Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray’s third screen collaboration, early Technicolor horror Mystery Of The Wax Museum. Review by RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES.
TITLE: Mystery Of The Wax Museum
RELEASED: February 18th 1933
STARRING: Lionel Atwill (Ivan Igor), Fay Wray (Charlotte Duncan), Glenda Farrell (Florence Dempsey), Frank McHugh (Jim), Allen Vincent (Ralph Dempsey), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Sparrow – Professor Darcy)
WRITERS: Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson (from a story by Charles S. Belden)
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
London, 1921. A wax sculptor (Ivan Igor) finds himself on hard times. His tastes in historical figures are out of vogue, and houses of horror seem to be more in style. When his business partner suggests a fire to claim the insurance, Igor is horrified and tries to stop him setting the place aflame. As the flames take hold, it looks like Igor has perished…
New York, 12 years later. Eight bodies have been stolen from local morgues in the past 18 months. It just so happens that one Ivan Igor is preparing to open a new wax museum in the city.
Igor employs a young man named Ralph as his assistant. When he is introduced to Ralph’s fiancée Charlotte, Igor is immediately struck by the lady’s resemblance to his beloved wax model of Marie Antoinette which was lost in the earlier fire, and seems to be sizing up Charlotte as the ideal replacement…
Obviously conceived to repeat the success of the previous year’s Dr. X, Mystery Of The Wax Museum reunited its lead actors with director Michael Curtiz, as well as several key crew members. It even recycled the laboratory set and Bernhard Kaun’s theme music, and used the same early red/green Technicolor process which had given the earlier production such an aura of strangeness.
Where Lionel Atwill had been one of several possible suspects in the previous film, this time around he’s firmly centre stage. Once again, the horror elements are blended with one of Warners’ staples of the period, the newspaper crime drama, but there seems to be more of a marked Universal influence on this occasion, particularly in the opening scenes.
Plenty of references to drug use which were forbidden within a couple of years (Igor’s assistant is blatantly referred to as a junkie) as well as the gruesome subject matter clearly mark this as a product of the pre-code Hollywood era, whilst references to the prohibition of alcohol (which ended that December) sounded a topical note for audiences of the time.
Although titled as a mystery, there’s not much mystery to be had. It’s pretty clear from the beginning that Atwill is behind any deadly deeds taking place, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer enjoyment in watching his performance, becoming increasingly deranged and obsessive as the film progresses. It certainly makes you lament the fact that Atwill’s career later slid into supporting roles in horror films when he was clearly such a fine lead.
Fay Wray here completed a trio of films with Atwill (following Dr. X and The Vampire Bat), and would firmly cement her position as the grand dame of all scream queens with her next project: King Kong.
TRIVIA POINTS: This was the last major Hollywood production in the red/green Technicolor process.
Max Factor designed Lionel Atwill’s make-up. Fay Wray’s first view of it was apparently as the climax was being shot, so what you see on screen is her genuine first reaction.
Director Michael Curtiz later won the best director Oscar for 1942’s Casablanca.
After Warner had cheekily made a simultaneous black-and-white version of Dr. X (1932), Technicolor made sure there were no monochrome cameras on the set this time around.
Ironically, the colour version was thought lost for many years, with only the monochrome print struck for television in circulation.
When studio co-founder Jack L. Warner died in 1978, an original Technicolor print was found in his personal collection. At its first public screening in many years, Fay Wray was in attendance.
FOOTNOTE: Mystery Of The Wax Museum has proven to be a remarkably durable influence on horror cinema. Vincent Price would star in the 3D remake House Of Wax (1953), which was itself remade in 2005. Other films which either reused the story or were inspired by it include: Chamber Of Horrors (1966), Nightmare In Wax (1969), Terror In The Wax Museum (1973), Waxwork (1988), The Wax Mask (1997), Twilight Zone episode The New Exhibit (1963), and of course Carry On Screaming (1966).