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Walter Wanger Poster

Biography

Jump to: Overview (3)  | Mini Bio (1)  | Spouse (2)  | Trivia (11)  | Personal Quotes (2)

Overview (3)

Born in San Francisco, California, USA
Died in New York City, New York, USA  (heart attack)
Birth NameWalter Feuchtwanger

Mini Bio (1)

A graduate of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, Walter Wanger was among the more literate and socially conscious American film producers of his time. At the peak of his career, his salary was exceeded only by that of Louis B. Mayer at MGM. Wanger had served in the air force on the Italian front during World War I. He joined the staff of President Woodrow Wilson as an attaché after the armistice, attending the peace conference in Paris. Having already staged theatricals at college and briefly directed on Broadway, he began in the film industry at Paramount as assistant to studio vice president Jesse L. Lasky in 1921. He worked his way up to a senior executive position, with the power to hire and fire writers, directors and stars. A disagreement with Lasky brought about his departure, but he was re-hired after having success in England as a theatrical producer and agent.

In 1923, he was appointed head of Paramount's Long Island Studio. Shortly after, he was made chief of production, holding that position until 1931. After leaving the company due to personality clashes with new senior management, he had brief spells with Columbia and MGM, producing several big hits, such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932) and Queen Christina (1933). Nonetheless, he didn't get on particularly well with either Harry Cohn or L.B. Mayer and decided to turn independent, releasing his films through Paramount and United Artists. By 1936, Walter Wanger's own production company had the most substantial star roster of any independent filmmaker in Hollywood, including Madeleine Carroll, Charles Boyer, Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney.

Wanger's first major success as an independent was The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the first Technicolor feature for Paramount, and also the first to be shot primarily outdoors. In between solid black & white action films and dramas like You Only Live Once (1937) and Algiers (1938), Wanger also produced several expensive all-colour extravaganzas, not all of which paid off at the box office (point in case, Vogues of 1938 (1937), which failed to recoup its cost of $1.4 million). This rather forced United Artists to keep a closer reign on his future expenditure. However, by the end of the decade, Wanger's reputation increased, with films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Long Voyage Home (1940) (for John Ford) and Foreign Correspondent (1940) (for Alfred Hitchcock). Between 1946 and 1949, Wanger succeeded both in strengthening his own production company and in establishing a distribution network (in conjunction with the independent owners of Film Classics), the Wanger-Nassour Releasing Organisation.

Inevitably, the financial vagaries of independent production were beginning to take their toll. Already hamstrung by the financial woes of one of his subsidiaries, Diana Productions (formed in partnership with his wife Joan Bennett, screenwriter Dudley Nichols and director Fritz Lang),Wanger badly overextended himself in his financing of the 145-minute studio-bound Technicolor epic Joan of Arc (1948), starring Ingrid Bergman. The venture effectively bankrupted another of his production companies (Sierra Pictures), set up with Bergman exclusively for the making of the expensive fiasco. "Joan of Arc" ended up being shunned by audiences (who found it long and boring) and critics (who thought it naïve and altogether missing its spiritual mark) alike. Wanger's financial miscalculation was further compounded in 1951, by his shooting of his wife's paramour. It landed him in jail for four months for attempted murder.

That notwithstanding, Wanger bounced back, finagling a $5 million deal with Allied Artists. After his release from jail, he produced a socially conscious prison film, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), on a relatively modest budget. He followed this with one of the most iconic science fiction films ever made, the marvellous Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel. On the flipside, Wanger's last throw of the dice, Cleopatra (1963) , with its excessive cost and production difficulties, almost ruined 20th Century Fox and brought about his own premature retirement. After his death from a heart attack in November 1968, a mere $18,000 remained of his estate.

In spite of its highs and lows, the career of Walter Wanger had been nothing but amazing. During his early days at Paramount (then Famous Players Lasky), he had bought the rights to The Sheik (1921), which made a star out of Rudolph Valentino. At the time of his second spell with the studio, he introduced headliners like Claudette Colbert, Hedy Lamarr, and The Marx Brothers to the screen. As a man of strong intellectual inclinations, he recognised the value of good writing. Indeed, many of his films combine a socio-political message with good entertainment. James Mason thought, Wanger had always longed 'to be European'.

In later years, Wanger openly criticised the established Hollywood hierarchy for being over-reliant on star power. His own self-proclaimed rebelliousness also engendered the enmity of practically every major studio boss and his liberal leanings got him into trouble during the HUAC witch hunts of the early 1950's. Nonetheless, Wanger was twice elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, at the height of his influence, was able to successfully lobby the Academy to introduce Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary as Oscar categories.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: I.S.Mowis

Spouse (2)

Joan Bennett (13 January 1940 - 20 September 1965) ( divorced) ( 2 children)
Justine Johnstone (September 1919 - 15 April 1938) ( divorced)

Trivia (11)

Holds a special place in the history of motion picture production - he was the first and last studio executive to suggest to Groucho Marx that he lose the greasepaint moustache as it was an "obvious fake". (Source: Joseph Adamson III in his book "Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo" (1973)
In 1951 Wanger was convicted of attempted murder in the shooting of talent agent Jennings Lang. Lang was the agent of Joan Bennett, then Wanger's wife, and Wanger discovered the two of them were having an affair. He caught them in the act, and wound up shooting Lang in the groin. Wanger served a four-month sentence in the County Honor Farm at Castaic, 39 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles, then quickly returning to his career to make a series of successful films. His experiences there resulted in his producing the seminal prison film classic Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954).
The surname Wanger, as pronounced, rhymes with 'stranger'
In 1949 he turned down a Special Academy Award given him for Joan of Arc (1948). Wanger was furious at the way the film had been marketed and blamed tycoon Howard Hughes - who at the time owned RKO Studios, the studio that distributed the film - for its commercial failure. He was reportedly also angry that the film's several Oscar nominations did not include one for Best Picture.
Father of Stephanie Guest.
Hosted the Academy Awards in 1941
President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1939 to October 1941 and from December 1941 to 1945
Grandfather of producer Vanessa Wanger, fiancée of independent producer Ted Hope.
During World War I he was a fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force, and saw combat in France.
According to Simone Signoret in her autobiography, when she came to the USA in the late fifties, she met Walter Wanger who asked her to support him against the death penalty, especially the Caryl Chessman case. When he asked Signoret why she refused, she told him that she was not that sure of the innocence of Chessman. Then she asked him how he behaved during the Rosenbergs' case, before their execution: Wanger told her that he did nothing.
In a March 1937 movie industry Trade Paper item it was announced that producer Walter Wanger was about to put four feature films into production within the next 60 days. These consisted of "The River is Blue" (eventually released as "Blockade" in 1938), "Vogues of 1938", "Personal History" (to be based on the book "Personal History" by Vincent Sheean, the rights to which Wanger had bought in 1935), and "Fifty-Second Street" (released as "52nd Street"). The proposed filming of "Personal History" was canceled, but Wanger again considered using the book as the basis for his production "Foreign Correspondent" in 1940, but discarded most of it, using other writers.

Personal Quotes (2)

Nothing is as cheap as a hit, no matter how much it costs.
[on Hollywood gossip columnists] This is the only industry that finances its own blackmail.

See also

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