Walter Wanger (July 11, 1894 – November 18, 1968) was an American film producer active in filmmaking from the 1910s to the turbulent production of Cleopatra in 1963. Wanger developed a reputation as an intellectual and a socially conscious movie executive who produced provocative message movies and glittering romantic melodramas. Wanger was strongly influenced by European films, and made many productions geared towards international markets.
His career began at Paramount Pictures in the 1920s and led him to work at virtually every major studio as either a contract producer or an independent. Wanger served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1939 to October 1941 and from December 1941 to 1945.
Wanger was born Walter Feuchtwanger in San Francisco, and pronounced "Wanger" to rhyme with "danger". He was the son of Stella (Stettheimer) and Sigmund Feuchtwanger, who were from German Jewish families that had emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century. Wanger was from a non-observant Jewish family, and in later life attended Episcopalian services with his wife. In order to assimilate into American society, his mother altered the family name simply to Wanger in 1908. The Wangers were well-connected and upper middle class, something which later differentiated Wanger from the other Jewish film moguls who came from more ordinary backgrounds.
Wanger attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he developed an interest in Amateur theatre. After leaving Dartmouth, Wanger became a professional theatrical producer in New York City where he worked with figures such as the influential British manager Harley Granville-Barker and the Russian actress Alla Nazimova.
Following the American entry into World War I in 1917, Wanger served with the United States Army in Italy initially in the Signal Corps where he worked as a pilot on reconnaissance missions, and later in propaganda operations directed at the Italian public. It was during this period that Wanger first came into contact with filmmaking. In April 1918 Wanger was transferred to the Committee on Public Information, and joined an effort to combat anti-war or pro-German sentiment in Allied Italy. This was partly accomplished through a series of short propaganda films screened in Italian cinemas promoting democracy and Allied war aims. Wanger was very impressed with the potential of film to shape people's minds towards achieving a better-educated and more peaceful world.
After the Allied victory, Wanger returned to the United States in 1919 and was discharged from the army. Wanger married silent film actress Justine Johnstone in 1919. He initially returned to theatre production, before a chance meeting with Jesse Lasky drew him into the world of commercial filmmaking. Lasky was impressed with Wanger's ideas and his experiences in the theatre, and hired him to head a New York office vetting and acquiring books and plays for use as film stories for Famous Players-Lasky (later to become Paramount), which was then the largest film production company in the world.
Wanger's job was to help meet the studio's large annual requirement for fresh stories . One of Wanger's major successes in his early years with the company was his identification of the British novel The Sheik as a story with potential. In 1921 it was turned into an extremely successful film starring Rudolph Valentino. The film helped establish the popularity of the Orientalist genre, which Wanger returned to a number of times during his career.
By 1921, Wanger was unhappy with the terms he was receiving and left his job with Paramount. He travelled to Britain where he worked as a prominent cinema and theatre manager until 1924. While on a visit to London, Jesse Lasky offered to appoint him as "general manager of production" on improved terms and Wanger accepted.
Wanger's second spell with Paramount lasted from 1924 to 1931, during which time his annual wage rose from $150,000 to $250,000. He was tasked with overseeing the work of the studio heads, which meant he had little involvement with the production of individual films. Because he was based in New York, Wanger worked more closely with the company's Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. A rivalry developed between Wanger-influenced Astoria productions and those of B. P. Schulberg who ran the Paramount productions in Hollywood. From the mid-1920s, the company was rapidly overtaken by the recently formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the industry's leading company and this along with heavy losses incurred on big-budget films, led to Paramount's executives decision in 1927 to eventually close the New York operation and shift all production to Hollywood. Wanger opposed this move and felt he was being squeezed out of the company.
In 1926 Warner Brothers's premièred Don Juan a film with music and sound effects, and the following year released The Jazz Singer with dialogue and singing scenes. Along with other big companies, Paramount initially resisted adopting sound films and continued to exclusively make silent films. Wanger convinced his colleagues of the importance of sound, and personally oversaw the conversion of a silent baseball film Warming Up to sound. After the film's successful release, the company switched dramatically away from silent to sound.
After being closed for a year the Astoria Studios were re-opened in 1929 to make sound films, taking advantage of their close proximity to Broadway where many actors were recruited to appear in early Talkies. Wanger recruited large numbers of new performers including Maurice Chevalier, the Marx Brothers, Claudette Colbert, Jeanette MacDonald, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins and directors such George Cukor and Rouben Mamoulian. Wanger's New York films were often adapted from stage plays and focused on sophisticated comedies, often with European settings, while Schulberg concentrated on more populist stories in Hollywood. As the effects of the Great Depression hit the film industry in the early 1930s, the Astoria Studios increasingly struggled to produce box office hits, and in December 1931 it was closed down again. Wanger had been informed that his contract would not be renewed, and he had already left the company.
After leaving Paramount, Wanger tried to unsuccessfully set himself up as an independent. Unable to secure financing for films, he joined Columbia Pictures in December 1931. Wanger was recruited by Harry Cohn, who wanted to move Columbia away from its Poverty Row past by producing several special, large-budget productions each year to complement the bulk of the studio's low-budget films. Wanger was to take on a greater personal role in individual films than he had previously, although he always attempted to give directors and screenwriters creative freedom. In general his efforts were overshadowed by the more successful films made by Frank Capra for Columbia.
Wanger was given an Honorary Academy Award in 1946 for his service as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He refused another honorary Oscar in 1949 for Joan of Arc, out of anger over the fact that the film, which he felt was one of his best, had not been nominated for Best Picture.
His 1958 production of I Want to Live! starred Susan Hayward in an anti-capital punishment film that is one of the most highly regarded films on the subject. Hayward won her only Oscar for her role in the film.
In May 1966, Wanger received the Commendation of the Order of Merit, Italy's third-highest honor, from Consul General Alvaro v. Bettrani, "for your friendship and cooperation with the Italian government in all phases of the motion picture industry."
Personal life and death
Wanger married silent film actress Justine Johnstone in 1919. They divorced in 1938 and in 1940 he married Joan Bennett to whom he remained married until their divorce in 1965. They had two daughters, Stephanie (born 1943) and Shelley Antonia (born 1948), and Wanger adopted Bennett's daughter, Diana, by her marriage to John Fox. In 1950, Bennett signed with MCA agent Jennings Lang.
In 1951, Wanger shot and wounded Lang after accusing him of having an affair with Bennett. Wanger's attorney, Jerry Giesler, mounted a "temporary insanity" defense and Wanger served a four-month sentence at the Castaic Honor Farm two hours' drive north of Los Angeles. The experience profoundly affected him, and in 1954 he made the prison film Riot in Cell Block 11.
Walter Wanger died of a heart attack, aged 74, in New York City. He was interred in the Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, California.
For 12 years, Bennett was represented by agent Jennings Lang, the onetime vice-president of the Sam Jaffe Agency. He now headed MCA's West Coast television operations. They met on the afternoon of December 13, 1951, to talk over an upcoming TV show.
Bennett parked her Cadillac convertible in the lot at the back of the MCA offices, at Santa Monica Boulevard and Rexford Drive, across the street from the Beverly Hills Police Department, and she and Lang drove off in his car. Meanwhile, her husband Walter Wanger drove by at about 2:30 p.m. and noticed his wife's car parked there. Half an hour later, he again saw her car there and stopped to wait. Bennett and Lang drove into the parking lot a few hours later and he walked her to her convertible. As she started the engine, turned on the headlights and prepared to drive away, Lang leaned on the car, with both hands raised to his shoulders, and talked to her.
In a fit of jealousy, Wanger walked up and twice shot and wounded the unsuspecting agent. One bullet hit Jennings in the right thigh, near the hip, and the other penetrated his groin. Bennett said she did not see Wanger at first. She said she suddenly saw two livid flashes, then Lang slumped to the ground. As soon as she recognized who had fired the shots, she told Wanger, "Get away and leave us alone." He tossed the pistol into his wife's car.
She and the parking lot's service station manager took Lang to the agent's doctor. He was then taken to a hospital, where he recovered. The police, who had heard the shots, came to the scene and found the gun in Bennett's car when they took Wanger into custody. Wanger was booked and fingerprinted, and underwent lengthy questioning.
"I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home," Wanger told the chief of police of Beverly Hills. He was booked on suspicion of assault with intent to commit murder. Bennett denied a romance, however. "But if Walter thinks the relationships between Mr. Lang and myself are romantic or anything but strictly business, he is wrong," she declared. She blamed the trouble on financial setbacks involving film productions Wanger was involved with, and said he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The following day Wanger, out on bond, returned to their Holmby Hills home, collected his belongings and moved. Bennett, however, said there would not be a divorce.
The following is extracted from the book On Sunset Boulevard (1998, p. 431) by Ed Sikov.
In 1951, producer Walter Wanger discovered that his wife, Joan Bennett, was having an affair with the agent Jennings Lang. Their encounters were brief and frequent. When Lang and Bennett weren't meeting clandestinely at vacation spots like New Orleans and the West Indies, they were back in L.A. enjoying weekday quickies at a Beverly Hills apartment otherwise occupied by one of Lang's underlings at the agency. When Wanger found proof of the affair, he did what any crazed cuckold would do: he shot Lang in the balls.
On December 14, Bennett issued a statement in which she said she hoped her husband "will not be blamed too much" for wounding her agent. She read the prepared statement in the bedroom of her home to a group of newspapermen while TV cameras recorded the scene.
Wanger's attorney, Jerry Giesler, mounted a "temporary insanity" defense. He then decided to waive his rights to a jury and threw himself on the mercy of the court. Wanger served a four-month sentence in the County Honor Farm at Castaic, 39 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles, quickly returning to his career to make a series of successful films.