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Sunday, April 27, 2008

We've Had Her A Hundred Years! --- Part One

There’s a three-minute ribbon of film that for me sums up the whole Bette Davis thing. It’s a trailer for The Great Lie, included as an extra with the DVD. In footage shot specifically for the preview, two girls buy tickets and enter the auditorium. One’s seen it twice already. The other never misses any of Bette Davis’ pictures. As they watch highlights on the screen, both exclaim over matters of intense interest --- George Brent back as Bette’s leading man, Mary Astor’s performance a revelation, etc. Would any trailer today presume so much, especially one for an otherwise unremarkable star vehicle? That legion of young women waiting for the next Bette Davis film was a given in 1941. A lot of them had been on notice via fan clubs (Davis acknowledged faithful following in an ad shown here for The Great Lie). Many kept scrapbooks and dutifully pasted in BD landmarks, these for fan journey toward experience and maturity. Teens and single women looked to her as a role model. Much by her example was positive, but not all (the non-stop smoking). I came across albums representing five years in the life of one Davis admirer, 1938 to 1942. Back when money was harder earned, this collector was putting all of disposable change into seemingly every fan magazine on the racks. Coverage in these scrapbooks was exhaustive. You look through such labors of adoration and realize just how important movie stars once were. Articles clipped out of at least three publications represent Bette’s Hawaiian themed wrap party for child players in All This and Heaven Too. The birthday celebration for Davis that tied into a premiere for The Great Lie earns a dozen lovingly crafted pages. Off-screen relationships are monitored carefully, for Bette’s own would at the least influence this fan’s taste in men. When at last she takes a (second) husband, arrows point to images of Arthur Farnsworth as if to confer approval of Davis’ selection. Was five years the typical life cycle of devoted B.D. fandom? My girl’s chronicle ended with 1942’s Now, Voyager. Maybe she found a boyfriend (one who preferred Desperate Journey or Sherlock Holmes and The Voice Of Terror?), or perhaps married. Anyway, Bette Davis got left behind, for the last twenty pages of the final book were empty. As those fans grew out of her, so too did Davis’ career pass its peak, for ten years, if that, was as much time as she’d have at the top. Still, it was a longer vogue than Kay Francis enjoyed, and certainly a better run than those of Constance Bennett, Ruth Chatterton, or a dozen others we could name. Davis achieved immortal, mythic … whatever … status largely because, unlike the others, she just would not quit. The fact she was for many the movie’s best actress was incidental to drive almost superhuman to stay in front of cameras.

There are so many books about Bette Davis. I’m old hat for saying her life was as dramatic, if not more so, than films she made, but it’s explanation maybe for relentless bios. As bloom faded from status as feminist champion, writers took up Davis as she who must dominate and dispenser of ritual abuse upon hapless directors and family members. Interviewees relaxed once she died (in 1989) to reveal more of paces she’d put them through. Archeological digs among files at USC showed how Warners suffered to earn those Davis grosses (which were good and consistent at least through the war). Independent research was catching up to much of what the daughter wrote in My Mother’s Keeper. An outstanding TCM documentary (Star Dust) written by Peter Jones broke rank with previous boilerplate profiles by interviewing subsequent wives of one-time BD husbands, and what insights we get from these ordinary women and strained encounters they had with a wound-tight movie queen years after she had discarded their men. Revelation came thick and fast once Davis was gone. Director Vincent Sherman saw darker implications re mystery death of second husband Arthur Farnsworth. Farny fell down stairs, tripped off a train platform, and/or cracked his skull on a sidewalk upon three separate occasions. Had Bette pushed him off that train? The way others (to whom she confided) told it, this was like a scene from any given BD melodrama, minus Code dictated moral and legal compensation for crimes possibly committed. Not that Davis didn’t get her own comeuppance from time to time. Studio lights fell on her, acid was mistaken for eyewash, and latex poisoned her skin. All this and Miriam Hopkins too. There were precious few breaks between jobs. If a horse keeps winning pennants, why leave it in a barn? Amazing how good she was for all she went through. BD knew she had ultimate responsibility for everything that went on the screen. After all, fans weren’t going to blame Irving Rapper for pictures that let them down.

It’s no mystery why men shun Bette. She’s awfully rough on them in her pictures. I hate you! I couldn’t bear to have you touch me. You were such a weak, soft fool. Pick a number as to recipients of such vitriol --- Leslie Howard, Franchot Tone, Herbert Marshall, Dennis Morgan --- all were castrated with the same verbal forceps. It would seem male patrons for Bette Davis vehicles were either gay or dragged into theatres by women. Otherwise, why endure such sustained punishment on behalf of one’s wretched sex? Mistreatment dished by the likes of Lana Turner or Hedy Lamarr was more palatable. There were at least other compensations men could imagine. Maybe it’s well that Scarlett O’Hara went Vivien Leigh’s way instead of Bette’s, for that was a bitchy part men accepted for the sexual carrot an actress with Leigh’s looks could dangle. Would Scarlett have been worth years of Rhett’s waiting had Davis been cast in GWTW? Not likely. BD was actress enough to prosper without advantages conventional beauties had. An eighties song got nearest a secret of her success. It was Bette Davis eyes to supply intensity she'd need (question --- could anyone with small or beady eyes become a major film star?). Excess mannerisms and gestures seemed to strain natural gifts. Too bad directors lost control just at a point where she needed it most. The early Davis parts could have been played by a dozen actresses at Warners, a reflection less upon her than assembly line casting that ground up promise and discarded players before they could fulfill it. Looking at Three On A Match, you’d figure Ann Dvorak for eventual laurels Davis received, but who in 1932 noticed greatness in a programmer in and out of their theatre within a few days’ time? Success took iron will and ambition to exclusion of all else to make stardom’s grade at a factory like Warners. Rebellion and passage to England was Davis gateway to a public image new for contract players, being rebel with a creative cause and steadfast warrior for roles worthy of her talents. A growing fan-base knew the latter via Academy Award denied (Of Human Bondage), then bestowed as compensation (Dangerous). Regard Davis got for defying bosses was enormous, even if she stood not a chance in courts. Press henceforth emphasized her on-set input and frequent checkmating of front office imbeciles. She’d do worthy work in spite of them! Stills found BD appearing to direct the directors, a distaff Hercules cleaning out Augean stables of banality and incompetence.

Better material awaited Davis’ return from England. Jezebel in 1938 began a run through fields of clover lasting nine years. I’ve reviewed the list and watched several again. Admittedly it’s a matter of opinion, but I don’t think there’s a dog in this lot. If one just can’t stand Bette Davis, none will suit, but in event you like her half so much as I do, then The Great Lie, Watch On The Rhine, and Old Acquaintance, weak sisters only in comparison with BD’s best (like for William Wyler), are as yet stout samples of Warner machinery most efficiently running. Had I been a forties schoolgirl at cusp of adulthood, hanged if I wouldn’t have kept my own scrapbooks, and thick ones at that. Davis played her gamut within a hothouse formula always good for confrontations, bitchery both practiced by and inflicted upon her, faces slapped silly to Max Steiner crash of cymbals. An avalanche of mail would alert Davis on occasions when melodrama touched on real lives among her audience. Now, Voyager was such a triumph of women projecting themselves onto BD’s character with intensity other actresses could but dream of inspiring. Charlotte Vale’s contretemps with Paul Henried were small punkins beside combat she'd engage with mother Gladys Cooper, a character not unlike what many viewers dealt with at home. Such direct wire to audience emotion was less likely installed by luck or Warner inspiration than by Davis’ unerring sense of what women wanted and how best to satisfy that want. She was known to rewrite weak dialogue and shift emphasis from cliché to at least a suggestion of truth as her fans experienced it. Bette knew mirrors didn’t always flatter those viewing her in darkness, and so was willing to ugly up when scenes called for it, knowing she’d be respected more for not hiding behind false glamour, a device perhaps overapplied to Mr. Skeffington, where Davis fell off a thin precipice between honesty and grotesquerie. This is the Bette Davis my fans like, she told alarmed director Vincent Sherman, ignoring counsel to tamp down self-indulgence cheers for her brought on.

Photo Captions:

Early Portrait for the Fan Magazines
Ad for The Great Lie
Bette and George Brent in a color photo for The Great Lie
Newly-minted Colonel Jack L. Warner with BD and ill-fated second husband Arthur Farnsworth
Davis on the set of Deception
With Gig Young in a color shot from Old Acquaintance
With director Curtis Bernhardt during A Stolen Life
With director William Keighley during shooting of The Bride Came C.O.D.
Color Portrait from The Little Foxes
On the set of It's Love I'm After with Leslie Howard and director Archie Mayo
With Paul Henried in a color pose from Now, Voyager
With Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Weekend Marquee --- Born To Dance

There’s something spooky about a lot of old radio programs. That trick of closing your eyes and being there put me right under the footlights as master of ceremonies Dick Powell supplied (eighty years ago) play by play for the Grauman’s Chinese premiere of Born To Dance. The broadcast is just awkward enough to seem totally authentic. What we hear during surviving remnants of an hour’s program (included as audio extra with Warner’s DVD) is Powell narrating Grauman’s lavish prologue that preceded the feature in November 1936. It’s as close as we’ll get to a hop back for the opening itself, and a vivid reminder of what genuine events movie premieres once were. The ancient recording trips over songs and interviews while voices trail off into ghostly distance as if captured, then released, from some parallel sphere wherein such happenings are relived night after night. An audience of 2700 is heard applauding, while Louella Parsons and Ken Niles on remote greet celebs in attendance. Radio in 1936 wasn’t the slick operation it became within a few years, so there’s a happy sense of wandering amongst this crowd and overhearing what unrehearsed remarks archaic mikes pick up. Were the sound quality better, I’d feel less engaged, for it’s that outer limits struggle to listen in that made it seem I’d at last dreamed my way back to heady days Greenbriar dotes upon. MGM was gearing up a second wave of musicals with Born To Dance. Much of the prologue celebrates that studio’s song and dance legacy, one we now realize was still aborning. Charles King appears onstage to reprise The Broadway Melody, a musical already primitive in hindsight by 1936. Powell hopes Charlie will be back in Metro harness soon. Charlie would like that too, but we know it’s not in the cards, any more than another round of Lawrence Tibbett operettas, despite recognition of those as outstanding MGM achievements. Born To Dance was a major advance on early sound musicals, but their act still wasn’t together. Big numbers looked to Busby Berkeley’s example at Warners. Long term personnel were just settling into Metro’s music department and kinks remained to be ironed out. Standards developed so quickly as to make efforts like Born To Dance an eventual embarrassment of bad taste for creator-arranger Roger Edens. By the mid-forties, a musical just ten years old seemed to beckon from a considerable creative distance, just as those from the fifties would raise bars from the decade before.

James Stewart joked over Born To Dance in That’s Entertainment and led us to believe he was the world’s worst singer. I found him good enough as to wonder why he didn’t do more musicals. Straight-ahead actors and even he-men at Metro occasionally suited up for song-and-dance. Gable in Dancing Lady stood by and watched others perform, but Robert Taylor lent voice to several Broadway Melodies. It was range welcomed and expected of players doing three and more shows a year. Stewart implied his participation in Born To Dance was something aberrant, but studio records reveal plans to double his light tenor (with a baritone!) were scuttled in favor of the actor’s own voice, and it’s said that composer Cole Porter hand-picked Stewart for the lead. Roy Del Ruth was credited director on Born To Dance. He’d been at the helm of song-and-dancers since talkies came. Some of the earliest, though not necessarily best, were signed by him. Other than Busby Berkeley and Lubitsch, when he did them, most directors credited on musicals were there to guide book sections while others took care of numbers staging. There’s a group shot of some cast and crew from Born To Dance in the excellent booklet that comes with the Rhino CD soundtrack. Clarence Brown is standing with Stewart, Eleanor Powell, Del Ruth, and others. Was Brown visiting the set, or had he pinch-hit for the credited director? There were many instances at Metro of uncredited work among staff helmsmen filling in for days, sometimes weeks, due to scheduling or other conflicts. It’s near impossible to trace auteur footprints through most MGM musicals. Our modern perception of them was largely shaped by the sock reception for 1974’s That’s Entertainment and urgency it created to go out and see the old films. Great as they looked in Metro’s compilation however, few were available in worthy presentation elsewhere. I recall rushing home from a college beach trip to see Channel 9’s afternoon broadcast of Singin’ In The Rain, only to find they’d removed the Broadway Melody section in toto. Opportunity was missed when then-distributor United Artists failed to repackage musicals in special groups for syndication. Titles came scattered among feature offerings and little was done to make them more accessible. As with pre-codes, a lot of smaller musicals along the lines of Born To Dance had to wait until the emergence of TCM before fans could really enjoy them again. DVD release did the rest. Warner’s Classic Musicals From The Dream Factory series has been the fulfillment of dreams for fans who’ve waited lifetimes to see these favorites truly showcased as they deserve.

I don’t recall Eleanor Powell having much to do with revival bandwagons that began rolling with That’s Entertainment. Her tap performance with Fred Astaire from Broadway Melody Of 1940 was far-and-away the highlight of the 1974 compilation for many viewers. Most were amazed they’d never heard of this artist or her films. Powell is one old name that still dazzles when watched anew. Her fan following occupies a niche, but it’s dedicated. She’d wisely ducked talk and variety overexposure in the seventies. Younger musical alumni still had careers to pursue and used That’s Entertainment to extend time in the limelight. Powell’s tap successor, Ann Miller, submitted to biz realities of the coarsened seventies, and it was disconcerting to see greats like Astaire and Gene Kelly wearing wide ties and lapels so peculiar to that cheesiest of decades. The wonderful DVD set of all three That’s Entertainments, especially with its extras, has as much value as a time capsule of that more recent period when nostalgia began to reveal itself as a marketable commodity. Finally seeing something like Born To Dance complete makes you realize how truncated musical numbers were in That’s Entertainment. What we got in those compilations were bite-sized souvenirs not unlike comedy bits trimmed to the bone by Robert Youngson for his slapstick collections. Swingin’ The Jinx Away is the extravaganza that finishes Born To Dance with fifteen minutes of song, dance, reprise, and back again. The patriotic fervor comes a little unexpected of a peacetime musical, though examination of any number of mid-thirties releases, in several genres, sees flags flying as though we were gearing up for the next conflict. Preparedness pics have been identified from the two or so years preceding Pearl Harbor, but you could argue Hollywood was calling us to arms long before that. 1936 audiences clearly liked their show stoppers going on and on. I numbed out at times, but repeat viewings of highlights made me glad for having access to routines finally complete. Chapter stops make convenient jukeboxes of all these great musicals, and I’ve been lured back by more than one number from Born To Dance (just what is the magnetic appeal of Virginia Bruce singing Love Me, Love My Pekinese?). Accounts indicate the picture had a negative cost of $1.4 million and took domestic rentals of 1.6, with foreign bringing $781,000. There was a final profit of $141,000.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pre-Code Horror --- Mystery Of The Wax Museum

Production wise, Mystery Of The Wax Museum was much the same as Doctor X. Endless hours on empty bellies, with cast members from the former reliving the bad dream of working under Michael Curtiz (here on the set with Technicolor cinematographer Ray Rennahan and again with unmasked Lionel Atwill). Warners brought horrific nastiness closer to home thanks to modern settings. Again there was Fay Wray helpless and exposed, convincingly nude before Atwill’s admiring gaze. Audiences for once got what lurid advertising promised. WB’s campaign for Wax Museum skirted protocol by depicting undraped wax figures on poster art. Such rampant nakedness, and there was more displayed on Wax Museum’s behalf than in ads for previous pre-codes, was mitigated by the fact that these were not real women being exhibited, though cursory glance at posters fooled many, if not most. It was ingenious sleight-of-hand, and audiences (mis)led inside weren't disappointed by what they saw. Opening in February 1933 well after initial shock of horror’s first big sound wave, Mystery Of The Wax Museum took brunt of critics fatigued by 1932’s crowded spook schedule. Wax Museum would have been certain of better gate support a year ago, said Variety, the technicolor and the hyper-weirdness apparently were mandatory studio precautions to offset the element of belated arrival. Wisecracking reporters were a ubiquity wearing out critical (if not audience) welcome. Write what you know, scripters were (are) told, and with so many having come out of urban city rooms, was it a wonder newshound characters so dominated movies then, even horrific ones? Take away Atwill’s monster, replace him with Ricardo Cortez committing similarly motivated revenge murders (as result of perhaps Warren William burning down the museum for quick profits), and you’d have a Warners programmer typical of dozens made during pre-code's epoch. Horror seemed an awkward fit at WB. Karloff in 1936's The Walking Dead lumbered among cops-and-robbers as though his reanimated corpse was just another mobster to rub out. Jack Warner was said to have disliked horror subjects. Had the Code not tightened its grip, he may have overcome distaste and continued making them, for Mystery Of The Wax Museum was a solid hit and second only to Busby Berkeley musicals for profit that year. With a negative cost of $279K, MOTWM took $325K in domestic rentals, really racked up with foreign at $781K, and ended with a gain of $400K, a big improvement over Doctor X’s profit of $72,000.

Both Doctor X and Mystery Of The Wax Museum clung to Fay Wray’s legacy with near-Kong tenacity. Between questions about these and whether or not Erich Von Stroheim was as profligate and dictatorial as alleged, this actress/horror veteran submitted to screenings of Doctor X and Mystery Of The Wax Museum fifty (nearer sixty) years after making them, but found both remote from a world she now knew. Everyone talked too fast, she said of Doctor X, though she loved the color and Lionel Atwill’s schmaltzy delivery and wisecracking Glenda Farrell in MOTWM. Wray enjoyed the excitement they generated and fun others had with them, but recollection was largely confined to ordeal of making both. Otherwise, the films dated for her surely as they would to modern sensibilities. Hardcore fans will defend such relics to dying breath, so it’s a reality check where surviving participants looked upon them with such detachment. To this day I’d take up cudgels on Lionel Atwill’s behalf, however, if for no other reason than his regal diction and delivery, something sorely missed in present acting company. There was a time, admittedly long ago, when I wished for vocal resonance equal to an Atwill and/or Basil Rathbone, ill-advised role models for a boy otherwise seeking to fit in among adolescent peers, but wouldn’t it be great even now to go about sounding like these two? By the time Vincent Price got around to playing Atwill’s part in House Of Wax, everyone knew this property was best executed with tongue in cheek. To compare Mystery Of The Wax Museum with its twenty years hence remake is largely a fool’s errand. The latter was jolly antidote to sicker elements the original embraced. House Of Wax was more inspired by likes of The Strawberry Blonde than Mystery Of The Wax Museum. Warners wanted families with kids turning on to 3-D under watchful arched eyebrows of in-on-the joke Price, not Lionel Atwill lusting over wax dolls and dispersing narcotics to addled henchmen. A couple of show-stoppers were too good not to create anew, thus 1953's re-unmasking, as well as impliedly nude Phyllis Kirk near immersed in molten wax. House Of Wax was otherwise like the paddle ball man stood outside its museum. Lots of bombast and promise of terror within, but little to truly unsettle once admitted.

They might have retitled it Legend Of The Wax Museum by the sixties, for this Warners follow-up to Doctor X joined the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as most sought after of all classic horror films. Those lucky enough to have seen Wax Museum in 1933 were generous with praise. Thirty years of memories transformed it into that decade’s most horrifying movie encounter, and who could argue based on scintillating images published in various monster magazines? Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film in 1967 published a still of Lionel Atwill unmasked, the sight of which left me more than sold on notion that Wax Museum was indeed Daddy Rabbit of all chillers. Castle Of Frankenstein magazine offered an 8mm film in its back pages entitled Midnight At The Wax Museum (shown here) which featured a still of Glenda Farrell (below posing with cameras) from Mystery Of The Wax Museum. This was in early 1966. I wondered at the time --- could this humble souvenir be actual highlights from the (then) lost horror classic? My inquiry to expert Scott MacQueen resolved that forty-year mystery. He relates that Midnight At The Wax Museum was actually 1936's Midnight At Madame Tussaud’s from Great Britain, US released as Midnight At The Wax Museum. Does anyone recall purchasing this 8mm reel from Gothic Castle? I realize that in event you did, you’re probably still waiting for delivery (as I am for back issues I paid for in 1965). William K. Everson wrote a fascinating speculation in a 1968 issue of Alan Barbour’s old Screen Facts (#18), raising the possibility of a single, battered black-and-white print of Mystery Of The Wax Museum having played two or three years ago in one of the Iron Curtain countries. He went on to say that, owing to notoriously secretive Communist block archives, it was unlikely we’d ever have access to MOTWM. United Artists was supposedly offering a substantial no questions asked reward to anyone who could come up with printing material so they could put it in circulation, this by way of blind ads published in several issues of Films In Review during the mid-to-late sixties. Everson recalled having seen Wax Museum last in 1946 during a UK revival, but that print would be destroyed in 1954. No one there knew that they were holding the only remaining original print, said Everson.
Such was cloak-and-dagger nature of lost film lore among small circulation fan periodicals during the sixties.

The 1970 news of its rediscovery in "Jack Warner’s private vault" drew trade attention and a booking at The New York Film Festival, which I was only able to read about in the Times while sitting in my high school library. Hix in stix like me were months late getting film news then, thanks to snail mail and zines getting through (barely) on quarterly schedule, if that. Likes of Screen Facts and varied monster mags were voices in a wilderness few heard. Questions nagged then and still do. Had Jack Warner kept MOTWM locked in a basement chamber not unlike Jack Benny’s private gold stash? Turns out it was there on Warners' lot (along with a color Doctor X) and furthermore available for in-house reference all along. The writer and director of Warners’ 1966 Chamber Of Horrors, itself a reshuffling of ideas from Wax Museum and remake House Of Wax, screened both while preparing their own waxen concoction. It's doubtful anyone on WB premises realized Mystery Of The Wax Museum was, other than this single 35mm nitrate print, a lost film. Better inquiry might be --- would any of them have cared in the event? United Artists claimed television rights based on AAP purchase of Warners pre-48 back in 1956, and in February 1972 included Mystery Of The Wax Museum in its Prime Time Showcase package along with twenty-three other features. Nine of these were in color, not a sales enhancement in a syndicated market driven by increasing viewer disdain for B/W. The only other chiller in the group was Hammer’s 1959 Hound Of The Baskervilles, so stations looking to fill late-night horror schedules would not likely choose this package. Our Channel 2 out of Greensboro ran it one Friday around midnight, and though credits played in color, someone working the station's owl shift, no doubt impatient with sundry limitations of two-color Technicolor, switched off the chroma key moments in and played what remained in black-and-white. My fevered efforts to get through by telephone bore no fruit, and finally I switched over to The Amazing Colossal Man on Channel 12.

Back to Dan’s attic showing of the 8mm Doctor X … We found out shortly after that Wake Forest was planning a Halloween 1973 double feature of Mystery Of The Wax Museum and Doctor X in one of their student auditoriums. I knew by then that Wax Museum was back in circulation with color prints. United Artists included it in their non-theatrical rental catalogue at $75 per day (Doctor X was $35). Dare we hope that both would be shown in color? Dan and I drove up for what might be the biggest horror night of our lives. Alas, Doctor X played black-and-white, but Wax Museum was a brand new 16mm color print. Bill Everson and others have written of how these were generated in hurried fashion and emerged but shadows of what original 35mm looked like, but at my level of nineteen-year-old enthusiasm, a mere suggestion of color was enough to lift me upon wings of joy. Snarky co-ed laughter throughout both could not diminish thrill of seeing them together and on something larger than a twenty-two inch Zenith. There would soon be black-and-white 16mm dupes circulating underground among collectors, and eventually videotape, laser disc, and a DVD, but how far afield are these of Mystery Of The Wax Museum as rendered in 1933? Greenbriar reader Jim Lane, who posted a comment several weeks back, extolled quality of the 35mm nitrate he saw shortly after Mystery Of The Wax Museum was recovered. Everything short of that one-of-its-kind artifact has been pretty much a botch. Color since has been pallid and smeared, or, as with the DVD, juiced up to a point where it no longer represents the original look of two-color technicolor. Given choices available to us, I’d say the laser disc comes closest to 35mm from which it was mastered, but what of that 1933 survivor? Is it the best representation of how MOTWM appeared to audiences then? Technicolor historians tell us no two prints of any subject look exactly alike. Collecting IB Tech for years in 16mm taught me that much. Registration often varies from section to section. Having only one print of Wax Museum means we accept the good and bad of it, never to know what sort of optimum quality its original camera negative might have yielded. That’s long gone, as is the negative for Doctor X (Happy footnote, 5/10/2020: A gorgeous Wax Museum Blu-Ray has just been released by Warner Archive. Our wait is over!) 
Grateful appreciation to Scott MacQueen for again providing images and much helpful info.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Pre-Code Horror --- Doctor X

Actors often got roasted on Dean Martin specials in the seventies, but Warners did it for real in 1932-33 with Doctor X and Mystery Of The Wax Museum. Two-color Technicolor was another name for Hell on sets topping 120 degrees, but who could say no to a day’s wage in those deprived days, even in working conditions horrible as this? Color ups the weirdness quotient in two horror films that would be outstanding without it. Wax Museums are all the more mysterious when viewed in limited spectrums and attempts at hues beyond the capacity of Technicolor still in its infancy. I could enjoy this process all day if only enough of it survived to last that long. As it is, almost every negative was junked years ago, and the few surviving are difficult at the least to see. Doctor X and Mystery Of The Wax Museum are unique for being the only horror films shot in any kind of Technicolor during the thirties. The two-color process was never satisfactory for cartoons, and musicals suffered from pallid representation of costumes and décor, but horror films stood to reap enormous benefits from not of this earth color seemingly shot through lens smeared with formaldehyde. I don’t know how that Doctor X crew stood workdays running to twenty hours under the martinet direction of Michael "Skip Lunch" Curtiz (shown here with star Lee Tracy). Unions in 1932 were proposed, if at all, in secret meetings among participants who knew not the meaning of days off. On Sabbaths while most rested, the Doctor X team worked straight through Saturday night and into early morning hours, so that when they did finally arrive home, sheer exhaustion negated Sunday recreation other than blessed sleep. For those in the camera’s glare, lights needed to enable Technicolor were intense beyond endurance and some players sustained damage to eyes they’d keep for life. The mad dash to completion was Curtiz’s idea as he was forever bent on impressing front office monitors judging him by the clock. If Doctor X called for twenty-four days shooting, he’d push hardest to do it in less, telling starved minions to fill empty stomachs with aspirin even as he arrived fresh after steak and egg breakfasts figured to last the day. Much as I’d like to have been there in 1932 to watch them make Doctor X, a safe distance might have been preferred lest they put me to work (and I’m just craven enough to insist on at least one meal during my twenty-hour workday). It's easy to minimize star complaints over abuses of the factory system until you read accounts of Doctor X and similar harassed productions. Walk in those not to be envied celebrity shoes long enough and you’d have surely felt the holes in them.

College friend Dan Mercer lived in an attic apartment during part of the time we attended Lenoir Rhyne. It was an old house downtown, and the place looked for all the world like Laird Cregar’s upstairs hovel in The Lodger. I think Dan even had a hot plate, though I’m not aware of his having used it for medical experimentation. One night in 1974, he entertained some of us with an 8mm reel of highlights from Doctor X. It was eight minutes or so in black-and-white, but what a thrill to see any footage from that elusive classic. My previous exposure to Doctor X had been on Channel 8’s Shock Theatre back in the sixties. I’d read in Famous Monsters of its having been made in color, but would never have imagined we’d see it that way on television. Years later, I learned of syndication’s Doctor X being a legitimate black-and-white version shot in addition to the color one we know today. A curious kind of reversal has placed the color Doctor X at easy access, while the black-and-white alternate, with different takes and varied camera placements, has retreated back into sealed vaults and is nearly impossible to see outside of gray marketed DVD. Technicolor in the early thirties got a black eye from too many badly registered prints getting out of understaffed labs and limits built into the system denying truly lifelike reproduction of multi-hues. People were said to be sick and tired of it by 1932. Warners was stuck in an ironclad pledge to make features using the process and chose the two horrors to blow taps on Technicolor until improved three-strip cameras turned again on a few of their short subjects two years later. I actually think Doctor X looks better in that limited process than it would have with later cobalt Robin Hood-like trimmings, but then I’m peculiarly sympathetic to funky color schemes unconfined even as they’re hog-tied to red-orange, but never red --- blue-green, but never blue. Reassuring to know that the color of synthetic flesh is one that can never be duplicated, no matter how sophisticated our modern technologies.

I always thought it would be neat to live in a home designed by Anton Grot. My library would look much like the one shown here for Doctor X (I’d certainly maintain that picturesque skeleton). Separate wings might be given over to imposing archways, pillars, and balustrades, none of them necessarily leading anywhere (as with Doctor X), but all contributing to the sort of old dark dream house some of us might enjoy retiring to. These set reference stills represent Grot minus shadows and lighting effects that enhanced his brilliant work at Warner Bros. They were for use only by the so-called Technical Office (as back stamped), and were never supposed to be published or otherwise disseminated. Many were looted out of file cabinets decades later and sold among memorabilia shops in LA and beyond. Amazing the transformation sets went through once (two-color) cameras applied their magic. Grot had a showman’s sense of dramatizing physical space and making ordinary rooms vibrate with mood and atmosphere. It’s hard imagining how he did so much on limited Warner budgets (Doctor X’s negative cost was $224,000). Grot’s furniture always looked to weigh a ton. I’d hate to have been the propman moving his more than substantial props around. How often do we see art deco tables and chairs in a Grot designed pre-code and wish to heaven for such an object to grace our own living rooms? Thanks to him, WB pictures made cheap never looked that way. He knew the effect his designs had. Interviews were peppered with references to Doctor X sets as a bird of prey about to swoop down on its victim. This art director had a solid understanding of sets as repositories for maximum tension and, as he called it, a sense of impending calamity. Players could sit still and say nothing in worlds Grot created and we’d wait yet for something frightening or fanciful to happen. Men like Grot deserved more credit than most of them got. Historians have said that designer William Cameron Menzies made director Sam Wood look good in pictures like King’s Row and For Whom The Bells Toll. I’d venture that Michael Curtiz owed a good bit of his reputation to Anton Grot’s assist. He acknowledged as much in memos throughout the period they worked together at Warners. Doctor X is one stairway and secret passage after another to nightmares 30’s audiences surely experienced for having seen it. Latter-day uninitiateds wonder how overripe, seemingly cornball thrillers induced such fear among 1932 patrons. I think a lot of it has to do with backgrounds like Grot’s enhancing tension and closing escape routes audiences might take via weak performances, indifferent stories, or risable dialogue. Maybe they (and we) can laugh at dated theatrics, but there’s no minimizing creepy ambiance still as effective as when Grot designed it (more so considering what a lost art his seems to have become). Restraints applied to story and script during the thirties are non-issues with such visual fear factors built into classic horror films. On sets evocative and creepy as those in Doctor X, even comic relief Lee Tracy finds it hard offsetting moods of dread. Folks remembered longer what they saw than attempts at levity they heard. Random wisecracks weren’t anything like enough to relieve two-color memories of horror scenes played straight. Add synthetic flesh to the mix and it wouldn’t matter if you had Lee Tracy hopping around on a pogo stick. It was mechanics of the former that accompanied patrons to their beds at night, not Tracy’s hand-buzzers and exploding cigars. I’m guessing a lot of that comedy designed as relief in early thirties horror films fell well short of the mark where better thrillers such as Doctor X were concerned.

Note the wide-eyed exhibitor checking out his recently arrived pressbook for Doctor X. Looks like Warners pressed an anonymous Golddigger into service peddling their uniquely pre-code slant on the currently popular horror cycle. Besides modern settings in lieu of old-world Universal monster surroundings, both Doctor X and Mystery Of The Wax Museum emphasized their women bound and vulnerable to assault by all too human fiends. Sexual dimensions implied by Fay Wray lying prostrate before the Moon Killer was the stuff of exploitation dreams. The theatre front shown here was Charlotte’s Broadway Theatre. Searchlights out front and a twenty-four sheet trumpeted the Southern Premiere, and sure enough August 23, 1932 was only weeks after New York’s Strand opened Doctor X on August 3 (the Broadway's front display for another 1932 horror release, The Mummy, can be seen here). The Broadway was one of three ornate first run movie theaters in downtown Charlotte, though it seated only 750. It had been first to bring Vitaphone there, starting with Don Juan in January 1927 (earlier than I might have expected for any NC house). Doctor X would go on to earn $405,000 in domestic rentals, with $189,000 additional foreign receipts. A final profit of $72,000 was especially rewarding during an otherwise hard year in which a number of Warner releases lost money. The panic was on among film companies, as most were facing real possibilities of bankruptcy. The success of Doctor X confirmed the wisdom of Warner’s prior decision to go forward with a follow-up horror, Mystery Of The Wax Museum, to be visited here in forthcoming Part Two.
Many thanks to Scott MacQueen for information and advice on this and Part Two to come. Scott's production histories on Doctor X and Mystery Of The Wax Museum in American Cinematographer (June 1986 and April 1990 respectively) are the last word on the subjects and the source of factual data for writers ever since (he also provided an excellent audio commentary for the DVD of Doctor X).
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