On April 10, 1953, Warner Brothers debuted the first 3-D movie by a major studio, “House of Wax,” starring Vincent Price in his most sympathetic role as a movie horror villain. It also had stereophonic sound. The film cost $1 million to make -- and raked in nearly $24 million over time. That's because the film was directed by André de Toth, who eschewed the gimmickry to tell a heart-rending story of an artist who was betrayed by a partner and nearly destroyed.
De Toth had no choice but to make his movie this way.
His story began with his birth on May 15, 1912, in Makó, Hungary. His family was wealthy, but his decision to pursue the law and the arts instead of the military disappointed his father. At one point the younger de Toth sculpted.
“After obtaining a law degree, he began working in the Hungarian film industry in 1931, and he directed his first movies shortly before the start of World War II. In 1939 he fled his native country after being forced to direct Nazi propaganda films. He settled briefly in England, where he found work with producer Alexander Korda,” according to historian Michael Barson.
Sir Alexander Korda was born Sándor Laszlo Kellner in Pusztatúrpásztó, Hungary, on September 16, 1893. He too began his career in Hungarian cinema before heading to England, where his London Film Productions made such historical films as “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933), “Catherine the Great” (1934), “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1935), “Rembrandt” (1936) and “Elephant Boy” (1937).
However, better opportunities lie for de Toth in Hollywood, and he knew it. There he directed such war-themed fare as “Passport to Suez” (1943) and “None Shall Escape” (1944). He made his mark in Westerns and crime stories. He married Veronica Lake, an actress best known for her figure and her hair covering one eye, seductively. Theirs was a tempestuous marriage of eight years as she struggled with drug addiction. She was the first of his seven wives; he fathered 19 children.
De Toth may have been churning out B movies in Hollywood, but he did them with much thought. These were adult movies, not in that they showed skin (although he always popped in a little eye candy for the boys) but because they dealt with adult situations. In “House of Wax,” Warner Brothers had a great combination.
The lead actor was Vincent Price, a Yale graduate with a degree in art history. Scoff all you want, but he left behind a sizable fortune's worth of paintings when he died in 1993 -- in addition to a bedazzling number of good performances in movies. His appreciation of art made him at age 42 the perfect actor to play the sculptor.
And given his own years as a sculptor, de Toth was perfect to direct such a film. Under his direction, Price scared people, but also elicited their sympathy.
The New York Times hated the film when it came out, with critic Bosley Crowther writing, “ 'House of Wax,' the historic production unveiled at the Paramount yesterday in as wild a display of noise and nonsense as has rattled a movie screen in years, may well cause a dazed and deafened viewer, amazed and bewildered, to inquire in wonder and genuine trepidation: What hath the Warner Brothers wrought?''
Audiences knew full well what the brothers Warner wrought and they loved it. Of all the 3-D movies churned out in the 1950s, “House of Wax” was the best of the lot because it was not a 3-D movie. It couldn't be. Its director had only one eye. A childhood accident cut de Toth's vision in half.
“It’s one of the great Hollywood stories,” Vincent Price later said. “When they wanted a director for [a 3-D] film, they hired a man who couldn’t see 3-D at all! André de Toth was a very good director, but he really was the wrong director for 3-D. He’d go to the rushes and say, ‘Why is everybody so excited about this?’ It didn’t mean anything to him. But he made a good picture, a good thriller. He was largely responsible for the success of the picture. The 3-D tricks just happened — there weren’t a lot of them. Later on, they threw everything at everybody.”
Of course, going in, both de Toth and his studio knew what he could not see -- he wore an eye patch, after all -- but they turned this into his advantage. He made a good film that was made great by the special effects. It's a pretty good film more than 60 years later. One eye didn't stop him. He flew planes, raced cars and had more wives than fingers on his left hand. André de Toth is proof that a man is not defined by what he cannot do, but by what he can do.