Category Archives: Warner Bros.

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 News #282: Dragnet (1954).

Directed by Jack Webb
Starring Jack Webb, Ben Alexander, Richard Boone, Ann Robinson, Stacy Harris, Virginia Gregg, Victor Perrin, Georgia Ellis, James Griffith, Dennis Weaver, Dub Taylor

A friend and I were talking a couple months ago about the movies we really wanted to see on Blu-Ray. That’s the kind of thing movie geeks do to pass the time. Well, I put the 1954 Dragnet feature in my top spot, and Kino Lorber has announced it for Blu-Ray later this year. You can imagine how stoked I am.

aadrag10This movie’s got everything that makes the original Dragnet TV show so perfect, only more of it. The same no-nonsense style (with a few camera moves here and there), the same character actors and the same Joe Friday (Jack Webb) talking smack to every crook he comes across. There’s more violence (Dub Taylor gets shot in the face before the WB shield even shows up!), widescreen, WarnerColor and a majestic version of the theme song from the Warner Bros. orchestra. This is one of my favorite movies, and the old DVD is atrocious.

UPDATE (2/12/2020) — I will have the extreme privilege of doing a commentary for this one. It may present the film in both 1.37 and 1.75 aspect ratios. It was a very early non-anamorphic widescreen film.

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Filed under 1954, DVD/Blu-ray News, Jack Webb, James H. Griffith, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray News #241: None But The Brave (1965).

Directed by Frank Sinatra
Starring Frank Sinatra, Clint Walker, Tommy Sands, Brad Dexter, Tony Bill, Tatsuya Mihashi

None But The Brave (1965) is usually shrugged off as simply “the only picture Frank Sinatra directed,” which it is. But it’s also a pretty solid war movie, a lot better than reviews at the time would have you expecting. Two groups of soldiers, one Japanese and one American, are stranded on the same little Pacific island. They establish a pretty shaky truce in order to survive.

It was shot in Hawaii, and during production, Brad Dexter saved Sinatra (and Ruth Koch, the wife of producer Howard W. Koch) from drowning after getting caught in a riptide. In Japan, it was distributed by Toho, the Godzilla movie people. And Tommy Sands was Sinatra’s son-in-law at the time, and he’d divorce Nancy the same year.

It’s got great Panavision cinematography by Harold Lipstein. Sinatra had cinematographer William H. Daniels working as a producer, and with those two master craftsmen on board, how could it not look great? And that, for me, is why I’m so happy Warner Archive is bringing None But The Brave to Blu-Ray. It’s out next week, I think. Recommended.

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Filed under 1965, DVD/Blu-ray News, Frank Sinatra, Toho, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Screening: Dragnet (1954).

Directed by Jack Webb
Starring Jack Webb, Ben Alexander, Richard Boone, Ann Robinson, Stacy Harris, Virginia Gregg, Victor Perrin, Georgia Ellis, James Griffith, Dub Taylor

Noir City: Hollywood – The 20th Annual Los Angeles Festival Of Film Noir is presenting one of my all-time favorite films on the 18th, Jack Webb’s 1954 feature version of Dragnet. I can’t tell you how much I love this movie. The DVD is a rather ugly, full-frame mess, making the chance to see it on the big screen, on film, an even greater treat. And Ann Robinson, who plays a lady officer, will be there for a discussion after the movie.

Wednesday, April 18, 7:30pm
Egyptian Theatre
6712 Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90028

And if Dragnet wasn’t cool enough, the festival’s also got Armored Car Robbery (1950) in its lineup on the 16th. Another one of those times when I live on the wrong side of the country.

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Filed under 1954, Jack Webb, James H. Griffith, Screenings, Television, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: The Black Scorpion (1957).

Directed by Edward Ludwig
Produced by Jack Dietz and Frank Melford
Screenplay by Robert Blees and David Duncan
Story by Paul Yawitz
Director Of Photography: Lionel Lindon
Special Effects by Willis H. O’Brien and Pete Peterson
Film Editor: Richard L. Van Enger
Music by Paul Sawtell

Cast: Richard Denning (Hank Scott), Mara Corday (Teresa), Carlos Rivas (Arturo Ramos), Mario Navarro (Juanito), Carlos Muzquiz (Dr. Velazco), Pascual Garcia Pena (Jose de la Cruz)

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When you look at the big-bug movies of the 50s, the good-to-bad ratio is surprisingly good. Them! (1954), about giant ants, is terrific. Tarantula (1955) is excellent, too, thanks in large part to Jack Arnold’s snappy direction. The Deadly Mantis (1957) sticks the mantis in the Manhattan Tunnel for a cool last reel. Then there’s The Black Scorpion (1957), with Warner Bros. hoping to scare up another batch of Them!-like profits, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Black Scorpion Mex LC

A once-dormant volcano erupts, wreaking all sorts of havoc in Mexico. Geologists Henry Scott (Richard Denning) and Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) come to investigate, meeting the lovely Teresa (Mara Corday) — and discovering a nest of giant scorpions living in the caverns beneath the volcano.

black_scorpion still cropped

These aren’t just any giant scorpions. They’re the work of the great Willis O’Brian and his assistant Pete Peterson. A master of stop-motion animation and one of the true pioneers of movie effects, O’Brien gave us The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949) and others. His career was winding down by the time he took on The Black Scorpion, and even though working with a small budget (setting up shop in tiny studio space and his own garage, the story goes), he made sure the movie delivered the goods. (As a kid, I measured the quality of movies like this according to how much screen time the monsters had. I had yet to appreciate Mara Corday.)

A terrible picture of one of Willis O’Brien’s original scorpion models.

In the shots where you see two or three scorpions, imagine animating all those legs! A sequence with a train attacked by one of the scorpions is just incredible. And I love how the scorpions are constantly drooling!

Lionel Lindon’s cinematography is top-notch, using deep shadows and limited lighting to create a creepy mood, especially in the caverns, and avoid making the special effects appear not-too-special. (Be sure to see his stunning work on 1957’s The Lonely Man.) Lindon won an Oscar for Around The World In 80 Days (1956). The editing comes from Richard L. Van Enger, who spent years at Republic cutting everything from Heart Of The Golden West (1942) with Roy Rogers to John Wayne in Sands Of Iwo Jima (1949) to Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). The sound design on this one is great, too. The scorpion noises (borrowed from Them!) are a very effective way of building suspense.

Black Scorpion LC 2

Richard Denning and Mara Corday were old hands at this kinda stuff. He’d already dealt with The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and she’d come up against Tarantula. They do exactly what a movie like this asks of them: look scared, be brave and deliver some whacky pseudo-science to fool audiences into almost believing it for 80 minutes or so.

I’ve had this movie on laserdisc, on DVD twice (one being from Warner Archive), and this Blu-Ray is really something special. The Black Scorpion has always fluctuated in sharpness from shot to shot — maybe because of the special effects. It’s no different in high definition, but when it’s sharp, it’s as sharp as I’ve ever seen. Stunning at times.

The extras are terrific, gathering up some of O’Brien’s tests, clips, trailers and other goodies. Warner Archive was wise to keep those for this release, but for me, the true extra is still the restoration of its 1.85 framing — now even better in high definition. Every setup looks so much better, from the dialogue scenes to the monster footage. Widescreen films like this, regardless of their age, can look pretty clunky when seen full-frame.

The movie’s easy to recommend. So is the upgrade to Blu-Ray. Go for it!

Time for a bit of transparency: This is a partial re-tread of my review of the Warner Archive DVD of The Black Scorpion from a few years back.

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Filed under 1957, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Edward Ludwig, Mara Corday, Richard Denning, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: Harper (1966).

Directed by Jack Smight
Director: Jack Smight
Producer: Jerry Gershwin, Elliott Kastner
Screenplay by William Goldman,
based on the novel The Moving Target by Ross McDonald
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Film Editor: Stefan Arnsten
Music by Johnny Mandel

Cast: Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Elaine Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner

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For my money, Harper (1966) is the ultimate Paul Newman movie. He’s cool, funny and tough — and like all of his best films, his character’s got a little loser in him. He’s also got a cool car — a Porsche Speedster with the driver’s door sprayed in brown primer and the hubcaps missing. (Bet Newman had a lot of fun with that thing between takes.)

Harper is also a near-perfect 60s movie, touching on the mounting weirdness of the latter half of the decade, especially in Los Angeles, without going overboard in trying to be hip. Harper (Newman) is hired by a Lauren Bacall to locate her wealthy husband, who disappeared the night before. Harper’s investigation drags him through all sorts of stuff — kidnapping, smuggling illegal immigrants, heroin addiction, torture and crackpot religion. Along the way, he gets beaten up time and time again.

Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall): Los Angeles is the big leagues for religious nuts.
Lew Harper (Paul Newman): That’s because there’s nothing to do at night.

And it does all this while carrying on the tradition set by earlier private detective pictures like The Big Sleep (1946). You could say that this vibe was taken to the next level, a logical progression, by Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1971).

Strother Martin is terrific as the weirded out holy man. Shelley Winters is a hoot as the washed up actress involved in the whole mess. Arthur Hill is perfect as Harper’s nerdy lawyer friend. And as I’ve already stated, cool just oozes out of Newman in every frame.

I am deeply indebted to this movie for two things. First, it introduced me to Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books. I’ve read them all, they’re great. Next, the shot underneath director Jack Smight’s credit — looking over Harper’s shoulder as he approaches Lauren Bacall’s house in his Porsche, it (and The Love Bug) helped kick off my fascination with Ferdinand Porsche and his vehicles.

Director Jack Smight and Paul Newman between takes.

Harper was shot in Technicolor and Panavision by the great Conrad Hall. The Blu-Ray from Warner Archive is near perfect, as good a presentation of original Technicolor as I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s not the eye candy of something like Singing In The Rain (1950), but it shows us all exactly what the color process looked like in the 60s. Watch those reds — the cars, the waiters’ uniforms, etc. That’s dye transfer Tech — and it’s beautiful. Harper looks better than I’ve ever seen it look (and I’ve seen a 16mm IB Tech Scope print, the letterboxed laserdisc and the DVD). Essential.

At the same time, Warner Archive has brought the second Newman/Harper film, The Drowning Pool (1975), to Blu-Ray. It’s not as good — for one thing, the plot is really complex, but any movie featuring Murray Hamilton, Paul Koslo, Andy Robinson, Linda Haynes and Richard Jaeckel is worth seeing. This time, Harper winds up in Louisiana (the book kept Archer in California) to help out an old flame (Joanne Woodward) and people start winding up dead.

The scene with Newman and Gail Strickland trapped in a flooded hydrotherapy room, where the title comes from, is really cool.

The great Gordon Willis (The Godfather) shot this one, and it’s beautiful — and presently flawlessly on Blu-Ray by Warner Archive. Newman and all those character actors make The Drowning Pool worthwhile. Recommended.

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Filed under 1966, 1975, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall, Murray Hamilton, Paul Newman, Robert Wagner, Strother Martin, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray News #158: The Black Scorpion (1957).

Directed by Edward Ludwig
Special Effects by Willis H. O’Brien and Pete Peterson
Starring Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro

Warner Archive has announced that they’re getting The Black Scorpion (1957) prepped for Blu-Ray. Their DVD from a few years back was terrific, and I think the leap to high definition will be a real treat. More on this as the infestation takes shape.

Thanks to John Knight for the tip.

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Filed under 1957, DVD/Blu-ray News, Mara Corday, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: Night Moves (1975).

Directed by Arthur Penn
Written by Alan Sharp
Director Of Photography: Bruce Surtees
Film Editor: Dede Allen
Music by Michael Small

Cast: Gene Hackman (Harry Moseby), Jennifer Warren (Paula), Edward Binns (Joey Ziegler), Harris Yulin (Marty Heller), Kenneth Mars (Nick), Janet Ward (Arlene Iverson), James Woods (Quentin), Anthony Costello (Marv Ellman), John Crawford (Tom Iverson), Melanie Griffith (Delly Grastner), Susan Clark (Ellen Moseby)

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The Seventies were an interesting time for film noir and private eye movies. Surprisingly, there were plenty of them — pictures like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975) and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975). They all seemed to drag the genres into a decade they seemed very much at odds with. By this time, both noir and PI movies had seen their conventions spoofed time and time again — and each director headed in a different direction.

But with the 70s a decade marked by cynicism, doesn’t it make sense that noir would emerge from the shadows?

In Penn’s case, with Night Moves, it looks like he decided to make his football-player-turned-detective (with a gorgeous 1967 Mustang), Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), every bit as messed up as the dysfunctional family he’s hired to help sort out. He turns out to be just as lost as the young girl (Melanie Griffith) he’s trying to track down. And that’s what sets this one apart — Moseby’s investigation and introspection get all twisted together before it’s over with. Alan Sharp’s wonderful script juggles this effortlessly.

Hackman’s really terrific in this. His Moseby is a burned out guy you somehow can’t help but care about, even as you question a number of the choices he makes along the way. This is one of Hackman’s better performances, and he isn’t lacking for great performances.

You hear a lot about this being Melanie Griffith’s first movie (and that she’s naked quite a bit), but it’s Jennifer Warren that stands out to me. Paula’s a long way from the femme fatale we’re used to, but just as dangerous. Warren also played Paul Newman’s wife Francine in Slap Shot (1977). She didn’t have a tremendous amount of screen time in that one, but she was really good.

In a lot of PI movies, the plot sort of meanders along, often a bit incoherently, towards a conclusion that tries to wrap up (almost) everything. Night Moves weaves its lost girl/murder plot and character study together seamlessly, waiting for just the right moment to do so. Arthur Penn really amazes me sometimes. This is one of those times.

Night Moves didn’t do well upon its original release. Something called Jaws opened about the same time. Maybe it was too downbeat, maybe it was just too good, to be successful. Feel good hit of the year it ain’t.

But there’s plenty to feel good about with the new Blu-Ray from Warner Archive. It’s splendid. Seventies movies have a look all their own, and that’s preserved here flawlessly. This one has the added benefit of having been photographed by the great Bruce Surtees (who shot a number of my favorite films, from Dirty Harry to The Shootist). The disc includes a trailer and a production short from back in the day.

It’s easy to recommend Night Moves. And for fans of the movie, I can’t imagine you not springing for this Blu-Ray.

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Filed under 1975, Arthur Penn, Bruce Surtees, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Gene Hackman, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

DVD News #147: Porky Pig 101.

This is the way I’ve been hoping they’d get around to these wonderful Warner Bros. cartoons — big fat sets in chronological order. And it makes sense that they’d get the ball rolling with Porky Pig, the first of their big “stars.” There will be 101 shorts on five discs, all unedited. Man, I can’t wait.

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Filed under Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.