December 09, 2010

From Cocoanuts to Body Snatchers: Walter F. Wanger, Hollywood and Radio Free Europe

The movie industry in Hollywood, California, played a major role in the development of Radio Free Europe and the Crusade for Freedom: studio giants Daryl F. Zanuck and Cecil B. DeMille were two of National Committee for Free Europe’s original directors in 1949 and remained active in behalf of Radio Free Europe in the 1950s. One of the most powerful Independent Hollywood film producers was Walter F. Wanger. Below, we will look at Wanger’s activity in behalf of the 1950 Crusade for Freedom.

Walter F. Wanger was born Walter Feuchtwanger on July 11, 1894 in San Francisco, California. During World War I, he served with the US Army and was on President Woodrow Wilson’s staff at the Paris Peace Conference.  In the 1920s, he began his career in film. By 1929, he was working for Paramount Pictures and helped in the production of Cocoanuts, the first film of the Marx Brothers.

Walter Wanger was named “the movies’ Man of the Year 1938” by the New York Theatre Arts Committee. He received an honorary Academy Award in 1946 for being president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Wanger's 1949 movie “Joan of Arc” was the first film to receive a citation award by the Christian group The Christopher’s, which acclaimed the movie “for its inspiring demonstration that a motion picture which stresses the spiritual ideal, goodness and decency, can be a popular success.”

The late 1940s witnessed the beginning of the Hollywood Blacklist when many persons working in films were prohibited from working because of their political beliefs and associations.

Wanger and the Crusade for Freedom

Lucius Clay wrote to Walter Wanger on July 11, 1950, asking him to join the National Crusade Council, described “as an advisory group of distinguished leaders from all segments of American Life.” Wanger answered on July 18, 1950, when he wrote,

Your letter has been one of the few bright signs that I have encountered in a long, long time.

For more years than I care to say I have been advocating a crusade to make individual citizens realize his responsibility and realize what could be accomplished if we would mobilize ourselves for intelligence and liberty in a practical way.

On July 21, 1950, Lucius D. Clay wrote to Wanger thanking him for joining the Crusade for Freedom Council and supplying his speeches in support of the Crusade campaign:

Thank you for your whole-hearted response to our invitation to join the Crusade Council, and also for the copies of your speeches.

I know from them that you understand what we are trying to do.  Moreover, it is in a field in which your work has made you and expert. I shall look forward to obtaining your wise counsel as the Crusade progresses, and I hope we may meet soon.

Walter Wanger became the Crusade for Freedom chairman for the city and county of Los Angeles, California. The film magazine Hollywood Box Office announced Wanger’s appointment in August 1950. 

Crusade for Freedom national headquarters in New York sent Wanger a check on August 29, 1950, for $3,750, which was half of the city’s operating budget for the Crusade campaign. Included in the accompanying letter were instructions on account procedures for placing contributions into the operating account.

Wanger gave a speech about the Crusade for Freedom to the Greater Los Angeles Press Club on August 30, 1950, in which he said:

So my proposal is not that you look as this Crusade as something, which requires more lip service and the usual amount of space devoted to ordinary worth causes, either. I propose that you study it and think about it in terms of your own interests. Without the powerful voice of the American press, we will commit the same sin here as we have done overseas. We will whisper our faith into a rain barrel.  But if you ... voluntarily ...for that is what I understand a “free” press to mean ... if you treat the spreading of the story of this Crusade as your share of the job that amounts to a fight for our very lives ... then I know that fight can be won.

On September 13, 1950, Wanger wrote to the Lost Angeles Board of Education giving details of the upcoming arrival of the Freedom Bell at Exhibition Park and asked, “We will be most sincerely grateful if you will consider an order either to dismiss school at noon on September 21st, or to arrange for scheduled visits by school groups during the day ... we sincerely urge that you take favorable action so that our school children may come, see, and about the significance.” 

Walter Wanger wrote to Ronald Reagan of the Screen Actors Guild on 21 September 1950:

Dear Ronnie:

Thank you very much for sending me a copy of the wire ... It is very
gratifying to me, as a member of the Motion Picture Industry, to know that the entire industry is willing and anxious to aid in the CRUSADE and on behalf of the entire committee for the CRUSADE FOR FREEDOM I want to thank you and the Guild for pledging your wholehearted support to our drive.

On September 28, 1950, more than 3,000 college students from Los Angeles City and State colleges attended a Crusade for Freedom rally. Famed jazz group The Dave Brubeck Trio and students provided music and the faculty gave short speeches. Walter Wanger then came on the stage as the “chief speaker” and spoke about the Crusade for Freedom:

The thing we are trying to tell the world, through radio stations we are building as an important part of this Freedom Crusade, is a thing we could show them far more clearly if it was possible to broadcast a television picture of the scene here today to the nations behind the Iron Curtain.

We’re apt to think the world knows what we are like. But unhappily enough, they don’t. We have to tell them. That is the purpose of the crusade. Here you are, students from every walk of life, every group, here studying and happy. You are America personified – the kind of America that we must prove to the rest of the world is a real and possible thing.

Wanger then exhorted the students to sign the Freedom Scrolls:

We all have a chance, here and now – today, to add our signatures to those who believe as we do, that our system works and works well for our best interests. If you do not believe that, and then do not sign. But is you like this scene spread out here today and want to assure that it will not be replaced by something far different, far uglier, then sign the Freedom Scrolls. Make yourself heard. Do not lose this opportunity by default.

The Los Angeles Times the next day carried a story about the rally entitled, “Campus Thronged at Crusade Rally. Hundreds of Students Sign Scrolls as Wanger Explains Freedom Movement.” 380,000 Los Angeles citizens eventually responded to the Crusade activities by signing the Freedom Scroll and contributing $59,000. 

On November 8, 1950, General Clay wrote a thank-you letter to Wanger, in which he said, “It is with great humility that I address this note to you in acknowledgement of the part you have played in the Crusade for Freedom as chairman of Los Angeles.”

On December 26, 1950, Wanger wrote to General Clay,

I want to congratulate you on the tremendous accomplishment and feel that you’ve shown the way to what is really important. I hope that the Crusade will continue, because our moral Crusade is just as important as armament at the present time.  After all, we have won two wars by military skill, yet we have been unable to establish peace, which demands a moral point of view.

If there is anything that I can do to help you know you can call upon me to the limit of my ability.

Post-Crusade Life

Wanger was not without controversy, however, and had to publicly defended himself because of his alleged “leftist sympathies.” He even was denounced as a “Communist sympathizer” and “Hollywood Communist-fronter”, who had used the Crusade for Freedom to cover up his political past, and the FBI looked into his background. Wanger made a public disavowal of his past associations and newspapers carried his response.

In 1951, Wanger learned that his wife, actress Joan Bennett was having an affair with Jennings Lang, a theatrical agent. During a confrontation with Lang, which could easily have been a Hollywood movies scene, Wanger shot Lang twice. Wanger was tried, convicted and served four months in jail.

He resumed his career as a producer for such films I Want to Live (1958, for which Susan Haywood won the Academy Award for best actress. His other films included the cult film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). Wanger also was one of the co-producers for the film Cleopatra (1963).


Walter F. Wanger died on November 18,1968; he was 74 years old.

For more information:

See the Wikipedia entry for an interesting analysis of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasion_of_the_Body_Snatchers

For more Hollywood activities in support of Radio Free Europe, see Saturday Night at the Movies: Ronald Reagan and Cold War Radios

The Walter F. Wanger Papers, Wisconsin Society Archives, Madison, Wisconsin, is a collection of 13 archives boxes, 92 cartons of personal and family papers, business records and film production files of Walter Wanger from 1930 to 1960,

Matthew Bernstein. Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

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