertained came unraveled. The failure ofJoan of Arcwas catastrophic, for Wanger had tied all his residual income and nearly all his properties to the fate of that one film. He had been overconfident. “It should never have been made by an independent,” he toldBox Officemagazine. By the fall of 1949, he was a man treading water in an industry in...

  9. Part Five Another Comeback:: Three Films

    • 16 Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
      (pp. 281-301)

      When the West Coast press corps converged on the Castaic Honor Farm on September 5, 1952, to watch Wanger’s release after ninety-eight days of his four-month sentence, the producer offered only one comment for publication: the prison system “is the nation’s number one scandal. I want to do a film about it.” The harrowing experience of his incarceration, the solitude and inactivity it forced upon him, and the severity of his downfall compelled Wanger to pursue production work on his next major film with more creative interest than ever before. Indomitable, resilient, and impatient to work, he proceeded to make...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 17 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
      (pp. 302-316)

      Wanger was anxious to build on the success ofRiot in Cell Block 11and 1954 seemed to be the year to do it. The Internal Revenue Service audits finally ended. By mid-1954, distribution expert James Mulvey’s Motion Picture Capital Corporation settled Wanger’s debts fromJoan of ArcandThe Reckless Moment.This was important to Wanger, but something of a Pyrrhic victory:

      I have been able, by breaking my neck, to make a settlement with all of my creditors, so the bankruptcy was never adjudicated and I’m still what is laughingly referred to as a “free man.” It’s been...

    • 18 I Want to Live! (1958)
      (pp. 317-340)

      Wanger’s new partner in September 1956 was one of his oldest acquaintances: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. After a distinguished career at MGM as a writer-producer, supervising many of the studio’s most memorable films such as Fury, Three Comrades (1938), andThe Philadelphia Story(1940), Mankiewicz directed his own scripts at Twentieth Century-Fox beginning in 1945. WithA Letter to Three Wives(1949) andAll About Eve(1950), he earned writing and directing Academy Awards two years in a row.

      In 1951, Mankiewicz moved to New York, shunning Hollywood at the peak of his career. Three years later, he formed an independent...

  10. Part Six Hollywood Merry-Go-Round

    • 19 Arabian Nights (1958–1961)
      (pp. 343-357)

      The best commentary onCleopatra,the last film Wanger produced, remains writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz’s quip: “This picture was conceived in state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a blind panic.”Cleopatra’sconception merged Wanger’s lifelong infatuation with unruly heroines and sumptuous orientalism, Hollywood’s predilection for Technicolor, 70mm Todd-AO spectacle, and Mankiewicz’s sense of intimate drama. The emergency and panic was Twentieth Century-Fox’s; the resulting confusion was a collaborative effort. The studio set forth the notion, which countless historians and biographers repeat, thatCleopatraruined Fox. But in truth, Fox did itself in, and the film was its...

    • 20 The Kafka Play (1961-1962)
      (pp. 358-374)

      TheCleopatrathat premiered in New York in June 1963 and which critic Judith Crist called “a monumental mouse” was the result not of four year’s work and $44 million, but of 222 shooting days in Italy from the fall of 1961 to the summer of 1962 and $24 million in direct costs, exclusive of the Mamoulian phase. The script on which it was based was written in just over a year’s time, more than half of it while shooting progressed, and again Fox inaugurated production without the proper preparation. That the film turned out to be as entertaining as...

    • 21 The Curse of Cleopatra (1962-1968)
      (pp. 375-391)

      Wanger’s “move” in the fall of 1962 was to write a memoir of theCleopatraproduction and simultaneously to inaugurate a libel and breach of contract lawsuit against Fox. The second gesture was expected, but the first was not. When an excerpt fromMy Life with “Cleopatra”appeared in theSaturday Evening Postin April 1963, just two months before the film’s premiere, Fox officials were astounded by the candor and embarrassing detail in Wanger’s account. But the book was a logical extension of Wanger’s courting of the moviegoing public throughout his career.

      “Mr. Wanger has a two fold purpose...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 392-400)

    Like every producer working in a mass medium, Wanger wrestled with the question of what the public wants to see. Selznick, in Schatz’s words, favored “lavish production values and cloying sentimentality.” Goldwyn usually relied on familiar best-sellers and Broadway successes. Although each of them pursued an ideal of “quality” production, Wanger’s answer was novelty.

    Upon retiring in 1969, Berman recalled Wanger’s admonition forty years earlier that “this year’s successes are next year’s failures.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Schary recalled, Wanger “had a wonderful reputation, even in that era, for trying off-beat subjects.” “Don’t let anybody interfere with your aggressive...

  12. Bibliographic Notes
    (pp. 401-432)
  13. Filmography
    (pp. 433-448)
  14. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 449-450)
  15. Index
    (pp. 451-464)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 465-466)