Being a passionate lover of movies, especially of the classic Hollywood era, also means championing the cause of film preservation and restoration. There’s been a recent, very exciting development in this field. Warner Archive last month released to blu-ray an incredible restoration of the once lost 1933 pre-code horror film “Mystery of the Wax Museum” starring Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill. If the title seems a little familiar, you perhaps know it best under it’s Vincent Price starring re-make, 1953’s “House of Wax,” which itself was remade again in 2005.
The film was a huge hit for Warner Brothers, but over the years prints of the film, produced on highly volatile Nitrate film stock, either couldn’t be found or deteriorated. The original camera negative for the film, which was shot in Technicolor’s early two-color process, was junked when Technicolor abandoned all technical support for their two-color format. Thus, like many movies—more than you’d think—“Mystery of the Wax Museum” was added to the list of lost movies. Films that only existed in articles and press photos. Only a memory of those who saw it when the movie was playing in theaters.
There’s a lot of confusion as to when the film went missing. Director Andre De Toth, who made the Vincent Price version, supposedly screened the film in a private viewing room at Warner Brothers as part of his pre-production. Then some say the film went missing completely in 1948. But, thanks to one of those magical Hollywood miracles, a print of the film was found in Warner Brothers co-founder Jack L. Warner’s personal vault at his home in the 1970s. Warner’s print of the film was full of wear and tear, having been projected along with the aging of the elements. A negative was made from this print, it was seen in theaters, eventually getting a home video release in the late ‘80s.
The film would be included on the DVD and blu-ray editions of the ’53 “House of Wax” as a bonus feature. But, taken from the 1987 video master. It was great to be able to see the original film alongside it’s better known big brother. It looked tough and worn, but dealing with the world of lost films you were just thankful you could see it. Now, thanks to an effort by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, The Film Foundation, associated with Warner Brothers and funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation, “Mystery of the Wax Museum” has been restored in a manner that is as close we could get to the original 1933 prints.
The film’s plot is a simple one, but familiar if you’ve seen the other two versions and perhaps has become something of a Horror trope. There’s a wax museum in down run by an artist of great talent. The wax figures are truly impressive, lifelike. Coincidentally, there’s been a series of bodies being stolen in the same town before the museum opened. But that’s just a coincidence, right?
A French workprint with baked in subtitles of “Mystery of the Wax Museum” turned up in 2008. This print contained sections of the film that were either shortened or missing from the Jack L. Warner print. Those two sources have been used to create this restoration. Digital equipment has been able to give restorers the ability to do things that the photochemical lab can’t. There’s a restoration feature on the disc showing the before and after. The results are simply stunning. Years of age and damage have been removed and the color has been corrected to bring the two-strip color pallet to a uniform shape.
Having only seen the film in the 1987 video master, my jaw dropped several times during the running of the new blu-ray from Warner Archive. People often seem confused when I talk of movies from the classic Hollywood era coming to high-definition blu-ray. But the truth is all this detail has always been there, locked in the film, which has quite a high resolution. It’s just now that our scanners give us the chance to unlock it all for our eyes at home. Every single person involved with this restoration should be applauded. This is truly a banner moment for movie buffs.
Warner Archive has given this title fantastic treatment, making its blu-ray of “Wax Museum” perhaps one of the best titles in their catalog. We get not only that restoration feature but two commentary tracks. “Museum” was directed by the great Michael Curtiz, perhaps the best “unknown” director ever who also made a little movie you may have heard of called “Casablanca.”
The first commentary track is by Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode, and it’s great, never pausing, deeply informative. The second is by Scott MacQueen, the head of preservation for UCLA Film and TV archive. His track is also a deeply informative track that never pauses, and has archive audio from Fay Wray. There’s a little overlap between the two tracks, but both are fantastic. This is rounded out with a sit-down talk with Fay Wray’s daughter.
Together, Warner Brothers, UCLA, The film Foundation, The Lucas Family Trust, and Warner Archive, have made a blu-ray that should be in the collection of every single person who considers themselves a movie lover. The film is a lot of fun, full of great dialogue, and has never looked this great since it was first out in 1933. My highest recommendations. See you next week.