Mystery of the Wax Museum, Restored: Q&A with Scott MacQueen

Jennifer Rhee

4/21/2020 11:00:00 AM

Lionel Atwill in Mystery of the Wax Museum

Released at the tail end of the 1930s horror craze, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) delivered chills with its macabre plot (thought “too ghastly for comfort” and “unhealthy” by one New York Times critic) and effective use of the surreal two-color Technicolor palette, which was soon phased out for the more realistic three-color process. The Warner Bros. film reunited legendary director Michael Curtiz with his Doctor X (1932) cinematographer Ray Rennahan, a master in the art and technique of early color film, and actors Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Now a classic, Wax Museum was believed to be lost for decades until an original nitrate print was located in the collection of studio mogul Jack Warner. In 2019, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation undertook a new restoration with funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation, combining and repairing the best surviving 35mm elements. This restored version will be released on Blu-ray/DVD by the Warner Archive Collection in May.

In this interview, the Archive's Head of Preservation Scott MacQueen discusses the film's production history and recent restoration. He also provides in-depth audio commentary as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray/DVD.

What’s your personal connection to this movie?

It’s a film that’s fascinated me since I was a youngster. I had seen the remake House of Wax (1953) on late-night TV so I knew the story and thought, “There’s an earlier version? And it was in color in the 1930s? And the girl from King Kong is in it? Wow, I want to see this.” And then I heard it was lost. So it was always in the back of my mind, as it was for many of my generation who started to embrace old movies growing up. I got a paper route in the late-'60s on my little country road in New York and actress Glenda Farrell was one of my customers. I knew her only as Mrs. Ross, “The Movie Star Who Lived Up the Road.” I began doing film research and discovered that she was in Wax Museum, so I cold-called her one morning and she gave me a phone interview. I was an old man of 13.

Glenda Farrell

What were the source materials for this restoration?

We used a 1933 nitrate print that was discovered around 1969 in Jack Warner’s vault at Warner Bros. A second nitrate copy was found in the 2000s by a collector and is now in the Packard Humanities Institute collection. It’s a French work print of some kind for subtitling—some reels with English sound, some reels with no sound, most reels with French subtitles. There were places where it was undamaged and had additional frames compared to the Jack Warner print. We probably picked up half a dozen shots from it, though it had inferior color. We were able to electronically grade it to match the Warner print. We were also able to get lost frames back, including a line of Glenda Farrell’s: “I asked you to keep your trap shut!” The Warner print has a splice there. We had to borrow Miss Farrell’s words from her 1932 movie Life Begins to fill in the missing dialogue.

French work print used in the restoration

What was the restoration process?

The two nitrate prints were scanned at 4K resolution at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging. We partnered with Roundabout Entertainment on the picture clean-up and grading; they digitally cleaned the damage and made major repairs and full color correction, as dye transfer prints frequently don’t match across reels. It was clear that the Jack Warner print had been cobbled together from a variety of prints with different color balances. The restored color is more consistent than the original print. We worked with Audio Mechanics to restore the sound, removing any noise and adding the missing words. It has a clarity now we’ve never experienced, quiet without sounding processed. Subtleties that have been forever masked, like the heavy breathing of the morgue monster, are heard for the first time. We now hear the subtle sound of a museum employee slipping a dagger into the chest of the wax figure of Marat. These sounds would have been barely audible in 1933, when a typical theatrical speaker reproduced little higher than 8000 Hertz. Even an obvious effect, like the sudden twang of a barrel organ being set in an exhibit, is so clear and dynamic that it finally achieves its original purpose of making the audience jump.

Before and after the restoration

What was two-color Technicolor film in the early 1930s and what happens to it over time?

Technicolor patented a camera that allowed two exposures to be shot on one piece of film through a prism that split the light through two apertures and used two filters—red and green. From one negative they optically separated the frames into two “matrix” positive films, inked them up, one red and one green, and transferred the dyes onto a blank film that had the soundtrack pre-printed on it. They were like lithographic printing plates. They’re relatively stable dyes. The colors in the original 1933 nitrate print have held very well, for 90 almost years, because they are not organic dyes like Eastmancolor film.


How did Wax Museum cinematographer Ray Rennahan pioneer the use of color in film?

Rennahan was the first Technicolor cameraman. He was with the company from the very beginning in 1915 and worked exclusively with them into the 1930s. He did all their tests, was there all through the evolution of the process, and was probably the greatest cinematic color expert at the time. On Wax Museum he experimented heavily with what he called “projected color,” which is filtered color light. He used it to add an ominous green to the horror aspects, mixing it with white light on the principal actors so they could move through a spooky world, and red-orange for danger. In interviews, Rennahan said he was proudest of his work in Doctor X and Wax Museum. In 1970 when he saw the earliest attempt to restore Wax Museum with the basic tools of the day, he was so dismayed that he walked out of the theater. The art and craft of restoration has come a long way in 50 years. I think Rennahan would be proud of the way it looks now.


Is it true they used actors in place of wax figures because of the extremely hot lights?

That’s partly true. They also wanted some of the actors to really look like their wax counterparts. Variety reported a month before production that Warner Bros. was advertising for vaudeville performers who were good at holding poses, so it was clearly intended that some of the figures would be portrayed by humans. But there’s no question that statues did melt. In fact, there’s a story about Michael Curtiz shooting all through the night when a couple of wax figures began to fall over at 3 in the morning. The actors were also falling down. Curtiz finally sent everyone home when the drooping wax figures hit the floor. Both film stars Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell talked to me about that, it was just awful. He would keep on shooting, and then finally one of the wax heads would just fall off. He’d say, “That’s it, go home.”


Watch before-and-after clips of the restoration (please note there is no sound):



DODSWORTH Blu-ray Release

David Krauss

4/7/2020 9:00:00 AM

An incisive examination of a disintegrating marriage and a top-flight production from beginning to end, Dodsworth stands as one of the best films of the 1930s. Director William Wyler's literate, absorbing adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's acclaimed novel paints a host of vivid character portraits while telling a timeless tale that addresses relatable themes. Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor all contribute memorable performances, and a stunning restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and The Film Foundation distinguishes Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation, which comes very highly recommended.

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

4.5 Stars out of 5

Though they battled and bickered and butted heads for a decade, producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler forged one of the most fruitful creative partnerships in Hollywood history. This dynamic duo collaborated on seven prestigious films between 1936 and 1946, beginning with These Three (a code-friendly version of Lillian Hellman's controversial play The Children's Hour) and culminating with the Oscar-winning World War II homecoming classic The Best Years of Our Lives. In between, they mounted such unforgettable dramas as Dead EndWuthering HeightsThe Little Foxes, and a potent adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's acclaimed novel Dodsworth.

Far from flashy, yet packed with relatable themes and insightful observations about marriage, society, and aging, Dodsworth often flies under the radar in discussions of top Golden Age films. Maybe the story's focus on middle-aged characters awash in personal turmoil limits its appeal, but once you dive into this absorbing drama, you'll see why it stands out among its cinematic peers. More substantive and nuanced than most 1930s films, Dodsworth also boasts impeccable direction and performances, a literate script, and elegant production values, all of which help make it one of era's most enduring motion pictures.

As the movie opens, Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) wistfully bids farewell to a successful career as an automobile magnate. A lucrative merger sends him into retirement, and to kick off his new life of leisure, he and his wife of 25 years, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), embark on a lengthy European tour. The couple hails from Ohio, so hobnobbing among the snooty, cosmopolitan elite on their transatlantic cruise makes them feel a bit like fish out of water. Fran, though, quickly adapts and embraces the high-toned, frivolous lifestyle, flitting from party to party and flirting with an array of wealthy lotharios. Sam indulges her, but prefers the quieter pursuits of typical tourists. Soon, friction creeps into the Dodsworth marriage, and after a month in Paris, that friction becomes a rift.

The harder Sam tries to reel Fran back in, the more stridently she strays. Though she seems committed to her marriage in the long run, Fran wants one last fling while she's still young enough to enjoy it. "You're rushing at old age, Sam, and I'm not ready for that yet!" she snaps. Her fear of getting older and losing her looks makes her especially vulnerable to the attentions of dashing suitors who may or may not have honorable intentions. As he and Fran drift further apart, an increasingly lonely and melancholic Sam reconnects with Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), a free-spirited American expatriate living in Italy, and discovers just how different two women can be.

Most 1930s romances chronicle gooey young love or illicit affairs, but Dodsworth begins long after those movies end, making it instantly unique. Much like last year's Marriage Story, it paints a brutal portrait of a couple in crisis, and how their diverging interests, differing goals, and evolving personalities reveal problems in their relationship that most likely existed all along. Sam and Fran's 25-year union may seem road-tested and able to weather any potential storm, but due to his obsession with work and her domestic duties, they've never really spent much time together. Once they embark on their European odyssey, their respective personal journeys begin as well, and it's not long before both Sam and Fran begin to realize how little they have in common.

Drama transpired behind the scenes as well. Chatterton, who was nearing the end of a brief yet successful film career and ironically grappling with the same fear of waning youth as Fran, fought bitterly with Wyler over the interpretation of her role. She wanted to play Fran as an unadulterated bitch, while he demanded a more dimensional portrayal. Wyler prevailed, of course, and Chatterton's performance is much the better as a result. Though she deserved an Oscar nomination, sadly, she was snubbed.

Astor faced even more difficulties. Embroiled in a bitter child custody battle with her ex-husband, who threatened to expose her secret diary that supposedly contained explicit details of an extramarital affair with playwright George S. Kaufman, the actress toiled on the Dodsworth set during the day, then went directly to specially scheduled court proceedings in the early evening. The scandal was front-page news all over the nation for weeks, yet Astor never cracked under the pressure. Her relaxed, disarmingly natural performance is a tribute to her mettle and professionalism, and the part of Edith Cortright just might have saved her career. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor writes, "The character I played was a charming and gracious woman; the public could not match her with the luridly immoral woman the tabloids had painted."

Huston had played Sam Dodsworth on Broadway to great acclaim a couple of years earlier, and his film portrayal earned similar plaudits. The New York Film Critics Circle named him the year's Best Actor, and he nabbed an Oscar nod as well. Gruff yet tender, rigid yet indulgent, and always bound by a warped sense of duty, his Dodsworth is a fascinating, flawed, utterly human figure, and Huston - one of America's finest actors - brings him brilliantly to life.

Huston, Chatterton, and Astor, though, form only the tip of the cast  iceberg. Paul Lukas, a young David Niven, Spring Byington, and Miracle on 34th Street's John Payne (billed here as John Howard Payne) in his film debut also contribute strong work. And then there's the always mesmerizing Maria Ouspenskaya, who received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in her first American film for her all-too-brief appearance as a dour and intimidating Austrian baroness who makes mincemeat of Fran. (In all, Dodsworth garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, and took home the prize for Best Art Direction.)

Dodsworth was a rarity in its day - a perceptive, sophisticated, and refreshingly adult film that didn't cow tow to Hollywood conventions. It may be a period piece today, but its themes remain relatable and its tone still feels contemporary 84 years after its initial release. Some things change, but marriage doesn't, and this timeless take on the imperfect institution continues to strike a chord, a nerve, and the fancy of discriminating movie fans.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray

Dodsworth arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

5 Stars out of 5

Dodsworth was lovingly restored last year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive and The Film Foundation, in association with the Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Family Trust. Restoration funding was provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. From the opening frames to the closing credits, exceptional clarity, pitch-perfect contrast, and a beautifully varied grayscale distinguish this glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, which makes this 84-year-old film look almost brand new. Grain is seamlessly resolved, producing a wonderfully film-like, vibrant image punctuated by rich blacks, bright whites, and terrific shadow delineation. All the details of the ornate sets (the film received a well-deserved Oscar for its art direction) are crisp, costume textures are distinct, and sharp close-ups highlight fine facial features well. Best of all, the source material is free of any nicks, marks, or scratches. Dodsworth has never looked better, and few films of the period have made a more stunning transition to Blu-ray than this underrated classic. 

Audio Review

4 Stars out of 5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track also has been restored, and the results are quite good. Any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been meticulously erased, leaving a clean track that outputs well-modulated, full-bodied sound. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Alfred Newman's omnipresent score without a hint of distortion, but occasionally the music slightly obscures the dialogue, especially when Ruth Chatterton speaks. Her high-pitched voice often gets lost among the strings, rendering some of her lines indecipherable. A couple of palpable bass bursts lend the audio some welcome heft, and subtle atmospherics come through nicely, too. Despite the minor dialogue annoyance, this vintage track greatly exceeds expectations and enhances the enjoyment of this absorbing drama.

Special Features

1 Stars out of 5

The only supplement is a 60-minute radio adaptation of Dodsworth that aired as part of the popular Lux Radio Theater series on April 12, 1937. Walter Huston reprises his title role, with his wife Nan Sunderland taking over for Ruth Chatterton and Barbara O'Neil, best known for her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone with the Wind, assuming Mary Astor's role. Though the truncated plot shortens and omits various sequences, the story translates well to the audio medium, and all the performances are stellar. The broadcast is hosted by director Cecil B. DeMille and includes all the vintage commercials for Lux beauty products, as well as some scripted banter with the stars following the story's conclusion.

Final Thoughts

Dodsworth may not enjoy the same degree of renown as some Golden Age classics, but it remains one of the most adult, literate, and substantive films of the 1930s. Despite its age, director William Wyler's brilliant adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's novel tells an eminently relatable story that makes cogent observations about marriage, aging, and class. Terrific performances from Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor distinguish this absorbing drama, while a truly stunning restoration brings this timeless tale and Best Picture nominee to life like never before. Dodsworth is a great film, and Warner Archive's Blu-ray release comes very highly recommended.


Message from TFF

3/16/2020 12:00:00 AM

In light of the current health & safety recommendations surrounding COVID 19, most of our festival, archive, and repertory theatre partners have suspended their screening programs. The Film Foundation will share updates as they become available, and wishes everyone well during these challenging times.


HKIFF to celebrate The Film Foundation’s 30th anniversary with six rare cinematic gems

2/7/2020 12:00:00 AM

The Hong Kong International Film Festival Society will celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Film Foundation by showcasing new restorations of six rarely-seen film classics in this year’s festival. 

Established in 1990 by Martin SCORSESE and other leading filmmakers, The Film Foundation is dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history.  By working in partnership with archives and studios, the foundation has helped to restore over 850 films – including 40 films from 24 different countries through its renowned World Cinema Project – which are made accessible to the public through festivals, museums, and educational institutions around the world.  The foundation's free educational curriculum, The Story of Movies, teaches young people - over 10 million to date - about film language and history.

“It is an honor to partner with The Film Foundation on the occasion of its 30th anniversary in bringing some of its most important works to the Hong Kong audiences,” enthused HKIFF Director of Programming Geoffrey WONG. 

“The six hidden gems in this special tribute, ranging from silent classics, Hollywood Western comedy, to Mexican and Brazilian neo-social realism, have all been restored to their full glory with The Film Foundation’s support.  They also highlight the foundation’s mission in championing film heritage and rich diversity in world cinema.”

“I’m thrilled that such an exciting selection of restorations supported by The Film Foundation are screening at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. These six titles represent the diverse range of films the foundation has helped restore over the past three decades. Spanning every era, genre, and region, the hundreds of films restored show the rich history of cinema and the universality of the art of film. From Pixote and Los Olvidados to Rosita and The Broken Butterfly, all are rare works created by master filmmakers. This year in particular, during our 30th anniversary, we’re thrilled to partner with the Hong Kong International Film Festival and thank them for their devotion to film culture and commitment to the foundation’s work,” said Martin SCORSESE, the founder and chair of The Film Foundation. 

The most-anticipated work in the programme is The Broken Butterfly (1919), pioneering French director Maurice TOURNEUR’s silent American classic, which the public has not seen for a century.  This poignant romance amply demonstrates why TOURNEUR’s mastery of stylized lighting, set design and atmosphere had left such a lasting influence on the Hollywood screen.

Invited to work in Hollywood by the legendary Mary PICKFORD, German maestro Ernst LUBITSCH created a signature cinematic style – known as the Lubitsch Touch, and his first American production, Rosita (1923), is often hailed as one of the most beautifully made silent films.  Priming his iconic western with slapstick, wisecracks, and action in Destry Rides Again (1939), Hollywood veteran George MARSHALL subverted the genre in an amusing gender role reversal, anchored by flawless performances by James STEWART and Marlene DIETRICH.               

Regarded as a masterpiece of Latin American cinema, Los Olvidados (1950) earned Spanish master Luis BUÑUEL a Best Director kudo at Cannes for his raw and ruthless vision of juvenile crime in a Mexico City slum, steadfast in its realism, yet operatic in its tragedy with flourishes of surreal, transcendental insight in a stunning dream sequence.   The film inspired Hector BABENCO whose Pixote (1980) similarly shows the unbearably harsh lives of abandoned children in Sao Paulo in realistic yet shockingly lyrical images that express the texture of everyday brutality.   

American director Nietzchka KEENE drew her inspiration from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and transformed it into The Juniper Tree (1990), an ethereal psychological horror film shot against the backdrop of Iceland’s stunning landscape and starring Björk in her enchanting film debut. 

WONG said the collaboration between HKIFFS and The Film Foundation would continue beyond this year’s festival.  “In addition to this special anniversary tribute, classics from The Film Foundation will regularly feature in our upcoming Cine Fan programmes,” he said. 

The Hong Kong International Film Festival, now in its 44th edition, will be held from 24 March to 6 April.  The public can purchase tickets online ( and through all URBTIX and HK Ticketing outlets starting from 13 March 2020.

Six classics from The Film Foundation:

1. The Broken Butterfly (1919)
Restored in 2019 by The Film Foundation at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in association with La Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé. Restoration funding provided by Louis XIII Cognac.

2. Rosita (1923)
Restored by The Museum of Modern Art. Restoration funding provided by the Louis B. Mayer Foundation, RT Features, The Film Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Preservation Fund.

3. Destry Rides Again (1939)
Restored by Universal Pictures in collaboration with The Film Foundation. Special thanks to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg for their consultation on this restoration.

4. Los Olvidados (1950)
Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project at L’Immagine Ritrovata in collaboration with Fundación Televisa, Televisa, Cineteca Nacional Mexico, and Filmoteca de la UNAM. Restoration funding provided by The Material World Foundation.

5. Pixote (1980)
Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata in association with HB Filmes, Cinemateca Brasileira, and JLS Facilitações Sonoras. Restoration funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation.

6. The Juniper Tree (1990)
Restored by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation.



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