The Mad Magician
For their final entry in the 1950s 3-D craze, Columbia decided to have producer Bryan Foy attempt to duplicate the success of the movie that started it all, House of Wax- Foy employed the star (Price) and the scriptwriter (Crane Wilbur) from that picture and created a very similar story of gruesome revenge tinged with tongue-in-cheek humor. The result, The Mad Magician (1954), was filmed in sparkling black-and-white and 3-D.
Turn-of-the-century illusion expert Don Gallico (Vincent Price) creates elaborate tricks for well-known magicians. He plans to open a show of his own using an elaborate buzz-saw trick which will appear to cut off the head of his assistant, Karen Lee (Mary Murphy). Gallico's employer at Illusion, Inc., Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph), shuts down the show before it begins. Gallico protests that he developed the new trick on his own time, but Ormond says that according to their contract of employment, he owns anything Gallico creates. At Gallico's workshop, Ormond shows the buzz-saw trick to magician The Great Rinaldi (John Emery), and Rinaldi is only too happy to take his rival's creation. After Rinaldi exits, Gallico confronts Ormond not only about his unfair business practices, but about stealing his wife Claire (Eva Gabor) away from him years before. Enraged, Gallico decapitates Ormond with the buzz-saw, and later disguises himself as Ormond to dispose of the body. Karen's boyfriend just happens to be police detective Lt. Alan Bruce (Patrick O'Neal), who sets about investigating Ormond's disappearance.
In the first scene in the film, Gallico clearly sets up his own character motivations as well as hinting that the horror hijinks to come will be tongue-in-cheek, and that the filmmakers are in on the fun: "For years I've been inventing illusions for big-name magicians and watching them take all the bows. I finally caught the fever myself. I'm like the playwright who wants to get in there and read his own lines I guess I'm just a ham at heart." Price clearly has a wonderful time with the role, one which audiences will see him echo in later revenge-themed romps such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theater of Blood (1973).
In his book Vincent Price: The Art of Fear, Denis Meikle contends that an incident during the filming of The Mad Magician contributed to "the nasal inflection which increasingly would come to distinguish the Price voice...[when] a stunt fight between himself and newcomer Patrick O'Neal ended with more damage to the Price proboscis, which he first broke at college and which eventually required plastic surgery to correct."
Noting the efforts that screenwriter Crane Wilbur took to duplicate his previous hit, Meikle says that he "...even attempts to repeat the demented lyricism of the lines which had accompanied Price's grandstanding at the finale of House of Wax: 'Actually, there'll be very little pain. Such a blast of heat brings instant oblivion. Can you hear it sing, lieutenant? It has the voice of a mad bull!' Gallico exhorts as he primes his victim for a fiery demise in his Crematorium." Meikle notes the film's shortcomings, but adds that "the depth effects are staged more conscientiously by [director John] Brahm than they were by [House of Wax director] Andre de Toth..." While this statement may be debatable, it is true that The Mad Magician is striking in its original 3-D presentation. There are only a few shots of magic tricks (streams of water, playing cards) that are aimed toward the camera; for the most part, the crisp black-and-white photography is kept in deep focus, and careful attention is paid to compositions that show off the stereoscopic depth. It helps as well to have characters interacting with large mechanical illusion set-pieces the splinters flying from the buzz-saw trick and the flames licking the edges of the Crematorium are visually interesting seen "flat", but are positively hypnotic in 3-D.
In yet another borrowing from House of Wax, one of the stage shows in The Mad Magician features a barker entertaining crowds outside the theater. While the earlier film memorably demonstrated a paddleball zipping toward the viewer, the barker in the latter film has a false arm extending out through the "stereo window" and into the viewer's face!
Critics in 1954 quickly pointed out the obviously derivative nature of The Mad Magician. The reviewer for The New York Times said "It would be conceivable for Vincent Price to begin hearing 'voices' and seeing hobgoblins at this point. Only last year, producer Bryan Foy and scenarist Crane Wilbur had the poor man embalming an assortment of victims in a three-dimensional vat of boiling, Technicolored wax to the accompaniment of stereoscopic shrieks in Warners' 'House of Wax.' At the Holiday Theatre yesterday, Mr. Price, his nerves still unstrung, was being made daft by the Messrs. Foy and Wilbur in an obvious, contrived, ghoulish charade appropriately titled 'The Mad Magician.' From the looks of things, the Messrs. Foy, Wilbur and Price, as well as the paying customers, could use a little peace and quiet. Say this, however, for the newest menace they have wrought. There is nothing subtle about it."
The producer of The Mad Magician, Bryan Foy, was the son of vaudeville legend Eddie Foy, and as a child, part of his "Seven Little Foys" act. In the 1920s he became a writer and gagman for silent comedies at Universal, and worked with Buster Keaton on the feature film College (1927). At Warner Bros. Foy produced and directed Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking dramatic picture. For the next thirty years Foy specialized in producing B-movies for Warner Bros., Columbia, and smaller studios like Eagle-Lion, earning the nickname "The Keeper of the Bs."
Screenwriter Crane Wilbur had a long and varied career as an actor, writer, and director, both on the stage and in films. Born in 1886, he debuted as a Broadway actor in 1903 and began appearing in films in 1910. As an actor, Wilbur reached a peak as the male lead opposite Pearl White in perhaps the most famous silent serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914). Shifting to a writing career, Wilbur penned several plays for Broadway, including The Monster in 1922, which was adapted for a 1925 film with Lon Chaney. Among the dozens of films he wrote, several dealt with the penal system, such as Blackwell's Island (1939), Over the Wall (1938), Crime School (1938) with Humphrey Bogart and Hell's Kitchen (1939) with Ronald Reagan. Another notorious facility was highlighted in Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), which Wilbur both wrote and directed. Toward the end of his career, Wilbur wrote the screenplay for a third horror film starring Vincent Price, The Bat (1959), which he also directed.
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: John Brahm
Screenplay: Crane Wilbur
Music: Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Grant Whytock
Art Direction: Frank Sylos
Set Decoration: Howard Bristol
Special Effects: Dave Koehler
Cast: Vincent Price (Don Gallico), Mary Murphy (Karen Lee), Eva Gabor (Claire Ormond), John Emery (The Great Rinaldi), Donald Randolph (Ross Ormond), Lenita Lane (Alice Prentiss).
by John M. Miller