Even if you’re one of the many who don’t know the famed limerick involving Walter Wanger, Jennings Lang and Gabriel Heater, if you’re a student of either Hollywood’s Golden Era or the birth of the indie movement, “Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent” by Matthew Bernstein is well worth a read. First published in 1994 for U of California Press, the book takes a scholarly but lively spin through the life of a producer whose career spanned the teens to the ’60s, from “Stagecoach” and “Cleopatra” to “Riot in Cell Block 11” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Deftly sketching Wanger’s roots in theater at Dartmouth College and the boisterous birth of the Hollywood studios, Bernstein illuminates side trips into unfulfilled dream projects that every producer worth a table at the Brown Derby wore like badges of honor.
The mind reels at misbegotten screen endeavors such as Alphonse Daudet’s novel “Sappho,” which would have starred Greta Garbo and been directed by George Cukor. “While on vacation in Cap Ferrat,” notes Bernstein, “Cukor discussed the novel with Somerset Maugham, who made ‘brilliant’ and ‘constructive’ suggestions on its adaptation. But when Cukor took on ‘Adam’s Rib’ later that fall, ‘Sappho’ lost its strongest champion.”
The attention to production details are especially compelling, and the book hums along like an efficient, compelling Wanger production, offering up startling details such as the special effects budget on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” ($3,000) and delving into the stories behind key film works by Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, including Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, to name a few, as well as the scoop on what happened between Lang, Wanger and Joan Bennett — and “Wanger’s repeater” — if not the limerick of Tinseltown lore.