July 6, 2020
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh.
Forced to choose, I’d say this above-and-beyond restoration by combined heavyweights UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Film Foundation, Warner Entertainment and the George Lucas Family Foundation (pant pant) is even more impressive for licking the salvage job that had to be done as opposed to the movie’s visual content.
Let me qualify this. There’s nothing wrong with the last here; on the contrary, it fully captures the lighting subtleties of Ray Rennahan’s cinematography working in the pioneer but primitive two-color Technicolor process, which, when done right as here, can be surprisingly pleasing to the eye, much as some of the really good Blu-rays of Republic’s oft-derided Trucolor have been. It’s just that The Mystery of the Wax Museum is by nature on the dark side (morgue scenes abound), which puts it at a distinct disadvantage, demonstration-wise to, say, the bright sprightly colors of Universal’s two-color King of Jazz, which Criterion previously released.
All of this is academic nitpicking on my part because the two films could hardly be more different in their content and intentions. What we have here is the first version of director Andre de Toth’s 1953 remake House of Wax with Vincent Price, which means there will be no Charles (pre-Bronson) Buchinsky as “Igor,” nor that paddle-attached ball shooting out into the audience in 3-D and threatening guys where they live. But Lionel Atwill is spot on as a wronged and disfigured wax museum proprietor bent on exacting revenge, which carries at least double the normal intimidating factor because he’s certifiable.
Well, you would be, too, if your former business partner burned down your London establishment, started a fire and so badly burned you that you have to encase your face in wax just like your exhibits (I don’t think I’m giving too much away here). We then cut to a dozen years later in 1933 New York, where Atwill’s Ivan Igor (there’s that name again) is about to relaunch, aided by a beyond motley crew of deviants, imbeciles, druggies and grave robbers whose fortune is not their faces.
At this point, Warner Bros., which never missed many bets in that era, solders one of its ’30s newspaper melodramas onto the proceedings. Fay Wray (same year as King Kong) is kind of the selling point, but the main femme focus is really on the then ubiquitous Glenda Farrell as her reporter roomie who has a hunch that something really off-kilter is happening at Mr. Igor’s. Though Farrell’s fledgling scoops are consistently shot down by her know-it-all editor (Frank McHugh), she doesn’t know the half of it. Atwill/Igor is abducting real live human beings on which to slather wax to become the base of his sculpture exhibits, and he thinks that Wray could serve as his ideal Marie Antoinette. Oblivious to it all is Wray’s fiancé (Allen Vincent), who even works for Atwill but is beyond ineffectual.
The restoration here is so impressive that I need to get to it, though not before noting that the final scene, back in the newsroom, is so ridiculous in relation to what has proceeded it that it doesn’t even work on fanciful movie terms. Be that as it may, the before-and-after restoration featurette, narrated by UCLA’s head of restoration Scott MacQueen, is considerably longer than what we usually see and is something of a whopper.
Warner Bros. did have a reference nitrate studio print, but it was full of splices and scratches and divots — in other words, a difficult bet even for hardened film pros used to seeing all sorts of atrocious copies but absolutely out of the question for mass consumption or something that any professional archivist would dare put his or her name on. To the rescue came a French work print from which UCLA was able to fill in the blanks before the scanners worked their magic.
Museum wouldn’t be a vintage Michael Curtiz picture on a recent Blu-ray if it didn’t serve up Curtiz biographer Alan Rode to offer a backgrounder, and he really has to fight the clock to fit his standard pro job into the tight 78-minute running time. To my surprise, MacQueen’s separate commentary doesn’t talk about the restoration but offers its own take on the movie’s content and history. You won’t often hear me concede that Hollywood really did feel a need to toughen up the Production Code into a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter, but it’s mid-boggling and even fascinating to learn what individual states found objectionable about Museum and demanded be cut by their local censors. It’s all over the place, with an occasional state not finding anything objectionable at all.
This would all be enough for most discs, but there’s also a sweet tribute to Fay Wray, which includes not only Wray in archival interviews but Victoria Raskin, her daughter with screenwriter Robert Riskin and author of a recent book on her parents that I hope to read and, far as I’ve seen, has reaped unanimous praise. So as you can see, Warner Archives has pulled out all the stops on this release, and it displays their total commitment, which is only fitting. after UCLA did the same.