Walter F. Wanger Papers, 1908-1967

Biography/History

Walter Wanger was born Walter Feuchtwanger, July 11, 1894 in San Francisco, California, to Sigmund and Stella (Stettheimer) Feuchtwanger. Stella Stettheimer was born in Rochester, New York, and Sigmund Feuchtwanger was born in Sulzberg, Bavaria about 1853 and came to the United States about 1870. A wealthy overall and knitted goods manufacturer, Feuchtwanger lived in San Francisco until about 1878, then resided in Portland, Oregon until his return to San Francisco about 1885. Sigmund Feuchtwanger died in 1905. In 1908, Mrs. Feuchtwanger changed the surname of her children, Beatrice (1890-1945), Herbert (died prior to World War I?), Walter, and Henry (d. 1964), to Wanger.

As the son of a wealthy family, Walter Wanger was educated at schools in the United States and in Europe, where he also traveled widely. Until he was eleven years old, Wanger lived in San Francisco, where he attended Pacific Heights Grammar School. After his father's death, his mother took the family to live in New York, where Walter attended Cascadilla Preparatory School, Ithaca, New York. Each summer the family went to Europe, where Walter studied at the Institute Sillig, Vevey, Switzerland. Later, Wanger entered Dartmouth College, and spent short periods at Heidelberg University and Oxford University. He was asked to leave Dartmouth in 1912 because of his poor grades, but he later returned and received a degree. While at Dartmouth, Wanger became interested in dramatics and acted in student plays. Also at Dartmouth he met English actor and producer Harley Granville Barker; and worked with Barker's stage manager, Claude Rains. Wanger next worked as general manager for Elizabeth Marbury, a theatrical producing agent. In 1917 he produced his first independent play, 'Ception Shoals, with Alla Nazimova, which ran for eight weeks on Broadway.

After the play closed, Wanger enlisted in the Army on June 6, 1917, and a year later was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Overseas Air Service. During World War I, Wanger served in France, and at Foggia, Italy under Major Fiorello La Guardia. Although he never mastered flying, Wanger's proficiency in several languages led to his subsequent appointment as attache to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and after the Armistice, to the American Peace Mission. Wanger was discharged from the military and returned to the United States in April 1919. On September 13, 1919, Wanger married actress and former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, Justine Johnstone (b. January 31, 1895) in New York City.

After the war, Wanger abandoned his thoughts of a career in foreign service and returned to his previous interest in dramatics. In New York, he met Jesse L. Lasky of Paramount-Famous-Lasky Corporation, New York City, who made Wanger his assistant and general manager of all Paramount film production. Until his resignation in 1920, Wanger bought most of Paramount's stories; hired actors, directors, and producers; acted as general liaison; and supervised experimental productions.

From 1920 to 1923 Wanger worked in England, where he converted Covent Garden into a motion picture theater and later became managing director of the Provincial Cinema Theaters. In 1922 and 1923, Wanger and Frederick Lonsdale produced for the London stage such plays as The Fake and Polly Preferred, purchased and negotiated the American presentation of the hit play, Spring Cleaning, and arranged the first United States tour of Andre Charlot's revue. Jesse Lasky rehired him in 1923, and Wanger resumed his former position as general manager. He remained with Paramount until 1931 when Emmanuel Cohen became head of the studio, and Wanger left after a disagreement over policy matters. As general manager, Wanger introduced or promoted such movie stars as Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Walter Huston, and the Marx Brothers. He arranged with Elinor Glyn for the writing of It, the film that made Clara Bow a star, and bought the novel that was later adapted as The Sheik for Rudolph Valentino.

From December 1931 to February 1933, Wanger was vice-president of Columbia Pictures, until he resigned to go to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as executive producer. While at MGM, Wanger produced the films Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo, and Gabriel Over the White House, one of the first films to incorporate political and economic ideas with entertainment.

After he left MGM in June 1934, Wanger formed the first of his own independent production companies, Walter Wanger Productions, Inc. For the next two years, Wanger produced a number of films that were released by Paramount, and beginning in July 1936, by United Artists, with whom he had a ten-year contract to produce films as an independent. During this period Wanger promoted several innovative film techniques and ideas; he was an early advocate of sound and color films, and encouraged the use of good stage and set design and authentic music scores. Before leaving Paramount, Wanger made Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the first outdoor Technicolor movie.

Wanger produced several films reflecting his opposition to censorship in the motion picture industry. Among these were The President Vanishes, portraying a group of munitions manufacturers and bankers struggling to protect their joint interests, a plot deemed too controversial by Paramount and later severely cut by the studio. Blockade, for which Wanger won the National Peace Conference citation, was made during the Spanish Civil War and was intended by Wanger to show the evils of war. Wanger's difficulties arose because the film appeared to champion the Loyalist cause, even though neither the country nor the opposing sides were identified in the film. Wanger was branded a communist by the Spanish Fascists, and General Francisco Franco threatened to ban all United Artists films from Spain if Blockade was not withdrawn from worldwide distribution. The film was also banned in Germany, Italy, Peru, El Salvador, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Portugal, Lithuania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. In an article published in Foreign Affairs (October 1939), Wanger wrote that “the shadow of increasing censorship (at home and abroad) had bred a fear complex” among Hollywood producers, and urged legal protection for freedom of speech on the screen and retaliatory boycotts against foreign countries censoring American films. (Unfortunately the controversy over Blockade is not illustrated in the Film Production files; the only documentation is located in the Speeches.)

Wanger also took part in the debate of the period over motion pictures as entertainment vs. education. In articles and speeches, Wanger spoke out against Hollywood's entertainment only policy, noting that motion pictures had to represent realism as well. In a 1940 address to the Variety Club in Texas, Wanger drew an analogy between an all-escapist films diet and the use of drugs by the Japanese in Manchuria to hide reality from the population. Wanger followed his own policy by producing Blockade, Foreign Correspondent (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and foreshadowing the rise of Nazism in Europe), and Gung Ho!, a story of combat using thinking soldiers, officers who understand the issues behind the fighting, and an escape from the unthinking regimentation of the military; interspersed with such fantasy and war pictures as Eagle Squadron, We've Never Been Licked, and Ladies Courageous.

Wanger was also active in motion picture industry charitable organizations. In 1939 he was chairman of four such groups, and a trustee (and later vice-president) of the Motion Picture Relief Fund. In 1940 Wanger became the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a post to which he was re-elected five times. He was an active member of the Motion Picture Producers' Association, the United Nations Committee, the Council for Democracy and Council for Foreign Affairs, and he served as president of The Society for the Americas. Wanger also contributed much time and money to the Los Angeles branch of the Free World Association, an organization which aimed to promote adult education in foreign and domestic affairs for the people who work in films, to help win World War II, and to promote collectively the organization of a democratic world, on the premise that motion pictures were by nature international and social powers. Despite the interest of some influential movie people, the organization in Hollywood disbanded due to lack of interest in the long-range educational aspects, and partly because of organizational problems with its counterpart, New York Free World.

Politically, Wanger was a liberal who generally supported Democratic candidates. He was a firm supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and maintained a correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt. Wanger was a personal friend of California Governor Edmund G. Brown, Assistant Secretary of State William Benton, and others in politics.

Wanger was divorced from his first wife, Justine Johnstone Wanger on June 14, 1939. On January 12, 1940, he married actress Joan Bennett (1910- ).

The late 1930s and early 1940s was the period of Wanger's greatest artistic and financial success. During these years his annual income was usually about 1 million dollars, and his marriage to Joan Bennett appeared to be a happy one. In 1941, Wanger reorganized his production company, later changing the name to Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc., and entering into a distribution agreement with Universal Studios. Wanger produced Universal's first color film, Arabian Nights (1942). In 1945 or 1946 he produced a public health film on venereal disease at the request of the United States Public Health Service and the California State Department of Public Health. Although the film was acclaimed both by public health organizations and by the public at limited screenings, the sensitive subject matter offended the Catholic Church and various state censorship boards, and the film was withdrawn from public distribution.

In 1945 Wanger formed Diana Productions, Inc. with Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett. The following year Wanger formed another independent production company, En Productions or Sierra Pictures, Inc., with actress Ingrid Bergman and director Victor Fleming, to produce Joan of Arc. Although the stage version of the film had been very well received, Fleming died during filming, and the picture (which cost millions to make) was a financial failure, in part because its release coincided with the scandal created by Bergman's affair with Roberto Rossellini and subsequent divorce from Peter Lindstrom. Wanger next moved to Eagle-Lion Studios (Universal) in December 1947.

Wanger went heavily into debt during the late 1940s to finance his films, none of which was a financial success. As a result, in 1951 the Bank of America sued him for bankruptcy. Wanger believed the lawsuit to be unjustified, and fought it for three years, until the matter was settled out of court in 1954. He spent the three years of the suit trying to pay off his debts, including major debts owed to Joan Bennett.

Wanger's personal troubles continued, however, and in December 1951, believing that his wife was having an affair with her agent, Wanger shot and wounded the agent, Jennings Lang. Even though he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder, and found guilty of the assault charge, Wanger was sentenced to just a four-month term in the Los Angeles County Honor Farm. After his release, Wanger and Joan Bennett were reconciled, although subsequently the couple spent much of their time apart.

Wanger's stay in prison contributed to his interest in the problems of prisoners and their psychological problems, and prison life, which is reflected in his correspondence and in a number of speeches and articles he wrote following his release from prison. He firmly opposed capital punishment, and after leaving prison, became greatly interested in the case of Caryl Chessman, actively attempting to secure a reprieve for him. Wanger's interest and research also led him to make the highly popular film Riot in Cell Block 11, illustrating some of the problems he saw.

In the late 1950s, Wanger purchased the story of the life of Cleopatra, and prepared it for production as a major film epic similar to Ben-Hur. Wanger's production of Cleopatra, which ultimately took 2 ½ years to produce and cost Twentieth Century-Fox 40 million dollars to make, began production in September 1960. Huge production costs and overruns led to a power struggle within the Fox hierarchy in 1962, culminating in the firing of president Spyros Skouras and his replacement by major shareholder Darryl F. Zanuck. Filming originally began in London, where the small studios and uncertain weather caused major delays. Eventually production was moved to Rome and Egypt, at great cost to the studio. Nor were matters helped by the resignation of director Rouben Mamoulian, the illnesses of star Elizabeth Taylor, and her much-publicized separation from husband Eddie Fisher and romance with co-star Richard Burton. Twentieth Century-Fox executives blamed Wanger for losing control of his stars and the picture, and removed him from his position as producer in 1962. Wanger later filed a 2.6 million dollar lawsuit for breach of contract against the studio, seeking damages and an injunction to restrain Fox from distributing the film. An out-of-court settlement was negotiated in 1965. Wanger's experiences with the film were the subject of a book co-authored by Joe Hyams, My Life with Cleopatra, based on the extensive diaries Wanger kept during the filming. A lawsuit brought by Spyros Skouras for libel based on the content of Wanger's book was also settled out of court in 1965. The Cleopatra episode virtually ended Wanger's career as a producer.

Wanger spent major portions of the last few years of his life in Europe, partly to establish a British residence for tax reasons. Wanger's writings indicate that he identified more closely with a European life style; indeed, Wanger's friend, actor James Mason said that “he always wanted to be European.” Wanger returned to the United States to see his daughters and for business several times a year, generally living in New York rather than California. Although until his death Wanger continued to look for stories and ideas suitable for films, he lost control of several in-progress stories as part of the settlement of his lawsuit against Twentieth Century-Fox, and never produced a film after the Cleopatra debacle. He maintained an office in Hollywood, but was generally absent from it. A close companion of his later years was Aileen Mehle, better known as the New York Daily News columnist Suzy Knickerbocker.

Throughout his life, Wanger inspired admiration and regard as a courteous, sophisticated, urbane man. Although his parents and other relatives had been Jewish (and Wanger usually referred to himself as a Jew), Wanger, Joan Bennett, and their family were members of the Episcopal Church. In addition, Wanger greatly admired the Catholic Church and sent both of his daughters to a parochial grade school. He gave generously to a variety of charities and Jewish relief organizations, and for many years supported his former wife Justine and her parents, Gustav and Sophie Johnson, and several European relatives whom he helped escape from the Nazis before World War II. Walter Wanger died of heart failure in New York, November 18, 1968. Although Wanger had been an extremely wealthy man at one time, his estate was relatively small; most was left to his daughter Shelley.

List of Films Produced by Wanger

  • Cocoanuts (Paramount, released 1929)
  • Washington Merry-Go Round (MGM, 1932)
  • Night Mayor (Columbia)
  • No More Orchids (Columbia)
  • The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Columbia, 1933)
  • Gabriel Over the White House (MGM, 1933)
  • Another Language (MGM, 1933)
  • Going Hollywood (MGM, 1933)
  • Queen Christina (MGM, 1933)
  • Stamboul Quest (MGM, 1934)
  • The President Vanishes (Paramount, 1934)
  • Private Worlds (Paramount, 1935)
  • Shanghai (Paramount, 1935)
  • Every Night at Eight (Paramount, 1935)
  • Mary Burns, Fugitive (Paramount, 1935)
  • Smart Girl (Paramount, 1935)
  • Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Paramount, 1936)
  • Palm Springs (Paramount, 1936)
  • Big Brown Eyes (Paramount, 1936)
  • The Moon's Our Home (Paramount, 1936)
  • Her Master's Voice (Paramount, 1936)
  • Case Against Mrs. Ames (Paramount, 1936)
  • Fatal Lady (Paramount, 1936)
  • Spendthrift (Paramount, 1936)
  • You Only Live Once (United Artists, 1937)
  • History Is Made at Night (United Artists, 1937)
  • Vogues of 1938 (United Artists, 1937)
  • Stand-In (United Artists, 1937)
  • Fifty-Second Street (United Artists, 1937)
  • I Met My Love Again (United Artists, 1938)
  • Blockade (United Artists, 1938)
  • Algiers (United Artists, 1938)
  • Trade Winds (United Artists, 1938)
  • Stagecoach (United Artists, 1939)
  • Winter Carnival (United Artists, 1939)
  • Eternally Yours (United Artists, 1939)
  • Slightly Honorable (United Artists, 1940)
  • House Across the Bay (United Artists, 1940)
  • Foreign Correspondent (United Artists, 1940)
  • Long Voyage Home (United Artists, 1940)
  • Sundown (United Artists, 1941)
  • Eagle Squadron (Universal, 1942)
  • Arabian Nights (Universal, 1942)
  • We've Never Been Licked (Universal, 1943)
  • Gung Ho! (Universal, 1943)
  • Ladies Courageous (Universal, 1944)
  • To the People of the United States (U.S. Public Health Service, 1944 or 1945)
  • Salome, Where She Danced (Universal, 1945)
  • Scarlet Street (Universal, 1945)
  • Night in Paradise (Universal, 1946)
  • Canyon Passage (Universal, 1946)
  • Tangier (Universal, 1946)
  • Smash Up - The Story of a Woman (Universal, 1947)
  • The Lost Moment (Universal, 1947)
  • Secret Beyond the Door (Universal, 1948)
  • Tap Roots (Universal, 1948)
  • Joan of Arc (RKO, 1948)
  • Tulsa (Eagle-Lion/Universal, 1949)
  • The Black Book (Eagle Lion/Universal, 1949)
  • The Reckless Moment (Columbia, 1949)
  • Reign of Terror (Universal, 1949)
  • The Lady in the Iron Mask (20th Century-Fox, 1952)
  • Aladdin and His Lamp (Monogram, 1952)
  • Battle Zone (Monogram/Allied Artists, 1952)
  • Fort Vengeance (Allied Artists, 1953)
  • Kansas Pacific (Allied Artists, 1953)
  • Riot in Cell Block 11 (Allied Artists, 1954)
  • Adventures of Hajji Baba (Allied Artists, 1954)
  • Navy Wife (Allied Artists, 1956)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Allied Artists, 1956)
  • The Quiet American (1958)
  • I Want to Live! (United Artists, 1958)
  • Cleopatra (20th Century-Fox, 1962)

Joan G. Bennett was born February 27, 1910 in Palisades, New Jersey, to noted actor Richard Bennett (1873-1944) and his actress wife, Adrienne Morrison (d. 1940). (Joan Bennett's parents were divorced in November 1925; Adrienne Morrison later married Eric Seabrooke Pinker, and Richard Bennett married Aimee Raisch in 1927.) Joan was the younger sister of screen actresses Barbara and Constance (1904-1965) Bennett. As a child, Joan was tutored privately and attended St. Margaret's Boarding School in Waterbury, Connecticut and a finishing school in Versailles, France. When she was 18, she made her stage debut with her father in the play Jarnegan. The same year she went to Hollywood, where she was shortly thereafter selected for the leading female role in Bulldog Drummond, opposite Ronald Coleman.

Joan Bennett's first marriage was to John Marion Fox, the son of a wealthy Seattle lumberman, with whom she eloped at the age of sixteen, when she was in school in France. Her daughter, Diana (nee Adrienne Fox) was born on February 20, 1928, the same year that Joan Bennett and Fox were divorced. Subsequently she married film writer Gene Markey on March 16, 1932. They were the parents of Melinda (born February 27, 1934), and Markey also adopted Diana Fox. After their divorce in 1938, Joan Bennett married Walter Wanger in Phoenix, Arizona on January 12, 1940. Wanger recast Bennett in more sophisticated, sultry roles, and persuaded her to change her hair color from blonde to brunette, at a time when she was losing ingenue roles to younger actresses. The change in hair color opened up roles with greater depth and complexity for Joan Bennett, and under Wanger's supervision and the direction of Fritz Lang she made some of her best films. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s she appeared in several stage plays, and in the late 1960s starred in the television soap opera and film Dark Shadows. Although Joan Bennett and Walter Wanger agreed to divorce in 1963, the divorce did not occur until 1965. In 1978 Joan Bennett married movie-drama critic David Wilde.

Walter Wanger and Joan Bennett had two daughters, Stephanie (born June 26, 1943) who married Woolworth heir Frederick E. Guest II in 1963, and Shelley (born July 4, 1948). Wanger also adopted Joan Bennett's daughter Diana (who at various times had the surnames Fox, Markey, and Wanger). In 1948 Diana married John H. Anderson and settled in Los Angeles. The couple had 5 children, Amanda, Timothy, Adrienne Lisa, Cindy, and Felix, before divorcing about 1966. Melinda Markey's first husband was Don Hayden, with whom she had a son, Markey Hayden (later Bena); her second husband was Joseph Bena, who was the father of Parker Joseph Bena (born March 31, 1962) and Samantha Bena (born in 1966 or 1967). At one period, Melinda Markey had small parts on the New York stage and in films. Stephanie and Frederick Guest were the parents of Victoria Woolworth Guest, born in 1966.