Category Archives: Pre-Code

Blu-Ray Review: Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933).

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson
From the story by Charles S. Belden
Photography by Ray Rennahan
Art Director Anton Grot
Edited by George Amy
Gowns by Orry-Kelly

Cast: Lionel Atwill (Mr. Igor), Fay Wray (Charlotte Duncan), Glenda Farrell (Florence), Frank McHugh (Editor), Allen Vincent (Ralph Burton), Gavin Gordon (George Winton), Edwin Maxwell (Joe Worth), Holmes Herbert (Dr. Rasmussen), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Darcy/Sparrow)

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There’s something about a “lost” film that magically lifts it above the usual concerns about quality. It’s lost, good or bad doesn’t matter anymore. Same goes with what it looks like — we’ll take anything, it’s lost!* When a 35mm Technicolor print of Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) turned up in Jack Warner’s personal archive (about 50 years ago!), all that mattered was seeing it. It once was lost, but now it was found.

Sadly, the 16mm color prints (pulled from Jack’s 35) that made the rounds of colleges and film festivals weren’t much to write home about. (The story goes that the picture’s cinematographer, Technicolor artiste Ray Rennahan, attended one of those screenings, and he was so dismayed by what was on the screen, he left.)

Well, enough time’s gone by that Mystery Of The Wax Museum isn’t a lost film anymore. To most folks, it’s just a creaky, creepy old horror movie with weird-looking color. In fact, it’s probably better known now as the movie House Of Wax (1953) was a remake of. But thanks to Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray — from a miraculous restoration by UCLA and The Film Foundation, with funding from The George Lucas Family Foundation, it’s certainly not lost. It’s not nearly as creaky. And its color, while still a little weird, shines like a diamond (or an emerald since there’s so much green). And I’m happy to say, man, this thing’s creepier than ever.

Come to think of it, it’s like it’s been found again! We don’t have to look past or through anything anymore. We don’t have to imagine what it looked like back in ’33. We can just enjoy it for what it is. This restoration (a second print was later discovered in France) levels the playing field to let it compete with its ghoulish gang of contemporaries — 30s horror masterpieces like Frankenstein (1931), White Zombie (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and so on. And while it might not reach some of those lurid, lofty heights, it really holds its own. 

We all know the plot by now. A sculptor (Lionel Atwill) is disfigured when a London wax museum is burned by its owner for the insurance money. Years later, that sculptor has relocated to New York and is about to reopen a new museum with recreations of his greatest works. A young reporter (Glenda Farrell) notices that the Joan Of Ark figure looks a lot like a young women who died a few days ago, and whose body disappeared from the morgue. (Obviously, House Of Wax was a very faithful remake.) Then, as luck would have it, Fay Wray wanders into the museum, and she’s the spitting image of Atwill’s melted masterpiece, Marie Antoinette. From there, things get even weirder and far more sinister as Atwill’s evil plan and despicable working methods are discovered.

Seeing it look this good, and with its sound cleaned up to an astonishing degree, there are some things about the film that really strike you. The dialogue has that snappy early-30s cops and reporters repartee going on, which we know from pictures like The Front Page (1931). Some of it’s a real hoot — and some a little suggestive, which helps remind you that this is a pre-Code picture.

The picture seems to wallow in its more lurid aspects. Atwill’s employees are quite a seemly, leering bunch. One, Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), is a junkie who the police question until his DTs cause him to spill. There’s a bit of talk about bootlegging. And we get to spend time in the morgue, with a body rising to a seated position, an eery result of the embalming process. And of course there are numerous opportunities to gawk at Fay Wray’s legs. It’s all part of the fun. 

Ray Rennaham (behind camera), Lionel Atwill and Michael Curtiz.

There are times when it’s quite obvious the wax figures are played by people. The hot lights needed for Technicolor photography didn’t get along with the wax figures. Queen Victoria blinks. Joan Of Arc’s lip twitches. 

Speaking of those hot lights. Mystery Of The Wax Museum was the last feature shot in two-color Technicolor. Ray Rennahan and set designer/art director Anton Grot worked with the process’ limited color palette to create plenty of atmosphere. As we see the picture today, two colors were not a handicap for these folks. The odd color enhances the odd nature of the story, especially the vivid greens in a few creepy closeups. It’s surprisingly stylish.

Mystery Of The Wax Museum has always been a favorite, and I cherish my laserdisc of it paired with Doctor X (1932), another creepy two-color picture from Atwill, Wray, Curtiz and Rennahan. (Would love to see Doctor X get a similar restoration.) Seeing Mystery Of The Wax Museum on Blu-Ray is a revelation, making it quite obvious that the damage and semi-color were a real detriment to how much we enjoyed it over the years. The extras — a tribute to Fay Wray, a before/after comparison of the restoration and two commentaries — make for a nice package indeed.

Film history nuts (especially those fond of the technical stuff), pre-Code fans and those of us who just can’t get enough classic horror really need this Blu-Ray. It shows what can be done these days to bring a beat-up old movie back from the brink — and lets us sit back and really enjoy this creepy old thing like never before. Essential. 

* If London After Midnight suddenly turned up, would you care what kind of shape the print was in — or if the movie was actually any good? I didn’t think so.

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Filed under DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Fay Wray, Pre-Code, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: The Black Cat (1934).

Directed by Edgar Ulmer
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Screenplay by Peter Ruric
Suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: John Mescall
Production Design: Edgar G. Ulmer
Music Supervisor: Heinz Roemheld

Cast: Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig), Bela Lugosi (Vitus Verdegast), DavidManners (Peter Alison), Jacqueline Wells (Joan Alison), Harry Cording(Thamal)

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When it comes to the creepy weirdness of 30s Horror, it’s hard to beat Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). It makes almost no sense, piling depravity upon depravity (Karloff marries his step-daughter and has a basement full of dead women in glass cases; Lugosi skins Karloff alive) into some sort of Impressionist fever dream of a haunted house movie that’s absolutely original in every way. The posters screamed “STRANGER THINGS THAN YOU HAVE EVER SEEN… or even dreamed of!” — and, for once, they’re weren’t kidding.

It opens like about 157 movies you’ve already seen, however. A group of travelers wind up in a creepy house in the middle of nowhere after their bus crashes during a storm. Anything but original, right? But from then on, things get plenty weird, fast.

Lugosi is there to settle a score with Karloff, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of men during the war — and made off with Lugosi’s wife and daughter while he was a prisoner of war. If that isn’t enough, Karloff chose to build his Art Deco home on top of the ruins of the fort he commanded — the scene of all those deaths.

Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff): The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.

Before its crazed 65 minutes are over, ailurophobia (the fear of cats), a satanic sacrifice, drugs, the basement full of dead women in glass cases and Karloff being skinned are added to the mix. Something for everyone!

Edgar G. Ulmer was a master at making something out of nothing, and today he’s known for his quickie noir masterpiece Detour (1945). But here, Universal gave him two of their biggest stars, Frankenstein and Dracula themselves, and he created Universal’s biggest hit of the year. He also worked on the screenplay and designed the sets.) After a scandal (an affair with a producer’s wife), Ulmer was blackballed by the major studios, and he spent the rest of his career working largely on Poverty Row.

Only once did a movie creep me out so bad that I checked out. That was Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), which I have no intention of revisiting. But as a kid, The Black Cat really got to me, and I bring that creeped-out memory to it every time I see it. It’s a very weird movie, dealing with some very heavy stuff — a sense of doom and evil is burned into every frame.

The Black Cat is the first of four Karloff-Lugosi films in the Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Classics Vol. 1. The Others are The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936) and Black Friday (1940). Are all given the real Cadillac treatment and all look wonderful — with a healthy batch of extras. With Gary Don Rhodes, Gregory William Mank and Tom Weaver involved in commentaries and documentaries, you know you’re in good hands.

I first saw The Black Cat on the late show. The station ran a pretty battered 16mm print with murky contrast, a few scratches and some changeover cues where previous stations had marked where they wanted their commercials to go. To see it on high-definition is a revelation. I rarely freeze movies as I watch them, but I stopped this one several time to study Ulmer’s sets and just take in the striking quality of the transfer.

This thing is an absolute must.

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Filed under Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Edgar G. Ulmer, Pre-Code, Shout/Scream Factory, Universal (-International)

Blu-Ray News #214: The Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi Collection.

The Titans Of Terror relax on the set of The Black Cat (1934)

Scream Factory has really done it this time. Their upcoming The Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi Collection brings some of the weirdest, sickest and best-est horror films of the 30s to Blu-Ray. All four were Universal pictures.

The Black Cat (1934)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Lucille Lund, John Carradine

Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) might be the granddaddy of all Pre-Code Horror films. It spends so much time hinting around at all kinds of awful stuff, it hardly makes any sense. But it’s so creepy, so twisted, so wonderful, who cares?

The Raven (1935)
Directed by Lew Landers
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Irene Ware

How could you ever approach the supreme weirdness of The Black Cat? With The Raven (1935), Karloff, Lugosi and Lew Landers gave it the old college try.

The Invisible Ray (1936)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake

Lambert Hillyer turns Boris and Bela loose on leftover Flash Gordon sets. The results are every bit as cool as you’re imagining right now. This one will be a real treat in high definition.

Black Friday (1940)
Directed by Arthur Lubin
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Anne Nagle, Paul Fix

Lugosi’s role is pretty small in this one, and he and Karloff don’t have any scenes together. Curt Siodmak’s script plays around with ideas he’d use again in Donovan’s Brain — his 1943 novel and 1953 film.

This is essential stuff, folks. And it’s coming in April.

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Filed under Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, DVD/Blu-ray News, Edgar G. Ulmer, John Carradine, Lambert Hillyer, Lew Landers, Pre-Code, Shout/Scream Factory, Universal (-International)

The Joel McCrea Blogathon: The Most Dangerous Game (1932) By Guest Blogger Jerry Entract.

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Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Produced by Merian C. Cooper and David O. Selznick
Screenplay by Richard Connell and James Ashmore Creelman
Based on the story by Richard Connell
Cinematography: Henry Gerrard
Film Editior: Archie Marshek
Music by Max Steiner

Cast: Joel McCrea (Robert Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar)

joel-mccrea-blogathon-badgeI am delighted to be able to take part in the Joel McCrea Blogathon and would like to thank our host, Toby, for making it possible.

In 1932 Joel McCrea was a coming star. He had done well in The Lost Squadron and had a considerable success with Bird Of Paradise earlier in the year. Tall and very handsome with a pleasing personality.

Merian C. Cooper had already secured RKO’s agreement to shoot King Kong (1933) and wanted to make a film of Richard Connell’s short novel The Most Dangerous Game. The two films were shot concurrently and shared many of the sets, thus saving budget. Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong starred in both — and Max Steiner scored both.

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The story is a great idea of the hunter becoming the hunted. McCrea is shipwrecked and ends up the only survivor on a remote jungle island. He becomes a guest of an exiled Russian aristocrat Count Zaroff and it becomes fairly obvious early on that Zaroff is mad. He sees a wonderful chance at the ultimate ‘game’ – to set a man loose only to be hunted down and torn apart by Zaroff’s pack of hounds. It becomes a game of nerves as McCrea tries to keep ahead of the hounds and their masters, accompanied by Wray, whose dress gets more tattered and revealing as they go (getting in training for King Kong!!).

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I have not yet mentioned the English actor Leslie Banks who played Zaroff. Because it was apparent Zaroff was mad, Banks played it up quite a bit. I have seen him many times in other films, and his playing was generally subtle and underplayed. He certainly added to the tension with his portrayal though. McCrea was just fine in the central role, as one would expect. There were many more fine films ahead for him – Primrose Path (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), These Three (1936), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), to name only a few – before he decided to dedicate his career to the Western in 1946.

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Producer Schoedsack directed the jungle scenes whilst Pichel directed the interiors. RKO remade the story in 1946 (A Game Of Death) and again in 1956 (Run For The Sun).

The 1932 original is an enjoyable and gripping little film that still entertains 84 years on! The film has been available on DVD in several releases. Quality unknown to me.

Please feel free to view my other contribution to this Blogathon over at Toby’s other blog 50 Westerns From The 50s.

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Jerry Entract does not run his own blog or have any involvement in the film industry but is an English lifelong movie fan and amateur student of classic cinema (American and British). Main passions are the Western and detective/mystery/film noir. Enjoys seeking out lesser-known (even downright obscure) old movies.

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Filed under Fay Wray, Joel McCrea, Pre-Code, RKO

DVD Review: The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932).

karloff-as-fu-manchu

Directed by Charles Brabin and Charles Vidor (uncredited)
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard
Based on the novel The Mask of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Film Editor: Ben Lewis

Cast: Boris Karloff (Dr. Fu Manchu), Lewis Stone (Nayland Smith), Karen Morley (Sheila Barton), Charles Starrett (Terrence Granville), Myrna Loy (Fah Lo See); Jean Hersholt (Von Berg), Lawrence Grant (Sir Lionel Barton), David Torrence (McLeod).

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If someone tells you they don’t see what the big deal is about pre-Code movies, show ’em The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932). If its script has been floating around just a couple years later, it wouldn’t have been made.

The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a fever dream of an adventure story — or maybe a Chinese-food-stomach-ache adventure story, the kind of movie you get when writers and directors are fired, production is halted for a while, rewrites arrive minutes before scenes are shot, etc.

Boris Karloff: “It was a shambles, it really was — it was simply ridiculous.”

This chaos is evident on the screen. Characters come and go. There is little, if anything, in the way of character development. The plot simply doesn’t make sense. There’s no real flow from one scene to the next. And if you’re easily offended, well you’ll be easily offended.

But it’s absolutely fascinating from the MGM lion to the final fadeout. The evil Dr. Fu Manchu has kidnapped a noted archaeologist who claims to have found the tomb of Genghis Khan. Fu Manchu seeks the power contained in the Mongol emperor’s mask and sword. Torture, death and all sorts of mayhem ensue.

futorture

Fu Manchu (Karloff): “This serum, distilled from dragon’s blood, my own blood, the organs of different reptiles, and mixed with the magic brew of the sacred seven herbs, will temporarily change you into the living instrument of my will. You will do as I command!”

karloff-and-loy

The entire cast is terrific, with Karloff and Myrna Loy (as Fu Manchu’s freaky daughter) giving it their all. Lewis Stone makes a great Nayland Smith, while Sheila Barton and Charles Starrett are fine as the damsel in distress and her rescuer. The set design is incredible, combining over-the-top Chinese influence with 30s art deco and a bit of Frankenstein’s lab (Kenneth Strickfaden, who made the equipment for Frankenstein, decked out Fu Manchu’s laboratory). It’s as lavish as it is crazy.

The Mask Of Fu Manchu is one of six Pre-Code horror pictures in Warner Archive’s Hollywood Legends Of Horror Collection. It’s a MOD re-issue of the 2006 collection, and it’s great to have it available again. The Mask Of Fu Manchu is my favorite of the bunch, and it looks great — and it’s completely uncut (it was softened a bit a few decades ago). The other films — Doctor X (1932), The Return of Doctor X (1939), Mark Of The Vampire (1935), Mad Love (AKA The Hands Of Orlac, 1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936) — look just as good. All the commentaries and trailers from the original release have been retained. For monsters nuts or fans of Pre-Code Hollywood, this is essential stuff — and a steal at $29.95.

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Filed under Boris Karloff, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, MGM, Pre-Code, Warner Archive

Blu-ray News #73: Chandu The Magician (1932).

Chandu Magician LC

Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Starring Edmond Lowe, Bela Lugosi, Irene Ware

After the previous post on the six-picture set of Pre-Code horror, I should mention a release I somehow let get past me. Kino Lorber has just released the 1932 Bela Lugosi picture Chandu The Magician on Blu-ray. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies and shot by the great James Wong Howe — and it’s often visually stunning.

The story around this one’s a bit complicated. Chandu The Magician movie was based on the popular radio show, with Edmond Lowe as Chandu and Lugosi as Roxor. It would be followed by The Return Of Chandu (1934), a 12-chapter serial — this time, Lugosi played Chandu. In 1935, the serial was edited down to feature length and released as Chandu On The Magic Island. Got that?

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Filed under Bela Lugosi, Kino Lorber, Pre-Code

DVD News #72: Hollywood Legends Of Horror Collection.

Mask Of FM

If you like Weird, then you need to spend some time with the Horror films of the 1930s. And with this six-picture set, Warner Archive gives you a chance to jump right into the deep end.

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Doctor X (1932)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy

The Return of Doctor X (1939)
Directed by Vincent Sherman
Starring Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane, Humphrey Bogart

Let’s get this straight right off the bat: The Return Of Doctor X is not a sequel to Doctor X. The first one was shot in the early two-color Technicolor process. The Return Of Doctor X is one of the films Bogart didn’t like to talk about.

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Tod Browning directs Caroll Borland and Bela Lugosi

Mark Of The Vampire (1935)
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill

Tod Browning directs a talkie remake of one the great lost Silents, his own London After Midnight (1927) starring Lon Chaney.

Mask of Fu Manchu LC

The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932)
Directed by Charles Brabin
Starring Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Lewis Stone

Karloff is the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, wearing what appear to be his Frankenstein boots. Myrna Loy is his equally-evil daughter. This thing has to be seen to be believed.

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Basil Gogos’ painting of Peter Lorre for Famous Monsters #63

Mad Love (AKA The Hands Of Orlac, 1935)
Directed by Karl Freund
Starring Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive

The great cinematographer Karl Freund’s last film as director — he also directed The Mummy (1932). And of course, he was the director of photography for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and I Love Lucy (he developed the flat-light system, and perfected the three-camera setup, that are still used in TV today).

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Tod Browning and Lionel Barrymore

The Devil-Doll (1936)
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan

For this creepy crime picture, Tod Browning revisits some of the ideas of his The Unholy Three (1930), Lon Chaney’s only sound film — which they’d already made as a Silent in 1925.

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Filed under Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, MGM, Pre-Code, Tod Browning, Warner Archive