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Walter Wanger: The SIMPP Years

by J.A. Aberdeen


Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett, and Walter Wanger announce the formation of Diana Productions in 1946.

The career of Walter Wanger featured the extreme ups-and-downs typical of classic Hollywood independent film productionówhere prosperity came with each successful film, and insolvency loomed with every flop. In 1942, during SIMPP's first year, Wanger was the highest paid Hollywood figure behind Louis B. Mayer. His personal income tax for the year was an incredible $900,000 following the success of Eagle Squadron (1941) and Arabian Nights (1942).

The Diana Productions team: Walter Wanger (producer), Dudley Nichols (screenwriter), Joan Bennett (actor) and Fritz Lang (director).

Accordingly, Wanger took advantage of the postwar boom with a vast diversification and a brief sojourn into distribution. In 1946, during his reorganization of Walter Wanger Productions, he reactivated Walter Wanger Pictures to accelerate his plans to produce prestige pictures, and also formed Young American Films, Inc. to specialize in 16-millimeter educational movies. He joined forces with other independents like William and Edward Nassour who became SIMPP members in 1949 (not to be confused with the Nasser family which also joined SIMPP around the same time).

In 1949 Wanger organized his own distribution company in partnership with the Nassour brothers and Joseph Bernhard, the owner of Film Classics which had acquired most of the Selznick International film library. They formed the Wanger-Nassour Releasing Organization, but it was quickly stunted by Wanger's financial difficulties, including the unraveling of Diana Productions (with Joan Bennett, Fritz Lang, and Dudley Nichols) and Sierra Pictures (with Ingrid Bergman and Victor Fleming).

Joan of Arc (1948). Ingrid Bergman stars in the coatly Walter Wanger production. (Aberdeen collection). 

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Unfortunately Wanger had approached Joan of Arc (1948) too ambitiously, and had overconfidently risked the subsidiary rights from his previous films in order to finance the new epic which he considered his equivalent of Gone With the Wind. The failure of Joan of Arc brought unforeseen damage by costing Wanger the television rights to his film library at a time before the TV market had matured. In January 1951 Bank of America filed a petition of involuntary bankruptcy against Wanger for his outstanding debt from The Reckless Moment (1949), the film which incidentally had delayed Wanger's deposition-taking in SIMPP v. United Detroit. He protested the action, and started to put his production company back on its feet with a three-year, $5 million deal with Allied Artists.

Joan Bennett, wife of Walter Wanger.

Unfortunately the distinguished independent veteran became embroiled in one of the most sensational attempted murders in the history of Los Angeles. Wanger suspected extra-marital activity between his wife Joan Bennett and her agent Jennings Lang of MCA. On December 13, 1951, the gentle, silver-haired Wanger shot the agent with two bullets during a rendezvous between Lang and Bennett outside the Beverly Hills apartment of Marlon Brando. The SIMPP producers, including Goldwyn and Disney, came to Wanger's defense during the ensuing legal proceedings. The MCA agent recovered, and Wanger served four months in prison.

CLICK HERE for more on the Shooting of Jennings Lang

After his parole, Wanger produced other films including his best-remembered movie from this period, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). A few years later he convinced Twentieth Century-Fox to film one of his pet projects, Cleopatra (1963). He served as a salaried producer for the feature which became one of the most problematic film productions in Hollywood history, held the record as the most expensive movie ever, and nearly brought ruin upon Twentieth Century-Fox. In 1965 Walter Wanger's marriage to Joan Bennett ended in divorce. The independent producer died from a heart attack on November 17, 1968, leaving behind an $18,000 estate.


Walter Wanger in his later years.

SOURCES:

Walter Wanger's reorganizationóWalter Wanger Pictures, Young American Films, Diana Productions, Sierra Pictures: "Wanger Pictures Reorganized," LAT, April 15, 1946. Also "Wanger Sets Up Film Budget of $14,00,00," LAT, February 11, 1946; "Wanger Schedules 10 Big Films," Los Angeles Examiner, February 11, 1946.
The Wanger-Nassour Releasing Organization: see "First Film Pacted by Wanger-Nassour," HR, June 7, 1949.
Allied Artists deal with Wanger: "Wanger Will Produce For Allied Artists Release," MPH, June 16, 1951.
Shooting of Jennings Lang: "Joan Bennett Sees Mate Shoot Agent," LAT, December 14, 1951, p. 1; "Shooting Story Told by Wanger," LAT, December 15, 1951; "Joan and Lang Held Trysts at Brando Home," Los Angeles Examiner, December 21, 1951. Also see McDougal, The Last Mogul, pp. 170-173.
Wanger obituary: "Film Producer Walter Wanger Dies at 72," LAT, November 19, 1968, pp. 3, 16.

See Bibliography.

 

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