13 Thrilling Facts About House Of Wax

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

A remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, André de Toth’s House of Wax solidified the 3D movie craze of the 1950s. In the process it also walloped the box office and turned Vincent Price into a horror movie icon. On the 65th anniversary of the movie's release, join us on a tour of the legendary House of Wax; keep your hands off the mannequins, though—you might not want to know what lies beneath.

1. IT WAS ONLY THE SECOND 3D MOVIE TO BE RELEASED BY A MAJOR STUDIO.

Three-dimensional cinema is older than you might think. The first feature film to use this technology was the silent drama Power of Love, which dates all the way back to 1922. Yet audiences didn’t truly embrace this innovation until some 30 years later with the release of Bwana Devil—a Technicolor thriller about man-eating lions. Produced independently, Bwana Devil ballooned into a surprise smash, grossing more than $1.3 million in its first month in just 30 theaters. This really caught Hollywood’s attention. At a time when cinemas had to compete with television, 3D looked like the next big thing, a spectacle that could draw viewers out of their living rooms and into the nearest movie house. The industry’s biggest players rushed to cash in. On April 8, 1953, Columbia Pictures’ Man in the Dark premiered, making it the first 3D movie ever released by a major studio. House of Wax, a Warner Bros. film, opened just two days later.

2. IRONICALLY, THE DIRECTOR LACKED DEPTH PERCEPTION.

As a child, André de Toth lost his left eye in an accident. Hence, the native Hungarian often wore an eyepatch. Rumor has it that WB president Jack Warner ordered de Toth not to wear the accessory on the set of House of Wax, lest anyone ridicule the studio for giving a 3D project to a one-eyed filmmaker. However, leading lady Phyllis Kirk cast some doubt on this story. “He may have [gone without his patch], but I don’t remember it,” she said later in an interview. But by all accounts, de Toth was undaunted by the challenging job; once, he rhetorically asked a reporter, “Beethoven couldn’t hear music either, could he?”

Far from being a setback, de Toth’s limited sight may have actively improved the finished product. Vincent Price himself thought as much. According to his daughter, Victoria Price, “Vincent felt that House of Wax was saved from being unrelieved schlock by the faulty vision of its director … Since the 3D effect was lost on him, de Toth never really understood what the fuss was about, and limited his use of the gimmick rather than shamelessly indulging it the way a man with normal eyesight might have done. It was de Toth’s relative restraint, he believed, that turned House of Wax into a classic.”

3. VINCENT PRICE’S MAKEUP LOOKED SO GROTESQUE THAT HE WASN’T ALLOWED TO ENTER CERTAIN BUILDINGS WHILE WEARING IT.

In the movie, Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a wax sculptor whose museum and beloved figurines are torched by a greedy businessman (more on that later). Jarrod survives, but his face is horribly disfigured. Since the film was to be shot in both Technicolor and 3D, great pains were taken to ensure that Price’s makeup looked as convincing as possible. The result was a patchwork of hideous burns that shocked audiences—and nauseated a lot of Warner Bros. employees. “I was banished from the studio commissary,” Price later recalled. “This cold shoulder treatment started when I walked [in there] for lunch for the first time and the girl at the register turned green and almost fainted. Then the patrons got up and headed for the door. It was a bad day for business.”

4. IGOR WAS PLAYED BY A YOUNG CHARLES BRONSON.

Charles Bronson in 'House of Wax' (1953)
Warner Home Video

Like Dr. Frankenstein, Professor Jarrod has a henchman named Igor—albeit, one that suffers from mutism instead of back problems. The role was given to Charles Buchinsky, who’d later emerge as one of Hollywood’s favorite tough guys in movies like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Worried that an eastern European last name might cost him a lot of work during the second Red Scare, Buchinsky rechristened himself as “Charles Bronson“ in 1954.

5. ONE ACTOR’S APPEARANCE WENT UNCREDITED BECAUSE HE’D BEEN BLACKLISTED.

Buchinsky/Bronson had it easy; changing his last name was nothing compared to what Nedrick Young went through as a result of Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. In early 1953, Young portrayed Leon (Jarrod’s other assistant) in House of Wax. Then, before the movie opened, he had to square off against a very different house: Accused of being a Marxist sympathizer, Young was questioned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. By his own admission, the actor was “a very unfriendly witness.” When asked outright if he was a communist, Young pled the fifth—and was blacklisted. Thanks to the controversy, his name was stricken from the credits in House of Wax.

6. PHYLLIS KIRK TRIED TO TURN THE MOVIE DOWN.

Since she was under contract with Warner Bros., Kirk had no choice but to appear in this picture when the studio cast her as Sue Allen, one of the leads. That didn’t stop her from complaining about the gig. “I bitched and moaned and … [said] that I wasn’t interested in becoming the Fay Wray of my time,” Kirk confessed. Another bone of contention was the 3D format, which she regarded as a “gimmick.” But despite these reservations, Kirk decided that playing ball would be preferable to getting suspended. “And incidentally, I went on to have a lot of fun making House of Wax,” she admitted.

7. THE FIRE IN THE OPENING SCENE SPREAD WILDLY OUT OF CONTROL.

It must have been easy for Price to act alarmed in the sequence in which his museum burns down. Right before the shoot, de Toth’s crew set three “spot fires” in strategic locations. Then the cameras started rolling and everything went downhill. The team quickly lost control of their fires, which merged into a massive inferno that put a hole in the sound stage roof and singed Price’s eyebrows. But because the rapidly melting wax mannequins would’ve been very hard to replace, de Toth kept on filming—even as firemen arrived to help extinguish the flames.

8. IT COMES WITH AN INTERMISSION.

Prior to the late 1970s, “epic” films would often treat their viewers to a built-in bathroom break. Midway through screenings of Gone With the Wind and other, extra-long classics, the action would pause, the theater lights would brighten, and the word “Intermission” would appear onscreen. Ordinarily, this practice was reserved for movies with bladder-testing runtimes of two and a half hours or more. By comparison, House of Wax flies by with its breezy 88-minute runtime. Yet, unconventionally for a short picture, it contains an intermission. Why? Screening the 3D film required two projectors running simultaneously. The respite was necessary because it allowed theater employees to change both reels an hour into the movie.

9. A FUNCTIONING GUILLOTINE WAS USED IN THE CLIMAX.

Toward the end of the film, Igor gets into a big fight with Sue’s boyfriend, Scott, played by Paul Picerni. From the get-go, there’s no doubt about which one has the upper hand, as Igor seizes poor Scott and shoves his head under a guillotine in the museum’s French Revolution display. Luckily, the police arrive in time to rescue our hero, pulling him out of harm’s way seconds before the blade comes crashing down.

Just like his character, Picerni came dangerously close to getting his head chopped off, Louis XVI-style—because this guillotine was 100 percent real. Rather than film the scene in segments, de Toth wanted to shoot the whole thing in one take. With blithe nonchalance, he told Picerni to go and stick his head under the razor-sharp blade of this death device.

Naturally, Picerni objected. At a 2006 House of Wax Q&A, the star reminisced at length about the argument that followed. “I asked de Toth, ‘How are you going to control the blade?’ He said the property master was going to sit on top of the guillotine, holding the blade between his legs, then let it drop after my head was removed.” When the actor opined that this sounded dangerous, de Toth replied, “What are you, chicken sh*t?” In the end, Picerni agreed to do the scene in one take, on the condition that a metal bar be inserted under the blade to keep it from falling prematurely.

10. THE FILM WAS COMPLETED WAY AHEAD OF SCHEDULE.

House of Wax was given a $1.5 million budget and 60-day shooting schedule. De Toth finished it in only 28 days for a meager $650,000. Blown away by this efficiency, Jack Warner sent him a case of whiskey as a “thank you.”

11. BELA LUGOSI ATTENDED THE PREMIERE—ALONG WITH A GUY IN A GORILLA SUIT.

Although the star of Universal’s Dracula (1931) did not appear in House of Wax, he did help promote it. The film’s world premiere was held at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles on April 16, 1953. As a publicity stunt, Lugosi was invited to attend the big event. Clad in a vampire cape, he emerged from his limousine with a chain link leash, which was attached to an actor in an ape costume—a clear homage to the 1952 comedy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

12. IT MADE BOX OFFICE HISTORY.

House of Wax turned into one of the biggest hits of 1953 and 1954. In an era where movie tickets cost an average of 49 cents apiece, the horror feature pulled in an astonishing $5.5 million domestically. This made House of Wax the highest-grossing 3D movie ever made at the time, although it would lose this title in 1969 to a popular “skin flick” called The Stewardesses. By the way, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the current record-holder.

13. PRICE LIKED TO ATTEND SCREENINGS OF THE MOVIE INCOGNITO.

As the thespian once told biographer Joel Eisner, he’d regularly go out and see House of Wax during its run. Happily for Price, the requisite 3D glasses could usually conceal his identity in the back of a dimly lit theater. But one night, he decided to make his presence known. At a showing in New York City, Price quietly took a seat behind two teenagers. Right after a particularly frightening scene, he leaned forward and asked “Did you like it?” In Price’s words, “They went right into orbit!"

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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