"Anyone with slightest interest in this subject will be well rewarded for perusal of the 3D Film Archive, with lengthy stop at its House Of Wax exhibit."

John McElwee/Greenbriar Picture Shows – October 3, 2013


"Bob Furmanek's text contains more prime research than I've ever seen on the film."

Glenn Erickson/DVD Savant – September 28, 2013


"As always, Bob Furmanek’s 3-D website is the one-stop source for all relevant information about the original film, its impact at the time, and its “rebirth” under the watchful eye of Warners’ Vice President of Mastering, Ned Price."

Leonard Maltin – September 26, 2013


An In-Depth Look at HOUSE OF WAX

by Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz


The most successful 3-D film of the 1950s – and one of the greatest stereoscopic features of all time – has just

been restored from the original 35mm YCM separation masters.  The restoration is stunning and we’ve never

seen HOUSE OF WAX look this good before. But first, some background on this landmark 3-D production.


Arch Oboler’s independently produced
BWANA DEVIL had its world premiere in Hollywood on November 26, 1952 and set the box-office on fire. Following the phenomenal success of the first 3-D feature film in color, every studio in Hollywood quickly made plans to jump on the 3-D bandwagon.

Warner Bros. was first out of the gate to license the Natural Vision camera system used on BWANA DEVIL and announced production of their first 3-D film on December 27, 1952.

Acclaimed 3-D expert Dan Symmes wrote the following in 1982 for his book AMAZING 3-D:

"Jack L. Warner had been the first studio head to use sound and he wanted to lead the charge into 3-D. He had a director on the lot, Andre de Toth, who had knowledge of 3-D and was anxious to do a 3-D picture.

De Toth had been intrigued by 3-D since the early 1940s.  He wrote an article on the merits of the process for the Hollywood Reporter in 1946.  Reporters had a field day with the fact the de Toth only had one eye. According to Time magazine, when de Toth was confronted with this fact, he replied, “Beethoven couldn’t hear music either, could he?


The set design was simple and straightforward. The concept of the wax museum at the turn of the century was well suited to 3-D and was effectively laid out by the designers using a good deal of stage space. The wax figures were created by two Burbank artists, Katherine Cecilia Stubergh and her daughter, Katherine Marie.

Filming began on January 19, 1953 using the Natural Vision equipment and ended just twenty-eight days later at a final cost of only $680,000. Even Jack Warner was surprised by the speed and efficiency of the production. After hearing the news, he had a case of Jack Daniels delivered to de Toth’s door.

Price’s make-up for his after-the-fire-face took an average of three hours to apply and was hideously uncomfortable. The actor’s ears had to be twisted and bent, his nostrils twisted and flared, and his mouth filled with disfiguring dentures. The grim visage was the creation of George Bau, under contract to Warner’s and one of the most skillful makeup artists in Hollywood.

Photography began under the direction of Bert Glennon but after he became ill during the first week of shooting, the job was taken over by Peverell Marley, with help from Robert Burks, who went on to become Alfred Hitchcock’s key cameraman. Lothrop Worth, the camera operator and Natural Vision engineer, and Howard Schwartz, one of the Natural Vision camera assistants, also moved on to become directors of photography.

The music was composed by David Buttolph, with orchestration by Maurice de Packh. The score includes the particularly eerie “Phantom’s Theme,” which creeps in at odd times in the film, anticipating the horror about to unfold."





Exhibitors from around the country, totaling 4,600, arrived in Los Angeles on March 20 for a weekend of CinemaScope demonstrations at 20th Century Fox. Taking advantage of the visiting showmen, Jack Warner arranged three days of screenings for 653 exhibitors to see two reels from WAX and one reel of completed sequences from THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER. Praise was unanimous for the superb quality of the stereoscopic cinematography which showed a great deal of improvement over the 3-D previously seen in BWANA DEVIL.

The entire industry was talking about HOUSE OF WAX and American Cinematographer published an article discussing the unique technical challenges faced by the cinematographers.
 

 
 
 





 

The studios publicity department went to work on selling the film.  The pressbook featured many exploitation suggestions including an impressive full-color, die-cut seven-foot standee for theater lobbies. They even promoted a tie-in with the Fli-Back Co. to sell promotional paddleballs.

De Toth had utilized Reggie Rymal as the carnival barker as a way to bring the audience back into the movie following the intermission.  After this sequence, in a sly reference to the gimmick, Vincent Price states “Once we’re established, we won’t need that sort of thing.”




There was one piece of negative publicity just prior to the premiere. Actor Ned Young was stripped of his credit on the film as a result of his volatile appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In addition, beginning February 25, Columbia had rushed through production of MAN IN THE DARK in nineteen days and managed to have it open two days before the much-heralded HOUSE OF WAX premiere in New York City.  “The first 3-D feature motion picture produced by a major studio” didn’t hurt business for WAX one bit, although I imagine Jack Warner was not terribly thrilled with Harry Cohn.

The gala world premiere took place on April 10, 1953 at the magnificent 3,600-seat Paramount Theatre on Times Square.  All the stars from the film were in attendance, and the film proved to be a tremendous hit, playing forty days and bringing in $531,000 at the Paramount Theatre alone. 


Boosting ticket sales was the stage show headlined by RCA Victor recording artist Eddie Fisher, making his first appearance on stage after a tour of duty in Korea.  He performed such hits as "Any Time," "I'm Walking Behind You," "Wish You Were Here" and "Tell Me Why."  The bobbysoxers lined up for hours to see the popular crooner and filled the massive theatre for six shows a day.

There was some debate concerning the enormous appeal of this combination stage and screen show. RCA felt that Eddie Fisher was bringing in the crowds while Warner Bros. claimed that 3-D was the big ticket-selling attraction. 


Any debate as to the boxoffice appeal of WAX was settled one week later. On April 16 at midnight, Warner Bros. staged an elaborate “Premathon” in Los Angeles at the Paramount Theatre with twelve different premiere showings during a 24-hour period. Warner Bros. Vice-President Mort Blumenstock wrote an article for “New Screen Techniques” describing the enormously successful publicity campaign.

 
 
 
 


Los Angeles Premathon



Seven different stereo slides taken by the David White Co. were sent to theaters. (As cross-promotion, ads were placed showing the cast using a Realist camera.) However, the viewers could only handle one slide at a time so an arrangement was made to produce a View-Master reel which enabled people to view the seven scenes with one viewer. This tie-in proved very successful and special preview reels were later produced for twenty-eight other 3-D features.



WAX was the first feature to be heard in WarnerPhonic Stereo sound, a new four-channel process that utilized a full-coat 35mm magnetic track for the left, center and right speakers behind the screen and a mono optical track for the effects (surround) channel.  The 35mm full-coat audio was on a separate roll that was interlocked with the two projectors that ran the left/right 3-D images, and the effects track was on the right print of the feature. The left print contained a mono optical composite track of the entire four channels and served as an emergency audio back-up in case the dubber went out of sync with the picture.

It’s important to note that stereophonic sound was an important element in the original presentation of this film.  The New York Paramount installed twenty-five speakers throughout the huge auditorium. With fully directional sound and effects that emanated from the sides and rear of the auditorium (during the fire in the wax museum, for instance) it helped to immerse the viewer in the action, adding an important element to the superb realism of the three-dimensional photography.


The Hollywood Reporter noted: "The result has a kind of spellbinding effect on the audience, giving a feeling of realism to a completely unreal story as well as a sense of participation."

Variety recognized the potential and Abel wrote: "Technologically, perhaps the biggest plus is the stereophonic sound as projected from all sides into the now multi-horned Paramount Theatre. 

Tonight's invitation press preview, including practically every showman in town, was impressed by the switching of the sound as off-screen action called for directional screams and kindred sound effects.

Utilizing its own WarnerPhonic, the studio has made canny use of sound, which is a big credit to Charles Lang, although it is apparent where and how stereophonic sound in the future will play tremendous importance in major studios productions."

Jack Harrison of the Hollywood Reporter wrote: "The sound moved right across the screen with a walking player and definitely came from whichever side of the screen the actor was talking from. Sound effects heard from off-screen, heightened the dramatic effect. However, speech coming from persons off-screen addressing those on screen seemed a little strange in this instance. In any event, stereophonic sound, whether called WarnerPhonic or by some other name, is definitely here to stay regardless of the processes it is used with."

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was unimpressed. On April 11, he wrote: "The major causes for anxiety presented by this film are in the savagery of its conception and the intolerable artlessness of its sound. It is thrown and howled at the audience as though the only purpose was to overwhelm the naturally curious patron with an excess of brutal stimuli. And this is betrayed not only in the morbidity of many scenes but in the violence of the noises that are brayed from the theatre's screen and walls.


The intended effect of having sounds come from areas in which they would naturally develop in relation to the images on the screen—such as the voice of an actor out of the frame to the left coming from that side wall—is not only confusing but incongruous with the visual illusion of the screen. It is as though someone were speaking from a box or the stage wings, with no relation whatsoever to the images before the eyes. The mechanical distraction of it may wear off with time, if this sort of thing is repeated, but it is disturbing and almost comical now. Likewise, the noisy sound of footsteps clattering in the back of the theatre a moment after an actor has appeared to rush forward from the screen is completely illogical and unnerving. It sounds like a riot outside."

WarnerPhonic installations were not limited to the major cities. On April 20, Motion Picture Daily reported new installations at the Rialto in Joliet, Madison in Peoria and Midway in Rockford, IL; the Palace in South Bend, IN; the California in Stockton and Buena in Ventura, CA; the Kenosha, Bay in Green Bay, Rauli in Oshkosh and Majestic in Beloit, WI. 

On April 26, Motion Picture Daily wrote: "More than 500 theatres have contracted for installation of WarnerPhonic sound. Altec-Lansing Corp. has orders for equipment for 300 theatres, RCA has 150 and International Projector has orders from 232 theatres."

There had been earlier films heard in stereo in a few selected roadshow engagements, such as FANTASIA in 1940 and THIS IS CINERAMA in 1952. However, when HOUSE OF WAX opened in major cities throughout the world in 1953, it was the first time that most people had ever heard true stereophonic reproduction.

Subsequent WarnerPhonic releases were THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER, ISLAND IN THE SKY and BLOWING WILD. By the end of 1953, the interlock system was abandoned in favor of the new composite four channel magnetic stereo prints.

Sadly, this pioneering WarnerPhonic audio is lost today.  Many early magnetic tracks were erased and re-used, or allowed to deteriorate once the films theatrical life had run its course. The only surviving element of the original stereo mix on WAX is the mono effects channel. The stereo that you are hearing on the film today was newly created by Chace Audio from surviving dialogue, music and effect elements.

The New York Paramount was one of the few movie palaces in the country with four projectors and they were able to present WAX without an intermission. However, the projection was not always perfect. This brief comment was buried in the back pages of Billboard magazine. “The first day of 3-D pic, the camera (sic) broke down and caused a 45 minute lull.” It’s interesting to note that no mention of this opening day glitch was made in the trades but it illustrates the technical problems that plagued many early 3-D presentations.

Harrison’s Reports posted these comments from the Motion Picture Daily on the sloppy 3-D presentations. Although not specified, the writer was reporting on his experience with HOUSE OF WAX at one of the neighborhood RKO theaters in New York.

Important theaters near the studio were not immune to sync problems as well, including the Wiltern Theatre which is just seven miles from the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank.

“Here is a case however that concerns the public, which paid good money to see a 3-D picture. It happened at the Wiltern, a Hollywood theatre owned by the Stanley-Warner circuit, during the showing of "House of Wax." The two prints were out of synchronization by one frame for two days; the projectionist could not correct the trouble on the first day and continued showing the picture out of synchronism the second day. The result was that the eyes of the patrons were so strained that some of them suffered headaches while others became nauseated."

Despite less than optimum presentations, in city after city, WAX racked up huge grosses throughout the country. Its success was equaled in foreign markets as well and it played an incredible twenty-one week run at the 1,789-seat Warner Theatre in London. Jack Warner was elated and optimistically announced on May 28 that twenty-two additional 3-D features would soon go into production.

 

His optimism would not last. By mid-June, WAX was running out of 3-D equipped theatres and by September, 3-D movies were beginning to decline at the boxoffice.

For the complete story on the quick demise of 3-D movies, please see our article, “What Killed 3-D?”

However, WAX continued to receive successful bookings and by the end of the year - when the average ticket price was 49 cents - it had brought in an incredible domestic gross of 5.5 million dollars.  It became the top-grossing 3-D film of the 1950’s and by the end of 1954 was Variety’s 33rd highest-grossing film of all-time.



On November 16, 1971, WAX became the first 3-D film to play Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Blown up to 70mm, both images were printed on one-frame of film which eliminated synchronization problems. Business was excellent and 35mm reduction prints were booked in first-run theatres throughout the country. The new ads boldly proclaimed, “Can NEVER be shown on TV!”

Unfortunately, the 18-year old camera negatives were already fading which resulted in badly matched left/right images. To make matters worse, the picture was anamorphically squeezed which required a widescreen lens in order to correct the image distortion.  The combination of various lenses and polarizing filters resulted in a dim, mismatched image that was a far cry from the visuals that had thrilled audiences in 1953.  


Despite the problems, this re-issue was still vastly superior to the red/green anaglyph conversions of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON that were sent to theaters in 1972.  In fact, because of its success that year, WAX was given one more theatrical re-issue in polarized 3-D in 1981.

Restoring House of Wax


In 2012, Warner Bros. began an extensive restoration from the original 35mm elements. The following technical information will help you to fully understand the many challenges faced by the restoration team.

WarnerColor had been developed over a twelve year period under the supervision of Col. Nathan Levinson of the Warner Bros. sound department and Fred Gage, head of the studio's film laboratory. The new process was first seen in April 1952 on THE LION AND THE HORSE. (In a July 1 letter, Col. Levinson stated the process was “merely the use of Eastman color film stock...adapted to our techniques.") Shot on Kodak’s Eastman color tri-pack 5248 negative (25 ASA tungsten) it presented a low cost alternative to the elaborate three-strip Technicolor system.

For 3-D WarnerColor productions, fades and dissolves would be edited directly into the left/right camera negatives from cut to cut, thereby eliminating a visual jump in quality by suddenly appearing mid-scene. In other words, the intermediate footage lasts from the scene preceding to the scene immediately following the optical. Some of these shots can last well over one minute in duration.

According to "Hollywood's Conversion of all Production to Color" by John Waner, WarnerColor opticals were made by taking the 5248 camera negative, creating separation positives on 5216 and then going back to a composite color internegative on 5245, all via modified step-registration. Eastman, in their rush to release a tri-pack color element to the market, did so without first creating good intermediate stocks (including interpositive and color dupe negative) as well as high quality panchromatic high-contrast clear-base black and white stocks. Technicolor had solved this problem with opticals many years earlier, but they were not about to share their trade secrets with other laboratories. All WarnerColor films suffer from these problems, most notably A STAR IS BORN and GIANT.


In addition to color issues, occasional malfunction of either the left or right cameras during filming would necessitate duplication of the opposite element for insertion into the negative. The image would be slightly offset from the opposite side, creating a faux stereo window, but the scene is flat nonetheless. For those reasons, 3-D WarnerColor negatives contain a higher than average amount of dupe footage compared to other color films of that time. As an example, the original negatives of HONDO contain 2019 feet (22 minutes, 26 seconds) of intermediate stock. That’s nearly 1/4 of the film.  Not only are these sections several generations removed from the camera negative, they are also prone to more severe fading.

In conclusion, restoring a 3-D WarnerColor film is no easy task.

3-D IMAGE NOTES


The Warner Brothers 3-D Blu-ray will present the original left/right views as your 3DTV dictates, be that active or passive. Playing this disc in 3-D requires an HDMI 1.4 3-D Blu-ray player and HDMI 1.4 capable 3DTV or 3D projector. For the purposes of this on-line review, sample 3-D images will be provided in two different 3-D viewing options.

Right / Left "cross-eyed” view: For those who can cross their eyes and view stereoscopic images, this method offers glasses-free, ghost free, light loss free 3-D viewing.

Black and white anaglyph: This provides a 3-D image that highlights alignment and convergence, as well as some aspects of the left/ right panel matching and timing. It can also be easily viewed in 3-D for those who have red/cyan glasses. The red lens goes over the left eye.


As a reminder, the original 1953 3-D presentation was in polarized 3-D. The 3-D Blu-ray is NOT presented in anaglyphic 3-D.  These images are provided ONLY for convenient 3-D web viewing.

HOUSE OF WAX is considered by many to be one of the most, if not the most popular title of the 1950's "Golden Age" era of 3-D films. And for good reason, as the stereoscopic photography was closely monitored by Milton Gunzberg (co-owner of the Natural Vision 3-D camera rig and process) along with stereoscopic consultant Lothrop Worth, who would continue to work on additional stereoscopic productions in 1953 and 1954.

Gunzberg and Worth's influence on the 3-D photography in WAX clearly shows on screen. 3-D misalignment is infrequent, and even when present, was very minor in the original dual strip prints. Stereoscopic convergence is spot on 99% of the time.  

For a good example of the care that went into the stereoscopic cinematography - with your 3-D glasses off and the disc playing in 3-D - go to the start of the feature and watch as Roy Roberts walks through the wax museum and stereoscopic z-space as he approaches Vincent Price. The stereoscopic convergence was pulled to track him perfectly which was easier said than done in 1953.

The staging and sets took full advantage of the process, including the rarely used technique of having it appear (when viewed on a large theatre screen) as if Charles Bronson has literally stood up in front of you and jumped "into" the screen.

The care put into the cinematography was complimented with Director de Toth at the helm. He brought an ominous pacing to the film which aided in this effective retelling of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.  With de Toth having monocular vision, he was able to focus solely on telling a quality story while Gunzberg and Worth handled the 3-D aspect of the feature. To no surprise, HOUSE OF WAX became the gold standard for what was considered a "quality photographed” 3-D motion picture.



Jumping ahead sixty years, Warner Brothers has put a considerable amount of work into making this a first class 3-D Blu-ray presentation. This task has not been an easy one, given the original camera negative was ruined many years ago by water damage. Not to be thwarted, Ned Price and his team at the Motion Picture Imaging facility opted to return to original separation elements. For a dual-strip 35mm 3-D feature, this meant doing six 4K scans which were then realigned and recombined to make new left/right elements.

With these factors in mind and the already known issues with WarnerColor, WAX will certainly not look like it was shot yesterday. However, we have seen various versions of this feature in 3-D, including a dual-strip 35mm film restoration made ten years ago which was considered at that time to be the best the film had ever looked. This new restoration easily puts all previous versions to shame.

The left and right elements are fully matched timing wise throughout for the first time ever. We are seeing detail that was previously missing, but again due to source limitations, those with larger projection systems may see occasional softer sections. Some of these issues also stem from original WarnerColor opticals. Thanks to those six separation elements, the color gamut has been restored as well. WAX is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

Since Day One, HOUSE OF WAX has had a few shots with stereoscopic misalignment which was far less than other 3-D titles from that period. The 3-D Blu-ray appears to still have most of those misalignments which is regrettable as they could have been corrected. On the upside, these occasional alignment issues found in the original presentation are all VERY minimal and should not be of concern nor should they cause any overt eyestrain.

For the first time since 1953, Warner Brothers has used the original "10 minute" intermission card, compared to the slightly more generic 3-D intermission card that was used on later dual-strip prints and home video.

If you see any instances of ghosting/crosstalk on your display, please note this is NOT an issue with the original photography, restoration, or 3-D Blu-ray authoring. Vintage stereoscopic movies have a much wider - and more natural - parallax, compared to most modern 3-D films which will exhibit fewer ghosting artifacts as a result of minimized depth. Many of the current active display LCD and LED 3DTVs do not meet cinema L/R cancellation levels and as a result, may exhibit "ghosting" with certain more demanding 3-D scenes.  Passive polarized displays usually are closer or equal to having cinema grade cancellation levels, while DLP active display devices typically exceed 3-D cinema cancellation specs and are considered essentially ghost-free.


For the audio, Warner Bros. has utilized the previous Chace 2.0 Lt/Rt stereo remix, which has a gentle spread over the three front channels. Of interest here is the matrix encoded surround track. Chace was able to use the surviving WarnerPhonic "effects" track given that it still exists in optical form. While the original and highly directional three front channels appear to be lost forever, the remaining effects track provides us with an aural glimpse at how aggressive that mix was. Chairs, screams, various effects and music can all be heard emanating distinctly from the surrounds at times, often times with a startling effect.

While we would have preferred to hear the original surround/effects track as a discrete channel vs. being used in a matrix encoding, the 1953 surround channel is still a treat. The remix of the front channels made from existing elements is tastefully done with the fronts having some subtle dialog directionality that is more distinguishable on widely spaced front speaker layouts. Unlike the low bitrate 192kb/s Dolby Digital track used on the previous 2-D DVD, the 3-D Blu-ray now offers this remix in lossless DTS-MA 2.0 surround.




SUMMARY

It is very evident that a great deal of time and money has been spent in order to fully restore this landmark motion picture.

The 3-D Film Archive highly recommends HOUSE OF WAX, in terms of both a quality 3-D Blu-ray presentation and its iconic status in stereoscopic film history.


 


Please visit this page for An Interview with Ned Price,
Warner Bros. Vice President of Mastering.


Photo Gallery

 



The standee was very popular and Warner Bros. created a more elaborate one for their next horror film.


     
Original make-up test images from George Bau, courtesy of Bob Burns.





The late Dan Symmes, aka Mr. 3-D, with the original wax head prop of Charles Buchinsky.
Jack Theakston, Greg Kintz and Bob Furmanek with the only surviving Natural Vision rig.
Originally owned by Dan Symmes, it has been saved and restored by Eric Kurland.


Bob Furmanek is an award-winning producer, writer and motion picture archivist/historian
He is available for research and consultation work with respect to 3-D and aspect ratio information.

Contact Bob at: