Ever have something show up on your Amazon list and you have no idea how it got there? That was me with 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. Maybe I hit the save button by accident, who knows. Anyway, I left it on there because it looked intriguing, and it is. Directed by Michael Curtiz and featuring two-strip Technicolor, it’s a fine watch for a dark and stormy night. Plus Fay Wray is in it. She does a lot of screaming when things get scary.
The movie opens in 1921 London at (what else?) a wax museum, where creepily lifelike figures sit around the room in various states of repose. Propietor and sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is busily working when two fine gentlemen drop in for a visit. One of them, Dr, Rasmussen (Holmes Herbert) is going on an archaological dig to Egypt and wants to see Ivan’s work, all of which is so lifelike it seems to move.
Ivan is especially proud of his Marie Antoinette and Joan of Arc sculptures, which he talks to as if they’re family when no one’s looking. He doesn’t let on about this to his two visitors, though, and the good doctor is so impressed he promises to recommend Ivan to the Royal Academy when he gets back.
After the two gentlemen leave, Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) comes by to go over the museum’s accounts, and the place is in such dire financial straits he suggests burning it down and collecting the insurance money. Ivan is horrified, so Joe tries to show him how easy it would be by lighting a piece of random paper on fire. The two of them get into a scuffle, Joe drops the paper, and the place goes up in flames.
Fast forward to New Year’s Day in New York, 1933, just after the clock flips to midnight. There are mysteries afoot. Bodies are disappearing from the morgue, most notably model Joan Gale’s. She was rumored to be a suicide but then the idea started floating around that she was murdered. Her writer husband sits in jail waiting for something to happen, but they can’t hold him long because they don’t have any real evidence yet.
New York Express journalist Florence (Glenda Farrell) is on the case. Her boss, Jim (Frank McHugh) has threatened to fire her if she doesn’t produce a compelling story, and she’s about to get more than she’s bargained for.
Meanwhile, Ivan, who’s now in a wheelchair, is busy trying to get his new wax museum up and running. He’s got help this time, though, from other sculptors, none of which measure up to his extraordinary talents, or so he keeps reminding them. Plus there are mysterious coffin-like boxes being brought in by a guy who looks like death warmed over. Ivan thinks his sculptor, Ralph’s (Allen Vincent) fiancee, Charlotte (Fay Wray) is the spitting image of his melted Marie Antoinette, so he wants her to come and model for him.
Florence, in the meantime, keeps poking around, and notices Ivan’s new Joan of Arc bears a remarkable resemblance to Joan Gale. She’s even more freaked out when she finds Joan Gale’s toe tag stuck to the Joan of Arc sculpture, and speculates Gale’s modeling career may not be over. What else will Flo find? And can she convince the police she’s not completely nuts?
Mystery of the Wax Museum was remade as House of Wax with Vincent Price, so if any of this sounds familiar, that’s why. It’s also the last film to use two-strip Technicolor, which gives it a somewhat crude but interesting look when compared with the three-strip method that took over immediately afterward. The two-strip method did greens and reds pretty well, but blues and yellows are almost non-existent and fleshtones don’t look realistic.
Audiences and critics in 1933 probably weren’t really concerned about the color, however, because they were too busy being scared out of their wits. The critics didn’t like the film’s lack of exposition (read Vanity Fair and Variety‘s reviews here and here) and thought the idea of dead bodies being used as models by a crazed wax sculptor to be in poor taste.
Which is funny because that’s exactly what Madame Tussaud did during the French Revolution, although not by choice. Tussaud was charged with casting the heads of executed royalty and aristocracy, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, or face the guillotine herself, as she had connections among the higher-ups. I find it odd that so many critics forgot about this when parsing Wax Museum, although it doesn’t make Ivan any less creepy. It’s just precedence, that’s all.
Wax Musuem did fairly well at the box office, bringing in around $800,000, which was pretty good money back then. For some reason, the movie went missing for decades and was presumed lost, but a print was discovered in Jack Warner’s personal collection and it became a TV staple from that point on.
I didn’t find the movie all that scary because by today’s standards, watching creepy guys creep and wax sculptures melt is pretty tame. Other than that, I was mixed about the acting. Glenda Farrell’s hard-boiled Flo carries the film. She’s funny and gutsy and Farrell deserved better than what she got over the course of her career. Fay Wray is Fay Wray, so Charlotte wasn’t much of a stretch for her. Wray eventually tired of playing screaming women, but that’s another story for another time.
Anyway, the men kinda fall flat; they were underwritten to the point of being hard to tell apart. I know that sounds weird, but I kept having to remind myself which guy was Joan Gale’s bereaved husband and which was Charlotte’s hopeful husband. The only guy who stood out was Frank McHugh because he’s a natural goofball and his Jim is a good foil for Flo.
All in all, though, Mystery of the Wax Museum is entertaining, it’s got great visuals, and it’s a great way to spend a cold, stormy night. I’ve seen it twice so far and I’ve liked it better each time.
For more spooky classic movies, please feel free to pay a visit to Kristen at Hoofers and Honeys. Thanks for hosting this, Kristen–it’s always a fun one. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back in tomorrow because we’ve got more horror in store…
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