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The Price of Independence - The Hollywood Odyssey of Walter Wanger
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Producer Walter Wanger
The Price of Independence 

The Hollywood Odyssey of Walter Wanger 
by Matthew H. Bernstein

Producer Walter F. Wanger (1894–1968) was a fascinating, colorful figure in classical era Hollywood. He started in 1919 at Paramount. His last film was the notorious Joseph L. Mankiewicz version of Cleopatra (1963), during which Liz (Taylor) and Dick (Burton) fell madly in love. Cliché as it sounds, Wanger’s five-decade career, complete with its bona fide Hollywood shooting scandal and a dramatic fifth act comeback, would make a great movie.

In spite of this track record, the 58 Academy Award nominations his films garnered (win ning eight), and his work with every major studio except Warner Bros., few working in the industry today remember Wanger or have even heard of him. (He was not, for example, mentioned in Turner Classic Movies’ recent series Movies and Moguls). Yet Wanger’s career, with its roller-coaster rides to the top and steep drops, more closely resembles the experience of many of today’s producers than his better known, more talented, greatly and rightly admired colleagues — Irving Thalberg, Darryl F. Zanuck, Hal Wallis, Samuel Goldwyn or Wanger’s good friend David O. Selznick.

All these legends of Hollywood history enjoyed extraordinarily consistent and strong careers. They led major studios with a brilliant knack for tasteful storytelling (Thalberg and Zanuck) and they had bankrolls big enough to fund their independent operations (Goldwyn and Selznick). "The Lone Wanger,” as Vincent Canby called him in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1960s, had neither.

In spite of his limitations, an even dozen of Wanger’s 65 films were major box-office or critical successes: The Marx Brothers’ first film The Cocoanuts (1929). Queen Christina (1933), starring Greta Garbo. Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1938), with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney. John Cromwell’s Algiers (1938), the film that introduced Hedy Lamarr to mainstream America and placed Charles Boyer in the Casbah. John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach (1939), the film that made John Wayne a major star, and Ford’s The Long Voyage Home, an experiment in art cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), the director’s second American film after Rebecca. Fritz Lang’s classic film noir Scarlet Street, starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (1958). And though most accounts don’t mention it, Cleopatra actually broke even with its sale to television.

From left: Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones,
Kevin McCarthy in a scene from Invasion of the
Body Snatchers.

Other of Wanger’s films were idiosyncratic, in pursuit of novelty on screen. (John Ford called him "a sensationalist.”) Being the first to do anything was always a selling point, especially in the 1930s. 1934’s Private Worlds with Joel McCrea, Charles Boyer and Joan Bennett was the first dramatic film set in a mental hospital. Gabriel Over the White House and 1934’s The President Vanishes, promoted fascist versions of White House occupants. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) was the first film to use Technicolor on location. 1938’s Blockade dared to treat the Spanish Civil War. Wanger’s social problem films arose out of his realization during World War I that film was a powerful propaganda tool. But unlike those of, say, Stanley Kramer (1958’s The Defiant Ones, 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), Wanger’s social problem films rarely clicked with audiences — they were, in fact, mediocre movies.

Then there were his Orientalist fantasies (Wanger, a theater expert in the teens, had been a fan of the spectacular Ballet Russes featuring Nijinsky), and after persuading Paramount in the early 1920s to buy The Shiek for Rudolph Valentino, he saw this combination of adventure and erotic intrigue as a surefire way to sell tickets. Algiers proved him right, as did the lesser known 1943 vaudevillian-flavored Technicolor Arabian Nights. (Other films, such as the 1945 Salome Where She Danced and the 1954 low-budget The Adventures of Hajji Baba for Fox in CinemaScope — not so much). Cleopatra was the big-budget culmination of Wanger’s pursuit of spectacular, erotic fantasies.

Unfortunately, most of these films, whether politically minded or escapist, featured scripts that were at best implausible, and at worst tepid. (Blockade inspired many protests by pro-Francoists in the United States, even though the Production Code Administration would not allow the script to specify the film’s location as Spain.) As with any producer, Wanger cherished countless projects that never saw the light of day. Several involved Greta Garbo comebacks in the late 1940s, such as a George Cukor adaptation of Alphonse Daudet’s Sappho and Max Ophuls’ film of Honore de Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais.

As the Garbo projects suggest, Wanger excelled at crafting vehicles for female stars under contract or on loan. Hedy Lamarr in Algiers, Joan Bennett in 1938’s Trade Winds (for which she changed permanently from blonde to brunette), Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra are just the four most prominent examples — he was especially fascinated with the spectacle of women in positions of power. He did not neglect male stars: while independent in the 1930s, Wanger brought Charles Boyer and Madeleine Carroll to America and Henry Fonda from the stage to the screen. But his biggest success in star grooming involved Susan Hayward, whom he put under personal contract in the 1940s. Eventually, he sold her contract to Twentieth Century-Fox, which crafted her rise to major stardom. They reunited in 1958 for Wanger’s greatest message-movie success, I Want to Live!, a biopic about Barbara Graham, the first woman executed in California for murder on disputed evidence.

Walter Wanger (center, stand- ing) joins the prestigious United Artists
team in 1936. Front, seated, from left: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford,
Roy Disney. Standing, from left: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Samuel
Goldwyn, Jock Whitney, David O. Selznick, Wanger, Jesse L. Lasky,
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. 

Photos from the collections of the Wisconsin Center for Film and
Theater Research

A major factor working against any kind of stability in Wanger’s career arose from his determination to work as an "independent producer” in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when being "independent” typically meant "dependent on the major distributors and bank financiers.” After beginning as executive assistant to Paramount co-founder Jesse L. Lasky in 1919, Wanger never found another studio executive he could get along with. Not Harry Cohn at Columbia (1932–1933) and not Louis B. Mayer at MGM (1933–1934). He spent the rest of his career bouncing pinball-like from studio to studio: semi-independent (meaning he had his own unit and split profits, but was financed by the studio) at Paramount (1934–1937), "independent” for United Artists (1937 to 1941) and semi-independent at Universal (1941 to 1947). He left Universal, then a minor producer-distributor, for fledgling Eagle-Lion (1947–1949) and briefly partnered with RKO (1948) and Columbia (1949). Then he moved to Poverty Row, working at Monogram/Allied Artists (1951 to 1956), before rejoining United Artists under the umbrella of Joseph Mankiewicz’s production shingle, Figaro Productions. Thence to Twentieth Century-Fox for his grand finale.

Certainly, other independent producers of the era such as Goldwyn and Selznick thrived. But in addition to being head- strong, Wanger had another strike against him: he had little business savvy. He rarely banked his income, choosing instead to invest his assets in the next project or use them to buy himself out of a contract. (Simply retaining the rights to his films could have put him on easy street with residuals from TV broadcasts.) Looking at his struggles working as an independent in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, one might conclude, as the frustrated German émigré master director Fritz Lang put it to Wanger in 1948, that "independent status is of no value whatsoever.” But Wanger had been so fortunate in all his endeavors through the late 1940s — not least in being able to market himself as a rebellious independent, that he pressed on.

Wanger (center) confers with Alfred Hitchcock (left) by
the Waterloo Station set for Foreign Correspondent

If Wanger lacked a business sense, he was also held back by his executive mindset. Selznick put it well in the late 1940s — Wanger, he wrote, was "a man of talent and expert showmanship and ideas and he has been wrongly placed as a personal producer.” But it was Wanger who placed himself as such. Zanuck and Selznick were also executives, but they were creative producers, ready and able to mold films to their will. Wanger could not and did not.

Wanger learned the wisdom of this policy from his mentor at Paramount, Jesse L. Lasky. As Lasky put it in his 1957 autobiography, I Blow My Own Horn: "The producer must be a prophet and a general, a diplomat and a peacemaker, a miser and a spendthrift. He must have vision tempered by hindsight, daring governed by caution, the patience of a saint and the iron of a Cromwell.” For his own part, Wanger tended toward prophet, peacemaker and spendthrift. This approach yielded up some fantastic films when talent came through — the Garbo, Lang, Ford and Hitchcock films best demonstrate this. (Until 1958, Foreign Correspondent represented Wanger’s most successful combination of message-making — in this case, pro-involvement in World War II — and entertainment). In this sense, Wanger was ahead of his time — an enlightened producer who left the filmmaking to the hired artists.

But if major talents could not produce, Wanger was at a loss, and this was incomprehensible to executives at Twentieth Century-Fox in the early 1960s when Cleopatra was underway. "You have to control a director,” he commented of Joseph Mankiewicz after the production was done, "and at the same time you can’t beat him down, otherwise you are going to ruin all of this individual imagination... It has to be done with sympathy, understanding, diplomacy and experience.”

Wanger also learned from Lasky the value of experimentation. One of his least fortunate story purchases in the 1920s at Paramount was Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. To this decision, he later recalled, his colleagues reacted "as though I’d bought something on venereal disease for Shirley Temple.” At the industry-dominating Paramount of the 1920s, such a costly mistake did not matter. After Paramount, such mistakes would do Wanger in.

Wanger (left) with cinematographer Russell Harlan on location at
San Quentin for Riot in Cell Block 11

In his time, Wanger was regarded as tasteful (and always impeccably dressed), globally minded and highly influential, most of all from 1939 to 1944 when he produced films for United Artists and Universal release. Off the studio lot, he devoted his time to persuading opinion leaders that Hollywood should be taken seriously: "The motion picture is potentially one of the greatest weapons for the safeguarding of democracy,” he told the press in 1939. As president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences beginning in that year till 1944, Wanger was at the height of his prestige; he even got FDR to address the 1941 Academy Awards by radio. He persuaded the Academy to add the documentary category to its awards in the early 1940s. (He would do likewise for the Best Foreign Film category in 1956). In 1939, Time magazine hailed Wanger as belonging "in the forefront of Hollywood’s crusade for social consciousness.”

He hit rock bottom 10 years later.

The downswing for Wanger began in the late 1940s. Nothing he produced at Universal did well. In 1947, he invested all his remaining assets in Victor Fleming’s $4.5 million Joan of Arc (1948), distributed by RKO and starring Ingrid Bergman. This was an attempt to emulate Laurence Oliver’s success with Henry V (1945), which failed to break even. "It should never have been made by an independent,” he concluded too late, although it did gain him a special Oscar, only the second one he personally was ever awarded (the first was for his service as Academy President). His next film, inspired by David Lean’s 1946 Brief Encounter (Wanger was a staunch Anglophile), was the last straw: with Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (1949), starring James Mason and Joan Bennett, Wanger faced the prospect of bankruptcy. (The Reckless Moment was remade in 2001 as The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton in the role Joan Bennett originated.)

Wanger’s prominent liberalism would get him into trouble in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when conservative politicians and industry workers would suspect him of being a Communist fellow-traveler, a development not unrelated to his financial difficulties.

At 57, Wanger for the first time in his charmed life despaired. In December 1951, he pulled and fired a gun on agent Jennings Lang in the MCA parking lot as Lang and Wanger’s wife Joan Bennett returned from a tryst in an underling’s apartment (allegedly the inspiration for the scenario of Billy Wilder’s 1960 The Apartment). Lang fortunately survived and continued agenting/ producing major films (such as Clint Eastwood vehicles The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter as well as Billy Wilder’s The Front Page) into the 1980s. The stunning Bennett (a star since the late 1920s) saw her career effectively end (The Father of the Bride movies being her last solid hits).  The scandal was enormous since it involved, in Time magazine’s words, "some of Hollywood’s shiniest showpieces.”

Wanger (right) discusses the climactic confrontation between
prison inmates and the National Guard with director Don Siegel
on location for Riot in Cell Block 11

Wanger cracked wise when it was all over — "Everyone complains about agents in Hollywood; I’m the only one who did some- thing about them.” Even though Wanger acted out of personal anguish, the Jennings Lang incident was indeed symptomatic of the rise of the agent as an undeniable power in Hollywood filmmaking — often to the detriment of old-school, single-threat producers like Wanger.

Yet Wanger was irrepressible. After serving a four-month term for his crime, he greeted the press upon his release with the comment that the American prison system "is the nation’s number one scandal. I want to do a film about it.” He parlayed even that experience into a dramatic comeback that saw him produce the two terrific, hard-hitting low-budget Don Siegel films at Allied Artists: Riot in Cell Block 11 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Riot and I Want to Live! were, ironically, Wanger’s most personal films in several senses. He had never before been so involved in the minutiae of scripting and shooting one of his films. Furthermore, Riot was inspired by actual riots around the country and based in Wanger’s outrage over horrible conditions he had personally experienced, a film which took the hard-edged realism of previous prison films to unprecedented grittiness.

I Want to Live!, besides providing a showboating and Oscar- winning role for Susan Hayward, was such a vivid condemnation of sensationalist media and especially of capital punishment (the last 40 minutes show the preparations for Graham’s execution) that French philosopher/author and author Albert Camus wrote a forward to the French release version. Both films were inspired by Wanger’s feelings of paranoia and persecution resulting from his notoriety and what he considered a miscarriage of justice from the Lang incident. The perennial optimist had become a bitter critic of American hypocrisy.

The success of I Want to Live! relaunched Wanger into A-class Hollywood filmmaking. He convinced Twentieth Century- Fox to pay Elizabeth Taylor $1 million for Cleopatra and to finance a dazzling production design. Thus ensued the disaster that proved Murphy’s Law again and again: principal photography begun over and over without a completed screenplay, shooting in cold London, Taylor’s emergency tracheotomy, the shift to Rome, a home studio in turmoil, the hiring of Joseph Mankiewicz, who wrote script pages by night and shot them by day, inadequate spending controls, and of course, l’affaire Taylor-Burton. The studio blamed Wanger for not enforcing more production control and did not invite him to the premiere. Wanger blamed the studio for giving him responsibility without authority and in revenge published a stunning tell-all account of the making of the film, My Life With Cleopatra. John Ford wrote Wanger that the book "for the first time shows the making of a movie, with what you and I, the picture makers and creators, have to contend with.” Until his death in 1968, Wanger never produced another film (though he had projects aplenty).

The special reading Wanger requested at his funeral clearly spoke to his experiences as a producer in the old studio system. It was from George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, the dying words of the amoral painter Louis Dubedat. It read in part: "I’ve been threatened and blackmailed and insulted and starved. But I’ve played the game. I’ve fought the good fight. And now that it’s all over, there’s an indescribable peace.”

Whether working on salary or as an independent, Wanger found his efforts obstructed in countless ways. But he believed in himself, in Hollywood and in art and in the invaluable work of the producer. His career, if little-remembered today, remains instructive. Even if Walter Wanger wrote just a bit of Hollywood history with his own hand, he lived a life that — ultimately and uniquely — embodied the arc of his profession and his industry for over 40 years.

Matthew H. Bernstein is the Chair of the Film & Media Studies Department at Emory University, and the author of Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent and Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television.