Category Archives: Warner Archive

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: Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1.

I discovered Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery in high school. While my classmates were spending their after-school hours at football practice, rehearsing for some school play, working at McDonald’s or God knows what else it was that they did, I was watching Tom & Jerry cartoons on one of the TV stations out of Philadelphia. Scattered in-between shorts like Texas Tom (1950) or The Flying Cat (1952) would be something from a guy named Tex Avery.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the Sony Betamax needed to be brought into play, and armed with it and a copy of Leonard Maltin’s book Of Mice And Magic, I was checking off Avery cartoons like Deputy Droopy (1955) as I captured them. Maybe this made me a bit of an obsessive shut-in loser, but I sure laughed a lot.

What makes Tex Avery’s cartoons so good, and him the widely-acknowledged King Of Cartoons, was his experimentation. How fast could a gag be and still register in the mind of the audience? How over-the-top could a reaction be and still be relatable? How many visual puns can you cram into six minutes? The pace of his pictures just got faster and faster, and if you watch the Tom & Jerry cartoons in chronological order, you can see that Avery’s experiments were rubbing off on William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. 

All that insider baseball is great, but who would care if the cartoons themselves weren’t so damn funny? There’s terrific evidence of just how funny they are in Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1.

You get —
Tex Avery Classics
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)
Who Killed Who? (1943)
What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943)
Batty Baseball (1944)
The Hick Chick (1946)
Bad Luck Blackie (1949)
Garden Gopher (1950)
The Peachy Cobbler (1950)
Symphony In Slang (1951)

Screwy Squirrel
Screwball Squirrel (1944)
The Screwy Truant (1945)
Big Heel-Watha (1944)
Lonesome Lenny (1946)

George & Junior
Hound Hunters (1947)
Red Hot Rangers (1947)

Droopy
Dumb-Hounded (1943)
Wags To Riches (1949)
The Chump Champ (1950)
Daredevil Droopy (1951)

This red-hot helping of wonderfulness looks and sounds fabulous, better than I’ve ever seen these things look. I found myself pausing them to study the beautiful backgrounds from MGM’s incredible stable of artists. And I really appreciated the way the disc was set up — you can watch ’em straight through, one at a time, or grouped as you see them above. A tremendous amount of care went into this set, and a big fat thanks to everyone involved.

But maybe the best thing about this Blu-Ray is the “Volume 1” in its title. I’m already waiting for Volume 2.

Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1 is absolutely essential. How’d we all make it this long without this thing?

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Filed under Cartoons, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hanna-Barbera, MGM, Tex Avery, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray Review: Underwater! (1955).

Directed by John Sturges
Written by Walter Newman
From a story by Robert B. Bailey & Hugh King
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Film Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Music by Roy Webb

Cast: Jane Russell (Theresa Gray), Richard Egan (Johnny Gray), Gilbert Roland (Dominic Quesada), Lori Nelson (Gloria), Robert Keith (Father Cannon), Joseph Calleia (Rico Herrera), Eugene Iglesias (Miguel Vega), Ric Roman (Jesus), Jayne Mansfield

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Howard Hughes was notorious for screwing around with the movies at his RKO. This time, Howard gets his mitts on John Sturges’ Underwater! (1955), a film put together as a star vehicle for Jane Russell (and titled The Big Rainbow). The trouble is, going in, Sturges had been lead to believe it was going to be a B action movie. After months and months of pre-production, shooting, the usual Hughes tampering and a boatload of reshoots, the finished picture had its world premiere underwater at Silver Springs, Florida — with the cast, various studio people, the press and assorted celebrities and dignitaries watching the picture 20 feet down wearing aqualungs. Really.

The plot’s a pretty flimsy one (though there were more than 20 drafts of the screenplay). Richard Egan and Gilbert Roland discover a 17th-century treasure ship, perched precariously on the edge of an underwater cliff. As they try to remove the booty before the ship drops into the abyss, they tackle sharks, Joseph Calleia and the bends. Jane Russell is Egan’s wife and Roland’s sister,  and she seems to possess an inordinate amount of swimwear.

Before it was all over, some location work was done in Hawaii and Mexico (most of it with doubles and little of it actually used), a giant tank was built on the RKO lot, and a couple million was spent before the thing was finished. Lori Nelson was borrowed from Universal-International and wasted in a nothing part — some say she had the lead and was replaced with Russell, so a role was added to fit her in (after all, they were paying U-I for her services).

It’s a real mystery why Hughes didn’t get involved in the engineering of Jane’s bathing suits, as he did with her brasserie for The Outlaw (1941). It was supposed to be shot in 3-D, but it was abandoned in favor of Technicolor and RKO’s SuperScope widescreen process. John Sturges never met Hughes; they just spoke on the phone in story conferences. The trouble-plagued location stuff was done before the cast had been nailed down, so everything had to be shot from a distance. The water in the RKO tank would get murky every so often and have to be drained. By the time Hughes and his micromanaging got to the reshoots, Sturges had reported to MGM for Bad Day At Black Rock (1955), no doubt sparing him a great deal of heartache. Ah, the joys of Hughes-era RKO.

The critics hated it, but it was a hit anyway. It turned out to be Russell’s last picture for Hughes.

While it’s easy to dismiss Underwater! as a pleasant enough film, it has plenty going for it. The Mexican and Hawaiian scenery is beautiful — and beautifully shot by Harry J. Wild. The boats we see in the harbor, and the yacht our heroes take on their adventure, are incredible. The film’s greatest assets turn out to be Jane Russell (no pun intended) and Gilbert Roland. Jane’s accent is terrible, but she looks terrific and has the likable quality that seems to carry her through some pretty shaky movies. By this point in his career, Roland was in his 50s and proving to be a real force of nature. Other films from this period, such as Anthony Mann’s Thunder Bay (1953) and George Sherman’s The Treasure Of Pancho Villa (1955), also benefit from his presence. In Underwater!, he steals about every scene he’s in, even when he’s up against Russell in a bathing suit.

Jane Russell and her double Pat Deane Smith.

Like a lot of movies with diving sequences, things slow down below the surface. Even the great Thunderball (1965) suffers from this. But with Underwater!, it isn’t much of a deficit, and the 99 minutes cruise along just fine.

Warner Archive has done everyone concerned proud with their Blu-Ray of Underwater!, presenting it in its original SuperScope 2.0 and making sure the Technicolor pops like it’s supposed to. It’s stunning how sharp it is at times, highlighting just how much craftsmanship went into a picture Russell called a turkey — and RKO pronounced one of its biggest hits. Recommended, not so much for the film, but for Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland and Warner Archive’s terrific presentation.

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Filed under 1955, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Howard Hughes, Jane Russell, John Sturges, RKO, Warner Archive

Tex Avery Is Coming!

UPDATED 1/23/2020: In what will surely be one of the greatest Blu-Ray releases of all time, Warner Archive has announced that Tex Avery’s cartoons are making their way to Blu-Ray.

Tex Avery Screwball Classics, Volume 1 will contain —

Red Hot Riding Hood
Who Killed Who?
What’s Buzzin Buzzard?
Batty Baseball
The Hick Chick
Bad Luck Blackie
Garden Gopher
The Peachy Cobbler
Symphony In Slang

Screwy Squirrel in:
Screwball Squirrel
The Screwy Truant
Big Heel-Watha
Lonesome Lenny

George & Junior in:
Hound Hunters
Red Hot Rangers

Droopy in:
Dumb Hounded
Wags To Riches
The Chump Champ
Daredevil Droopy

Coming in February. These things are essential now, ya hear?

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Filed under DVD/Blu-ray News, MGM, Tex Avery, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #271: Underwater! (1955).

Directed by John Sturges
Starring Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland, Richard Egan, Lori Nelson, Robert Keith, Joseph Calleia, Jayne Mansfield

This is gonna be terrific. Warner Archive is bringing John Sturges’ Underwater! (1955) to Blu-Ray, preserving its Superscope framing.

Of course, the appeal of this one back in ’55 was Jane Russell in a bathing suit (though I don’t think Howard Hughes engineered her outfit this time). It was promoted with a premiere showing that was actually held underwater. If you thought 3-D glasses were uncomfortable, how about an aqualung?

Not sure when this thing is coming, but boy am I glad it is. Highly recommended.

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Filed under 1955, DVD/Blu-ray News, Jane Russell, John Sturges, RKO, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray Review: Moonfleet (1955).

Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by John Houseman
Screen Play by Jan Lustig & Margaret Fitts
Based on the novel by J. Meade Falkner
Director Of Photography: Robert Planck
Film Editor: Albert Akst
Music by Miklos Rozsa

Cast: Stewart Granger (Jeremy Fox.), Jon Whiteley (John Mohune), George Sanders (Lord Greenwood), Joan Greenwood (Lady Greenwood), Viveca Lindfors (Mrs. Minton), Liliane Montevecchi (Gypsy), Jack Elam (Damen)

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Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955) is a movie people seem to delight in tearing down. It helps that it’s a long way from Lang’s best work — there’s plenty to criticize. But me, I’ll take Lang’s bad over About Anybody Else’s good. And there’s a lot for movie nuts to appreciate here.

If Disney had asked Fritz Lang to direct Treasure Island (1950), you might’ve ended up with something like Moonfleet. There’s a young boy. There are smugglers instead of pirates. And there are lots and lots of opportunities for the kind of deep, dark, moody scenes Lang excelled at.

The story suits Lang so well it’s hard to believe he was brought in as a director-for-hire just a few weeks before the cameras rolled. You see, MGM hated Lang. Fury (1936), his first film for the studio — his first American film period, had been a big hit. But they hated him so much they didn’t work with him again until Moonfleet. They gave him a paltry budget, a script he wasn’t allowed to fine-tune and no approval of the final cut. Lang was not the dictatorial artist here, he was an employee, plain and simple.

Lang was never loved in Hollywood. From studio heads to actors to crew members, few people worked with him more than once.

George Sanders (far right) made three movies with Fritz Lang.

Lang: “In Moonfleet we tried to create a period film entirely in the studio; we shot everything there, even the exteriors.”

Along with being assigned a set-bound period picture with very little time to prepare for it, Lang was handed CinemaScope as part of the package. The director was not a fan of the process, and as Moonfleet shows, it threw a monkey wrench into Lang’s style. ‘Scope pictures at the time relied on longer takes and fewer closeups, giving Lang a helluva time when it came to his usual way of cutting, and types of shots, to create rhythm and suspense. He’d never make another ‘Scope picture.

John Mohune, an orphan (Jon Whitely), arrives in the village of Moonfleet looking for Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), an old flame of his deceased mother. Fox is a gentleman wrapped up with a group of smugglers (one of them is Jack Elam!) — and with little time, aptitude or interest, for caring for a young boy. But the search for a hidden diamond brings them together — and makes them the targets of pirates, soldiers and the greedy, crooked Lord and Lady Greenwood (George Sanders and Joan Greenwood). Sanders comes off like his Nazi creep in Man Hunt (1941), just with a wig.

There are some terrific scenes here and there, particularly the ones set in the church graveyard and tombs. Lang keeps the picture planted in the boy’s point of view, much in the way William Cameron Menzies did with Jimmy Hunt in Invaders From Mars (1953), and it works well. It’s probably why I liked this so much as a kid (when I didn’t know, or care, who Fritz Lang was). After all, to a young boy, what’s cooler that pirates and thieves and skeletons? Some lazy editing — the last 10 minutes must’ve been cut at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon — makes it quite obvious that Lang wasn’t able to see his movie across the finish line. But when it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s not good, well, it’s still good.

Warner Archive has done Lang and DP Robert Planck a great service with their new Blu-Ray of Moonfleet. We can now appreciate the somber color palette (the Eastmancolor looks quite good), the glorious painted backdrops and the sheer enormity of some of the MGM sound stages. Maybe that makes this more of a treat for those who want to look at how the movie was made rather than just watch it. But what’s wrong with that? Lang’s movies have always appealed more to us Film Geeks anyway.

Highly recommended. (Remember, it has Jack Elam as a pirate.)

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Filed under 1955, Fritz Lang, George Sanders, MGM, Warner Archive

Happy Thanksgiving.

Not sure what you’re doing this Thanksgiving, but I hope it’s fun and delicious and safe.

I’m enjoying Warner Archive’s terrific Blu-Ray of Operation Crossbow (1965) — and I have to say, I’m quite thankful for it.

Will have a review up soon. In the meantime, here’s a maze that promoted the picture in newspapers and theatre handouts back in’65. Enjoy!

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Filed under 1965, DVD/Blu-ray News, George Peppard, MGM, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #261: Operation Crossbow (1965).

Directed by Michael Anderson
Starring Sophia Loren, George Peppard, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Richard Johnson, Tom Courtenay

Warner Archive has announced a November Blu-Ray release for Michael Anderson’s Operation Crossbow (1965), a really terrific World War II secret mission movie.

It’s funny, as I was getting ready this morning, I came across George Peppard in an episode of The A-Team on TV and thought to myself, it’d be great to get Operation Crossbow on Blu-Ray. Looking forward to seeing this one again, and it’ll really be something in high definition. Highly recommended.

I’m sure this news made my good friend Dick Vincent very happy.

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Filed under 1965, DVD/Blu-ray News, MGM, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #259: From Beyond The Grave (1974).

Directed by Kevin Connor
Starring Ian Bannen, Ian Carmichael, Peter Cushing, Diana Dors, Margaret Leighton, Nyree Dawn Porter, David Warner, Ian Ogilvym Lesley-Anne Down

Amicus Productions specialized in anthology horror pictures like Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) and Tales From The Crypt (1972) — and From Beyond The Grave (1974) was the last one. It gave Kevin Connor his first directing assignment, and he’d go on to do pictures like The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and At The Earth’s Core (1976), both with Peter Cushing and Doug McClure.

Warner Archive has announced From Beyond The Grave for an October Blu-Ray release. The great Peter Cushing in high definition is always a good thing. Recommended.

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Filed under 1974, Amicus Productions, Diana Dors, Donald Pleasence, DVD/Blu-ray News, Peter Cushing, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #258: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967).

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jack McGowran, Sharon Tate, Alfie Bass, Ferdy Mayne, Roman Polanski

I first caught Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) on the CBS late show. Even though it was the butchered version (further butchered for TV), it made me laugh out loud while really creeping me out. I loved it.

This is a movie that’s been well served on video over the years. There was the letterboxed laserdisc of the original cut, then a similar presentation on DVD. I can’t wait to see the Blu-Ray, and get the chance to really study the sets, Douglas Slocombe’s camerawork, that terrific score by Krzysztof Komeda and all that fake snow. Coming in October.

Click on the Frank Frazetta poster art up top. It gets bigger.

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Filed under 1967, DVD/Blu-ray News, MGM, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, Warner Archive