This past Saturday we screened ‘House Of Wax’ (1953) at the Directors Guild theater on West 57th street. I did the historical context intro and briefly discussed (i.e. jammed through) a mini-history of 3-D filmmaking. Some often cite ‘House Of Wax’ as the first 3-D movie released at the dawn of Hollywood’s brief but mad flirtation with that fad but it wasn’t. That distinction would belong to Arch Oboler’s ‘Bwana Devil’, a big-game hunting movie with lots of scary lions getting shot that I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t want to see now, even in (or perhaps especially in) in 3-D.
‘House Of Wax’ was directed by Andre De Toth who was married for a time to Veronica Lake and apparently fathered nineteen children (by different women of course) over the course of his long life. More importantly, he was a fine filmmaker who usually worked in the Western and Noir genres. Even more importantly he only had sight in one eye. Since 3-D requires vision in both eyes so as to allow the optical illusion that results in the marriage of the two separate images to work, this means De Toth never saw his film in 3-D. So why was he hired? Some posited that it was a dark, not very funny practical joke of Jack Warner’s. Having just watched the movie, though, I’ll posit that he was hired because he was one hell of a good director who made the material really go. The 3-D effects are fun but not overwhelming and Warner and the films producer (and longtime inside-man) Bryan Foy may have correctly deduced that hiring a director whose only interest was in the script, acting and pacing and who would leave the visual effects to another team was bound to result in a better and less gimmick-ridden picture. They were right. ‘House Of Wax’ screened wonderfully well the other day. Above I’ve posted a very amusing Warner-Pathe newsreel of the Hollywood premiere of the movie. Jack Warner is there of course–he’s the guy with the mustache who looks like a Mississippi riverboat gambler–as are Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Danny Thomas, Shelly Winters etc. There are a few strange moments–Bela Lugosi arrives with a gorilla which is actually the actor Steve Calvert in a gorilla suit and departs embarrassed moments later. (They both must have needed the money. Perhaps they owed Jack Warner for a card game gone awry?) You’ll also see a bunch of sailor’s in their navy whites and a man inexplicably shaving his face. You’ll see a lot of things, yes. But one thing you won’t see is Andre De Toth. Why wasn’t the director at the premiere of his own movie? Perhaps he was already on location with his new movie–De Toth appears to have directed half-a-dozen movies in the 1952/53 range. Or perhaps it’s something else–a rivalry perhaps as to whose movie this actually was. Warner apparently was delighted with the finished product and might well have not wanted the director around to share in the glory. Anyway, De Toth’s achievement remains securely his these many years later. If, as the saying goes, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, then in the land of Warner Brothers the one-eyed man was the director of a smash-hit 3-D picture.