Hollywood Renegades Archive

The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

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Walter Wanger publicity photo to announce the formation of his independent production company at Paramount in the mid-1930s. (Aberdeen collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Walter Wanger

Hollywood Renegade & Founding Member of The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

Walter Wanger: Hollywood Film Producer

February 15, 1940.

Born in San Francisco, July 11, 1894 Walter Wanger attended public schools until he was 11 then moved to New York City after his father's death. For two years he attended the Sillig school for Boys at Vevey, near Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, and completed his preparatory schooling at Cascadilla School at Ithaca, New York.

His Theatre Days

Enrolled at Dartmouth college, (Hanover, New Hampshire) Wanger and his teachers did not at first agree on his credits and after his Freshman year he went to Heidelberg (Germany) for six months, then to Oxford (England) for summer school classes. Returning to America he went back to Dartmouth graduating in 1915.

While at Dartmouth, Wanger became active in the management and production of dramatic enterprises.

When Granville Barker, noted English producer came to America to create a National Theatre he selected Wanger as his personal side, a post which paid little salary but much in the form of training for the career ahead. "Androcles and the Lion" was the first of a series of productions which Barker produced in New York. A series of Greek plays presented in colleges followed. Robert Edmund Jones was art director and Claude Rains (now a Warner film star) was stage manager. Then Wanger joined Elizabeth Marbury, theatrical producing agent associated with Comstock and Morris Gest and in six months assisted in the production of several plays which became memorable hits. Also he made his first contract with motion pictures at this time negotiating a contract for Irene Castle to star in a Hearst-Cosmopolitan serial, "Patris."

World War I - "Austrian Ace"

Encouraged by his success in theatricals Wanger, then 20 began producing his own stage shows, Narimova in " 'Ception Shoals" being the first. After this show closed and screen rights were sold (released as "Out of the Fog") the United States entered the world war and Wanger enlisted in the aviation corps the day after America entered the war, and he was among the first 40 American army enlisted men to arrive in France, following training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Wanger lined up with his outfit for inspection in Paris, Fiorello LaGuardia, (Mayor of New York) chose him to accompany his aviation unit to Italy. Stationed at Foggia, Italy, Wanger had several narrow escapes from death when he cracked up (five) Italian planes in practice maneuvers winning the sobriquet of "the Austrian ace." After a year at Foggia air base First Lieutenant Wanger was assigned to various American army missions cooperating in military intelligence with the Italians.

Enroute back to America Wanger was appointed an attache to the American Peace Mission (headed by President Woodrow Wilson) and at the Paris peace conference learned much of the treaties and diplomacy aimed to give the world a permanent peace.

At 22 Wanger returned to New York intent upon pursuing a diplomatic career. He had a wide acquaintanceship among the world's leading diplomats and knew much of the formation of a new era in international affairs. However, with Peace conferences concluded and millions of men returning to civil life America presented an entirely new scene and the young diplomat's dreams soon faded.

Jesse L. Lasky - photo by Witzel.

Entering the Film Industry

Looking about for a position that offered possibilities for advancement, Wanger met Jesse L. Lasky, vice president of Famous Players-Lasky Corp. (Paramount Pictures) who recalled his success in the theatre several years before and gave him three play scripts to read. Paramount was backing stage plays at the time selecting the most successful for later picture production. The Charles Frohman theatrical interests were under Lasky's control and he hoped one of the three plays Wanger was to read might score on Broadway. Wanger rejected all of them. His critical analysis of the plays however, won him an appointment as Lasky's first aide and general manager of all Paramount picture production in five studios, Astoria, Hollywood, London, Paris and India. In this capacity he not only bought most of the stories Paramount picturized but engaged players, directors, producers, served as a liaison between the studios, executives and sales departments and supervised experimental stage productions as well. At this time he bought "The Sheik" a vehicle which made Valentino a screen immortal. In 1921 Wanger disagreed with Lasky on policy matters and resigned. Far from discouraged he went to England and converted the British Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, into a cinema theatre and introduced many innovations there. Later he was engaged as managing director of the Provincial Cinema Circuit and as advisor to Lord Ashfield, its head. With a broader field of activity Wanger introduced other revolutionary policies in the exhibition field. After three years, difficulties arose and in a lawsuit, Wanger, with Sir John Simon and Sir Patrick Hastings as his counselors, won a notable court victory.

In 1923 Wanger became a stage producer and producing agent. In association with Frederick Lonsdale he produced "The Fake," launched "Polly Preferred" (which later became an American film), purchased and negotiated the American presentation of the memorable hit show, "Spring Cleaning," and arranged the first American tour of Andre Charlot's famous Revue with Beatrice Lillie, Jack Buchanan and other outstanding British artists.

Wanger as Paramount Executive

While these ventures were enjoying unusual success Jesse L. Lasky visited England, and re-engaged Wanger (at a considerably increased salary) to return to New York as Paramount's general manager, a post which he held from 1923 to 1931. During these years Wanger brought to the screen such now famous stars as Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, the Marx Brothers and others and spent more than $50,000,000 on screen stories, productions, talent and studio construction. Wanger arranged with Elinor Glyn for the writing of "It," which made Clara Bow one of the outstanding personalities of film history. He encouraged new talent, decided departures from production routine and did much to establish Paramount as a ranking producing organization. On one occasion he selected ten promising, but untried college writers from dramatic classes at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and other Eastern schools. Six of them became outstanding creators of filmfare in Hollywood. Two are now active in radio writing. Wanger was quick to recognize performance in any phase of film production and advanced outstanding performers rapidly.

The Walter Wanger production at Columbia Pictures, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, directed by Frank Capra.

Wanger in Hollywood

When Emmanuel Cohen became Paramount head in 1931 Wanger was "fired" and came to Hollywood as vice president of Columbia Pictures. He produced a number of pictures before resigning to join Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a producer. In this position he made Greta Garbo's "Queen Christina," and "Gabriel Over the White House," a daring picture in its day. Dissatisfied with his prospects at MGM, Wanger returned to Paramount as an independent producer making his pictures at General Service Studios for Paramount release.

These were: the sensational "The President Vanishes," directed by William Wellman with Arthur Byron, Janet Beecher, Edward Arnold, Paul Kelly, Charles Grapewin and Andy Devine, "Private Worlds" directed by Gregory LaCava and starring Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, Joan Bennett and Joel McCrea; "Trail of the Lonesone Pine" (first out-of-doors technicolor feature) starring Sylvia Sydney and Henry Fonda, directed by Henry Hathaway and "The Moon's Our Home," starring Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda, directed by William A. Seiter; "Mary Burns, Fugitive," starring Sylvia Sydney; "Shanghai," starring Loretta Young and Charles Boyer; "Every Night at Eight," musical introducing Alice Faye, with George Raft, Frances Langford and Patsy Kelly (the model for many musical pictures which have been made elsewhere); "Her Master's Voice," "Fatal Lady," "Big Brown Eyes," starring Joan Bennett and Cary Grant; "Case Against Mrs. Ames" starring Madeleine Carroll and George Brent; "Spendthrift," "Smart Girl," and "Palm Springs."

Joan Bennett, in the early 1930s before she became Mrs. Walter Wanger. This picture was also taken before Wanger convinced Joan to establish herself as a brunette to differentiate Joan from her sister Constance Bennett.

Releasing Through United Artists

In July 1936 Wanger began a 10 year contract to independently produce pictures for release through United Artists and moved his producing unit to the United Artists studios where "You Only Live Once," starring Sylvia Sydney and Henry Fonda under the direction of Fritz Lang, was his first film. This was immediately followed by "History is Made at Night," starring Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur with Leo Carrillo, directed by Frank Borzage. The pretentious Technicolor film "Vogues of 1938," starring Warner Baxter and Joan Bennett with Mischa Auer, Helen Vinson, Hedda Hopper and others under the direction of Irving Cummings came next. "I Met My Love Again" starring Joan Bennett and Henry Fonda (Directed by Josh Logan and Arthur Ripley); "Stand In" starring Leslie Howard with Joan Blondell (Directed by Tay Garnett) and "52nd. Street" with Pat Paterson (Mrs. Boyer) Leo Carrillo, Kenny Baker, Marla Shelton and ZaSu Pitts (directed by Harold Young) finishing off the first Wanger-United Artists year.

After a production recess of five months Wanger produced "Blockade," starring Madeline Carroll and Henry Fonda (directed by William Dieterle) and followed this with an American version of the French film "Pepe le Moko" entirely remade under the title of "Algiers." Charles Boyer was starred and the role played by Hedy Lamarr, never seen in an American film before, immediately sky-rocketed her to fame giving the screen its most glamourous personality in ten years. John Cromwell directed "Algiers." Wanger then engaged Tay Garnett to write and direct "Trade Winds," which co-starred Fredric March and Joan Bennett with Ann Sothern and Ralph Bellamy, and proved a sensational box office success. Followed John Ford's picturization of "Stagecoach" which with a comparatively unknwon cast was listed as one of 1939's ten best pictures on lists compiled by 33 leading critics and general recognition as "The finest Western character drama ever made." In May 1939 Wanger completed production of a light romantic college story "Winter Carnival," which brought recognition to the glamour of Ann Sheridan. Tay Garnett's production "Eternally Yours" co-starring Loretta Young and David Niven followed, and in turn Wanger filmed "Slightly Honorable" wtih Pat O'Brien, Edward Arnold, Broderick Crawford and Ruth Terry, "House Across the Bay," co-starring George Raft and Joan Bennett with Walter Pidgeon.

Hitchcock (director) and Walter Wanger (producer) on the set of Foreign Correspondent (1940).

Warner's productions for 1940 include "Personal History," an original screenplay directed by Alfred Hitchcock [the movie was retitled and released as Foreign Correspondent]; "Dynasty of Death," a best seller by Taylor Caldwell, Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days" and an original story of the lives of General and Mrs. John C. Fremont entitled "So Gallantly Gleaming."

The Walter Wanger Studio

From 1936 to 1938 Wanger maintained the largest group of stars under contract to any independent producer: Charles Boyer, Joan Bennett, Sylvia Sydney, Madeleine Carroll, Henry Fonda, Pat Paterson, Marla Shelton, Alan Baxter, Tim Holt and Louise Platt. In 1939, by mutual consent, the last of these players, Tim Holt, was given his release. At the same time a new picture contract was given Joan Bennett and, after "Eternally Yours" Broderick Crawford was given a term contract assuring his appearance in at least three Wanger pictures during the next 12 months. Osa Massen, previously seen in "Honeymoon in Bali" was also given a term acting contract.

Wanger won the National Peace Conference citation for his production of "Blockade" in July 1938 and the New York Theatre Arts Committee of New York named him "The movies' Man of the year for 1938."

Wanger's counsel and active support are sought by many national and civic groups as well as social organizations within the motion picture industry. He is a trustee and a most active officer of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization which rose from despair to a remarkable efficiency in meeting the needs of actors and studio technicians in one year. January 16, 1940 Wanger was elected president of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the Producers Association and has served on various committees whose function it has been to straighten out the industry's complex labor contracts and jurisdiction. His personally written article in "Foreign Affairs," October 1939 entitled "120,000 American Ambassadors" is regarded as an unusual analysis of film making.

Extracurricular Activities

Walter Wanger (front), on the polo field with Walt Disney (back right).

Hollywood has no more energetic champion than Wanger. He has spoken on radio forums, debated before various civic organizations addressed conventions, collegiate bodies and women's groups in the cause of free screen. He subscribes wholeheartedly to the Legion of Decency and has never permitted a risque scene in a picture but he does feel the screen today is mature and should present more solid objects and that, in planning for the future, producers should think in terms of the day not follow formula that may have made fortunes once but cannot bear repetition. He favors single feature programs and feels documentary films should have broader showing in America. He has assisted the American Legion in many patriotic campaigns for both adults and children. He personally appeared on more than 20 Coast to Coast radio shows and arranged as many more programs in behalf of various educational and patriotic campaigns.

Wanger plays polo two afternoons a week but has not had a real vacation in three years. Saturday is usually his busiest day.

He was married to Joan Bennett at Phoenix, Arizona, Friday, January 12, 1940.

Joan Bennett, wife of Walter Wanger.

It takes but a short time to realize why Walter Wanger is one of filmland's most popular and successful film leaders and why, as the new year gets under way his position is one most any industrialist might envy.





Johnston, John LeRoy, Profile: Looking at Walter Wanger Film Producer, February 15, 1940, pp. 2-8.

See Bibliography.


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