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13 Thrilling Facts About House Of Wax

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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!"

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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