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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.


Blogger Vanwall said...

It's funny - sorta - in the late '60s the older brother of a close friend had a number of 8mm heavily-shortened versions of classic horror films, among them "Frankenstein", "Bride of Frankenstein", "Dracula", yada yada, and some sort of "...Wax Museum" film. We tended to view the monster films projected on a white sheet hung on his bedroom wall more often, and I don't remember watching it more than once, so I don't remember much about the Wax Museum film, but the villain sure looked like some of these stills of Atwill; he'd bought them from a mail-order house ad in the back of a magazine, that providently also sold cheesy porno films, which he moved onto a little later and abandoned the horror films. I shoulda scarfed those up. I'm sorry it didn't register more on my radar, but these were like Cliff-notes versions, and the explosion of the Frankenstein lab at the end of one film, or the Gill Man holding poor Julie, were an over and over occasion, while the Wax Museum film was watered down considerably, I seem to recall, so I don't really know if this was the real article or not. Missed opportunity. Damn.

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Pallid and smeared" -- yes, John, that's a good way to put it. Prompted by the mention in your Doctor X post, I was able to obtain those back issues of American Cinematographer with Scott MacQueen's articles on Dr. X (June '86) and Wax Museum (April '90). Excellent articles, as you say, with much fascinating info on the production histories of both.

But what most gratified me in the articles were the frame enlargements -- three for Museum and seven for X. There, at long last, was two-strip Technicolor the way I remember seeing it that night in San Francisco. Well, more or less: missing, unavoidably, was that nitrate sparkle that gave us the term "silver screen," and which is now familiar only to a dwindling few.

I got out my laserdisc double feature of the two movies again, freezing the image on the exact frames in Scott MacQueen's articles. The comparison is devastating.

You're no doubt right that the lasers are the best versions we have, but I'm afraid "botch" is the least to be said of them. My memory of that Wax Museum screening is of a sort of orange warmth; the laserdisc is overcast with a cold and tinny green, like colorization at its worst.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post, as usual!! I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing the Atwill version--so I've finally broken down and ordered it. He wasn't even on my radar screen a year ago but I've seen a number of his pictures recently and I'm always happy to see his name in the credit. He really does bring something to the screen, doesn't he? Sad how his career tanked and his life ended soon after being blacklisted. (What exactly did he die of?) Perhaps Lionel and his career deserve to be the subject of a post?


12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first saw "Mystery of the Wax Museum" at a 1976 Warner retrospective in Boston,and having read Everson, expected to see a sepia-only/Blue-only print.I was pleasantly suprised to see a print that looked like color, except that the orange flames were white and the bubbling green wax was gray.Surely this muted print could be restored electronically.Two years later I watched it on Boston's ch.56, and that print was mostly sepia save some brief blue inserts.I can't really blame a TV engineer for turning the color off.I guess the 35mm showprint was better than the TV prints, but if that(or It's negative)was the source of the DVD, It's logical they'd juice the color up.The showprint didn't really look like 2-strip Technicolor either.So why the legend of the print turning up in Jack Warner's private collection? Was Warner Bros. just embarressed that they had a print and didn't know to tell anybody?

1:16 PM  
Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

You can download legally this film here. It is a very good copy:

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many thanks to Mr. Grillo for providing the link to Wax Museum on the Internet Archive site. This appears to be the DVD version, which does indeed have an excellent sharpness of image. However, the colors are highly inaccurate. My guess is that the color was largely done electronically (i.e., by colorization), and probably without reference to the surviving nitrate print.

A dead giveaway is the predominance of blue throughout; blue was virtually impossible to photograph in 2-strip Tech and was usually avoided (that's why the "Rhapsody in Blue" section of King of Jazz came out as "Rhapsody in Turquoise," and the ocean and sky in the first Technicolor feature, The Toll of the Sea, are pale shades of green). On the DVD of Wax Museum, when Ivan Igor meets Charlotte (36:10), Fay Wray's dress should be a deep emerald green; the dark blue of the DVD was simply not in the 2-strip spectrum.

7:59 PM  

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