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Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)


Mystery of the Wax Museum poster
77 minutes
Cast and Crew

Michael Curtiz's Mystery of the Wax Museum is a fun and curious little film. Released in February 1933, it was one of the earliest experiments with color film as well as one of the earliest treatments of a now well-known mystery plot, topped with an intriguing visual style and some horror icons in fine form for good measure. Though it is not entirely without its flaws, this is a quickly paced, creative and entertaining work from an era when the horror film was still in it's relative adolescence.

After barely surviving an inferno set by his old business partner 12 years earlier, genius wax figure sculptor Ivan Igor (played by the brilliant Lionel Atwill) is left in a wheelchair with mangled, useless hands and now must direct others to create his wax figures. In his employment are a brutish deaf-mute, a drug addict, and a young man named Ralph. Oddly Ralph's fiancee, Charlotte (Fay Wray), is the living likeness of Igor's favorite former work -- the wax figure of Marie Antoinette, which was lost in the fire. While Igor pressures Charlotte to come to his museum and pose for a replacement, her roommate -- reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) -- is put on the case of a strange murder and body snatching perpetrated by a horribly disfigured monster. After noticing that one of the female figures in the museum resembles the missing dead girl, Florence begins to realize that all may not be as it seems at the wax museum and that Charlotte may be in terrible danger...

While a lot of fun, the film is not without its flaws -- which seem to stem mainly from Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson's script, based on a story by Charles Belden. While the skeleton of the story is excellently written, the film wanders off into unnecessary sub-plots and characters -- such as the totally unfitting romance between Florence and her editor, Prof. Darcy and his drug habit, etc. -- that drag the pacing down or just seem flat-out unnecessary. Even the character of Ralph seems to only exist as a bridge to bring Charlotte into the proceedings, thereafter serving no real purpose to the story.

The main problem here seems to be that the film's biggest shortcoming is in its failure to be a real mystery. We are given several characters as potential red-herrings, though the real culprit is all too obvious from the opening scene. The end result is a cluttered and unfocused set of background characters that do more to distract from the actual plot than to support it, particularly in the film's first act. As the title implies, it tries to be a mystery, but there is no real mystery.

However, Mystery of the Wax Museum has plenty of good marks as well - some of that coming in the form of its central players. Lionel Atwill, known to many classic horror fans as a remarkable supporting player in Universal's genre fare of the 1940s, is just as remarkable as the villainous lead of this film. While the plot itself lends rhyme and reason to the insanity and brilliance of Igor's character, it is Atwill who whole-heartedly sells us on it. His focus on re-capturing his own past glory seems to entirely own him - every word and action being a carefully calculated move that will lead him closer to his intended goal. Even while delivering his lines under the guise of a kindly old gentleman, there is an intentionally dark inflection added to each word of dialogue that undermines his topical pleasantries and gives us a taste of the true evil hiding beneath. Atwill realized that this character was not another boogeyman like Dracula, but a man who has become so consumed by his own determination to replace what has been taken from him that he has simply lost sight of anything else and he plays it to perfection. I would rate this as one of the better performances I've seen from this fine actor, perhaps only second to his iconic turn as Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein several years later.

Also no stranger to classic horror fans, Fay Wray plays Charlotte as the perfect damsel in distress. We see only glimpses of her acting as friend to Florence and fianceé to Ralph, but it's Wray's scream (yes, that famous scream) and her beautifully played reactions that really put her above the competition. In the hands of Fay Wray, Charlotte is the picture of the lovable all-American girl who becomes victim to forces beyond her control. It is nearly impossible not to hope for her survival at story's end, which is almost entirely attributable to Fay Wray's portrayal and not the writing of the character.

Glenda Farrell portrays the other female lead of the story, an independent, motor-mouthed reporter. While many have downplayed her role in the film and had little good to say about her acting, her much maligned fast-paced speech is as much a sign of the times as a personal mark of the actress and I found her portrayal completely fitting for the part she plays in the story -- which is equal parts investigative foil to the villain and general comic relief. Whether of any direct influence or not, this character is something of an early step towards horror-heroine characters in later films like Aliens and Halloween, albeit in a less-realized form. As an early and primitive example of the strong-willed and tenacious female hero, Farrell succeeds admirably and proves a strong root for what was to come in future cinema.

The commendable sets of Anton Grot put these characters in a Gothic, art-deco world that is contemporary New York seen through the eyes of a madman. We are shown a city that looks sinister and awe-inspiring at every glance and a museum full of shadows and intrigue that perfectly complement the horrific elements of the story. The grimly beautiful cityscapes and sets help to pull us into the story and the world where it exists -- just as Igor pulls Charlotte into his own demented world as the story unfolds.

Michael Curtiz's direction keeps the film moving along at a much quicker pace than most thrillers of the era, yet he still finds enough time to let us stand back and take in the beauty of Grot's sets. Through the lens of cinematographer Ray Rennahan, Curtiz pours over every detail of the museum figures with the obsessive eye of their creator, lurks through the shadowy, blue streets of the city at night and leads us into a terrifying climax in the hellish depths of the museum's underground boiler room with a surprisingly consistent sense of eye-catching dread.

Greatly adding to the overall look and atmosphere of the film is the pioneering and seldom used early Technicolor treatment it was filmed in. This was the last of three Warner Bros. films to use the technique (after The Runaround and Doctor X), which used a combination of special lighting and red and green dyes applied to the film to create an unusually pastel-tinged color palette that gives everything a curious "easter-on-acid" look.1 The unreal color scheme perfectly compliments the beautifully grim feel of the picture by providing murky-blue skies and vividly green cauldrons of bubbling wax.

The makeup and special effects, by Ray Romero, Perc Westmore and Rex Wimpy, respectively, are admirable for their time. In particular, at the end of the film when Charlotte smashes Igor's wax mask with her fists and reveals his hideously deformed face, it is still a chilling visual even today and is far more effective than the version done in House of Wax - this film's remake done twenty years later. The makeup designs for the wax figures themselves are subtle but eerily intriguing, making the faces of the frozen actors underneath look unsettling and fascinating at once.

Despite some problems in the film's early moments, Mystery of the Wax Museum's good points far outweigh it's bad points and make for an intriguing and worthwhile watch. Some of the acting is top-notch and the entire film is curiously beautiful in it's own gothic-pastel kind of way and worth recommending for those reasons alone. If you find yourself stuck in the house on a rainy night, this movie just might be a great way to spend an hour and some change to keep yourself entertained and view an important little piece of 1930s cinema.