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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Another Monster I Know and Love

Where Greenbriar Argues For a Horror Movie as Art

Long past time to put aside notions of film as secondary, if that, to other performing arts. That would reverse lifetimes of snubbery, which makes the gesture all a more worth making. Writers/appreciators of film as art stood up for it from a start, Frank Woods since Nickelodeons came, Otis Ferguson a voice in 1940 wilderness (his essay, Life Goes To The Pictures, a classic). I’ll renew the argument, then, on behalf of Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 release lately, and beautifully, rendered on Blu-Ray. I checked what was hot on Broadway stages during that vintage year. “Major events,” according to Daniel Blum’s A Pictorial History Of The American Theatre, were One Sunday Afternoon, Ah, Wilderness!, Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses, and Men In White. Tobacco Road had begun a phenomenal run. Now then, how many of these are revived today? Consider other, more sedentary, arts. I recent read the A. Scott Berg biography of legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins. Seems work by even authors still held in reverence, certainly over anyone who wrote for movies, had their duds, copies selling in four figures where lucky. Won’t labor the point, but do submit that a Mystery of the Wax Museum belongs high on a list of lasting works, as what else from 1933 sustains so well, especially with UCLA Archive having rescued it from deep well of near-ninety years, a Dead Sea scroll of a movie we but faintly knew till now.

For decades, Wax was figured lost, all quest to see it hopeless. Add to that fifty more years (following 1970 surface of a single print), of not seeing it proper. Customary reasons were lousy lab work, corporate indifference … corporate unawareness, in fact, of treasure they had. Now Mystery of the Wax Museum is everyone’s gift from UCLA Archive and Warners. I lately looked at some You Tubes re archeological finds of ancient New Testament manuscripts, goal being to locate earliest survivors and get close as possible to “original” Gospel text. All this brought to mind ongoing struggle of film preservationists, for without first generation elements to derive from, there is no old movie for us to rediscover and enjoy. Lots are lost, Mystery of the Wax Museum intact only by skin of teeth, or nitrate celluloid, two prints in varied state of raggedness, plus some fragments, from which to derive what we may now own for eighteen or less dollars. Biblical scholars actually have more (comparatively) early New Testament drafts to work from (thousands located so far, it’s said) than Wax leavings for UCLA to consult. Judging by Archive result, you’d not dream it came of such distressed remains, for Mystery of the Wax Museum looks, at least to me, as though it was minted yesterday.

Will this Grand Museum reopening generate a same excitement as when brought from hiding in the early 70’s? Based on delays meeting Blu-Ray demand, I would say it has, and then some. Let Dan Mercer tell of first-time Wake Forest screening for Halloween 1973 that was no mere movie-go --- for us both, this was a pilgrimage (patience ... we'll hear from Dan). Was it years’ wait and longing that made final consummation so meaningful? Two-hour drive, hard back chairs, a tepid Eastman print … these didn’t matter. Ease of access today makes it all a bit comical, the stuff of rose-tint memory. Imagine if Casper Gutman and associates could two-day Air their gold-encrusted Falcon from Amazon prime. The movie chase has become so easy that it is no longer a chase at all. Yet how far would any of us walk, crawl, traverse acres of barbed wire, to see London After Midnight, Hats Off, or The Magnificent Ambersons complete? Back in the day, we had to work for our fun, says this old man who tries not living in the past any more than he must.

Is Mystery of the Wax Museum being commercial product what keeps press and a cultural community from standing up to say, This is a very big deal! --- ? What Wax needs is a totem, opinion maker, leading flocks to wonder at this Museum, but are there such voices of cultural authority left? Plenty online, would-be’s by definition because there are so many and who bothers about online writing, but mainstream arbiters seem gone, the kind who could speak from outside our tribe to say, This you all must see. The Is It Art question can be answered straightaway, a dictionary’s definition more than apt where applied to result got by Mystery of the Wax Museum: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Art’s criteria is more than Wax-met. There is a spell cast by the best films, sort of what I suppose a painting can do, though I’m not so moved by those as images that move, in present case, otherworldly figures to begin with (early 30’s setting, slang, modern if still gothic chilling) to which add color not of this earth, or at the least our time on earth, which for me is how UCLA’s hypo achieves a 2020 state of grace.

Is it unreasonable to imagine that people and clothes and cars of 1933 existed only within limited palette that was two-color Technicolor? I can believe it, and want to believe it. You may persuade me, easily, that fullest color, the kind we know today, was not realized in still photos, movies, or life, until the mid-thirties. Till then was variation on red or green, flesh rendered pink … chartreuse, maybe lime, for skies. Was this a world our forebears knew? Someone please go back in time and let me know if two-color was all folks had in 1933, not just in theatres but out on the street. Receipt of color when I began collecting 16mm was set always on startle, as in no experience ever like these. Senses are heightened when you are young, impressions manifold over what we’d experience again. My print of Adventures of Robin Hood had reds and blues to fairly leap off the wall. Never realized at age twenty that such a vision would not come again. Was it eyes open and receptive to miracles … closed now for losing what had been vividest sight? If so, that loss is restored by UCLA’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. They did not make the fool’s blunder of “correcting” color, an easy out thanks to technology now amok to undo work done by our ancestral betters. Authentic beats pretty every time. I do not want to see Lionel Atwill scooting along before a blue wall.

Truth is, critics of the day disparaged the two-color process, said it was work still in progress and had long ways to go. Trade reviewers wondered how that might affect boxoffice. Scamp-like Rob Wagner, whose publication was Rob Wagner’s Script, gave vent to all aspect of his filmgoing … the movie, its audience, promotions outside. As there was no protocol where it came to evaluating films, Rob could be whatever flavor of iconoclast he chose, nobody caring, for since when were movies a thing to be taken seriously? In case “horrors pall,” he said of Mystery of the Wax Museum, “ … get a load of Glenda Farrell … Glenda is a jolly lass with thick lips, beautiful eyes, a charming lisp, and a smile that would melt a brass monster, let alone a wax one.” To hear trade tell it, we laughed going in, and certainly coming out. Two-color was tide turning by the time Mystery of the Wax Museum arrived. Serious critics to ponder movies, not so many in 1933, admonished the thing or ignored it. Pare Lorentz, whose reviews still resonate, called Wax a “latest boo epic … ghostly, severely cold in design,” which it was, still is, and thank providence for that. What they viewed as limitations, however, became enhancement for viewership to come.

Two-color had an abstract quality, again that other-worldliness. Mystery of the Wax Museum as retrieved by UCLA is a triumph of impressionism in movies (not planned as such, or was it?). Hindrance is virtue, so far as I see them, creeps no show then or since could touch (except Doctor X, now in restorative works at UCLA). Horror after all lies in atmosphere, not someone thrust forward with carving instruments. Universal thrilling was remote, Warners the here and now. Post-Crash and Depression themes unease me without adding monsters. Take this hard life or leave it, says all of precode. Can’t stand the guff? --- there’s the gas pipe. Where was sympathy for softness in the early 30’s? Extras on the recent Blu-Ray, and at You Tube, explain how the UCLA restoration team wove their raiment of two colors. I never knew red or green for such infinite variation. Scott MacQueen does a disc commentary detailing Waxen history back to 1933 and efforts to rescue and circulate it since. No one knows this picture like MacQueen, or has done so much to preserve and celebrate it. Greenbriar’s own absorption dates to 2008, pleading then for the digital fix that would wait twelve years. Briefer mention re the rescue came earlier this year (March). At that time, I wondered if two-color should serve yet as an “aesthetic choice.” Painters have been as adventurous, why not filmmakers? (give me twenty million and I promise to make a two-color Technicolor feature).


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

A pantheon Greenbriar post. Brilliant on all counts. Warners should license reprint rights from you and send this as a promotional mailing to all film collectors and cineastes who have ever bought anything from the Archive. Heck, they should include it as an insert in the MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM package.

I would carelessly mention here that O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! is still occasionally revived, but never mind. Your point stands.

Regards (and congratulations),
-- Griff

5:07 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

Now I'm waiting for the Doctor X restoration.
I hope it is the same revelation as this for Mystery of the Wax Museum.

7:51 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Babbling on limitations as a choice:

These days a filmmaker can digitally alter or limit the color palette, and before that it was possible to get many of the same effects via camera and design. But it's usually almost subliminal -- it tries to convince you it's reasonably natural color, rather than tip choices have been made. Now that the technology makes it comparatively easy and affordable, I keep waiting for somebody to bring back silent-style tinting of scenes. Once color became the default it's only used for gimmick shots or a cheap way to disguise B&W stock in a color film.

Wilder made "Some Like It Hot" in B&W primarily to deal with issues of Lemmon's and Curtis's makeup. Making "The Apartment" in B&W looks like a choice as well, dictated by the bleakness of the story and setting. "The Apartment" in color could easily have looked like a standard sex comedy or melodrama.

Disney's original "Tron" deployed what was then cutting-edge computer animation. It was very obviously unreal -- in fact, that was the point. Actors were filmed in B&W, frames were blown up and hand-colored to make them as unworldly as the genuine computer imagery. Decades later, there was a sequel. Now that CGI could do anything, they made the limited, eerie world of the original just another bloated effects epic.

The Karel Zeman films in the Criterion set use all manner of ancient trickery. Zeman created his own strange dream reality, mixed with playful artifice that called attention to itself. His daughter recalls him seeing "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" and sighing, "How can I compete with that?" The irony was that Zeman was NEVER competing with that, just as Chaplin was never competing with DeMille.

8:28 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Looking at the new restoration makes the mind boggle at how AFI and UA could have botched the color so badly in the early 70s! The orange fire was white, the green wax gray, and in general the color was washed out in 35mm and sepia in 16MM. How could all those rich reds and greens have just disappeared from the image? It really was about time a proper restoration was done-the BEFORE clips in the restoration comparison looked better than the 70s prints! Yes, the play "Men in White" is pretty obscure now, the Stooges parody "Men in Black" far better known today!

9:49 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Billy Wilder simply seemed unwilling to deal with color. Kiss Me Stupid looks like an extended porno loop. Without prodding, he might've stayed monochrome.

There's something genuinely ...unhealthy about Atwill in Wax. Any woman trapped alone with him would welcome an all-over Brazilian Wax.

1:00 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Excellent post.

I love Mystery, but much prefer Dr. X. While Mystery is certainly the better film, X has a febrile, pulp quality that is delicious to this viewer. And I like Lee Tracey a lot more than Glenda Farrell. (What an Archie Goodwin Tracey would've made!)

Now I have to get my hands on this.....

10:50 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had one of those 16mm color prints of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. I know how bad they looked.

This Blr-ray restoration is wonderful.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Beautiful post - one of your best. And I'm delighted you chose the wonderful "Mystery of the Wax Museum" as your focal point. Love that film. And I'm swept away by the image you provided of 1933 patrons exiting the theater into a two-strip Technicolor world. Wow!

1:01 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Martin Scorsese's AVIATOR starts in two-strip Technicolor then as the process advances over the years the color of his film advances.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

7:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer files his Halloween 1973 report (Part One):

Memory can be an elusive thing, when by afternoon a morning’s moment might be lost, but I remember that evening as a I would a first kiss.

When you found out that there would be a Halloween showing of “Mystery of the Wax Museum” at Wake Forest University, along with “Doctor X,” there was no question but that we would be going. Here was something strange and weird, a film that some had called the most frightening ever made and, until just a couple of years before, thought to be irretrievably lost. Now we were to see it, and in two-color Technicolor, at that. Here was a process that was itself a mystery to me, something to be appreciated in the abstract, perhaps a password for the introduction of those who were immersed in the world of film, but not something that could be understood unless experienced. Until then, it was like the way the ancients would refer to terra incognita on their maps, “Here be marvels.”

I remember meeting you late that afternoon at the Cromer Center cafeteria for an early dinner and to rehearse, not for the first time, what we might see or do. We were joined at our table by a young woman with whom I was utterly besotted, there to send us off, as a lady would knights to the joust. The hour’s drive to Winston-Salem was filled with intense conversation and speculation, and silences still more intense. Soon enough, we were there, finding the small university screening room and then our seats as it rapidly filled. The lights dimmed and the long-awaited moment was upon us. As we watched with eyes wide open, the screen filled with light of a color never seen before.

12:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

Perhaps it would seem anticlimactic, if I were to note that those first few moments were as close as we would come that evening to even an approximation of what two-color Technicolor looked like. At best, the color of that print was washed out, and for long stretches it was so faded as to seem monochromatic. “Mystery of the Wax Museum” had been thought lost until a print of it was found in the Jack Warner collection. It was from that print that this rather indifferent copy had been made.

The film itself seemed mediocre, though I had already understood that it was probably not deserving of the reputation it had gained when no one had been able to see it. There had been a New York showing a couple of years before of the Jack Warner print, and an article appeared in the fanzine, “Photon,” suggesting that the film had proved a disappointment to many. When Warner Bros. remade “Mystery of the Wax Museum” in 1953 as “House of Wax,” evidently it had kept what was good and made better choices as to the rest.

The audience we were with also did not seem as alive to the magic of the occasion as we were. The accompanying feature, “Doctor X,” was presented in a rather shabby black-and-white print that failed to entertain them. In particular, they were less than entranced by the comedy of Lee Tracy. When he used a syncopated hand clap to accompany a swaying skeleton, I heard one them call out, sotto voce, “Oh, he’s just too funny.”

Is this to say, though, that we were disappointed? On the contrary, it was an evening more exciting than we could have imagined, as much for what confounded our expectations as gratified them. We were boon companions in adventure, like the heroes in Bizet’s “Les pecheurs des perles.” We were archaeologists envisioning a lost civilization from a shard of broken pottery or a battered clay tablet. We were Howard Carter, peering into the cluttered treasure room of Tutankhamun for the first time in three thousand years, and replying, when asked whether he could see anything, “Yes, wonderful things.”

There may be many beginnings, many glimmerings, when you find something that will captivate you for the rest of your life. I can think of several that account for my enthusiasm for film, but on that evening, so long ago, now, I had pierced the veil, entered the holy of holies, and returned more alive to the magic of this medium and of life itself.

Surely, this was one of those beginnings.

12:11 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

To Dan Mercer and John McElwee: You guys could make a colonoscopy something to look forward to. That was meant as a compliment in case it doesn't read that way!

12:32 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had a friend who regularly hitchhiked with me to a town twenty miles away from our town to see horror films. I'll never forget those nights we froze our butts waiting for a car to pick us up. We could see the lights off in the deep distance. "Would this be the one?" More often than it was it wasn't. Still it was worth it. In these days when just about everything can be bought or downloaded off the web there probably are not very many who share the experiences of you and your friend and I and mine. On the whole, though, I will take now.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Ordered this a month ago. Waiting for when the sun starts setting early to provide the proper ambience when watching it.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"And I'm swept away by the image you provided of 1933 patrons exiting the theater into a two-strip Technicolor world. Wow!"

Where is that image? I can't find it.

9:17 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Only wish I had such an actual image, but it exists only in my imagination.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That's what I thought. Thanks for the confirmation.

11:51 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

You know in both this film and the remake HOUSE OF WAX we are required to suspend an awful lot of disbelief with those ultra-realistic wax face masks. Wax just does not move at all.

Still, I don't mind suspending my disbelief. It's more fun that way.

Years ago in the 1970s when I showed DRACULA (1931) with Bela Lugosi one fellow laughed loudly each time Bela came on screen. When I asked him why (I stopped the film) he said, "We all know vampires do not exist."

I said, "Yes, we all know that but most of us have agreed to pretend they do."

He said, "I can't."

I said, "Then leave."

He said, "You're a tyrant."

I said, "You're ruining it for everyone else."

He was not happy about it. He spoke badly about me after to one and all but when the film was over everyone else (about 300) said, "Thank you. That's why we like to come here."

8:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer suggests make-up possibilities as utilized in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM:

Actually, Ivan Igor used a unique formulation for the mask he wore, a wax that was amazingly life-like in appearance—at least in a two-strip Technicolor world--and had qualities of plasticity that allowed the mask to conform to the movement of his face.

His work paralleled research by Xavier Laboratories, which later led to a patented process that was marketed under the trademark,

Synthetic Flesh®.

12:57 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

I suspect that WAX MUSEUM is appreciated more today than when it was shown at festivals circa 1970 because of the re-discovery of Pre-Code films. 70s patrons were expecting gothic horror and got a newspaper film, but now, in the wake of revival series highlighting the wisecracking Lee Tracy, among others, it's finally appreciated as a pre-code fast-talking newspaper movie in Technicolor, one of only a few(DOCTOR X counts by virtue of Tracy).

12:53 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

While people may and go to the movies to see starring actors ultimately we go to a movie hoping that it will deliver on its promise.

Actually we want that promise surpassed. Said Cecil B. DeMille, who knew his trade, "We get people in by promising them the devil. But once they are in they want God. They won't come in for God but that's what they want."

The problem with DOCTOR X, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and just about every movie ever made is that they are great on promise but terrible on surpassing our expectations.

Now and then comes along one that does deliver.

D. W. Griffith was the master at delivery, perhaps the only master.

4:50 PM  

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