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Mystery of the Wax Museum

by Glenn Erickson May 09, 2020

 

Talk about a worthy title for restoration — somebody up there likes us. Digital tools and film preservation expertise have advanced far enough to revive this marvelous pre-Code comedy-shocker in a form that showcases its wild designs and stylized 2-color Technicolor sheen. Director Michael Curtiz’s adept direction highlights Glenda Farrell’s racy dialogue delivery as well as the spooky, expressionist horrors in Lionel Atwill’s haunted ‘waxitorium.’ To top it off we have fabulous Fay Wray, the talkies’ original scream queen, shrieking her way into the horror hall of fame in the tradition of The Phantom of the Opera. Plus — for once the Warner Archive adds some fine new added value extras.


Mystery of the Wax Museum
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1933 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 77 min. / Street Date May 12, 2020 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Allen Vincent, Gavin Gordon, Arthur Edmund Carewe.
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Art Director: Anton Grot
Film Editor: George Amy
Written by Carl Erickson, Don Mullaly from a play by Charles Belden
Produced by Henry Blanke
Directed by
Michael Curtiz

 

There’s nothing like the onset of a major Hollywood craze, when the town invests ‘A’ production values in an exciting new genre. The big talkie horror push at Universal triggered a rush for chills & thrills at other studios. Paramount put its top star Fredric March into a prestigious effort that won an Oscar and MGM miscalculated with a film so shocking, they balked at releasing it. Warner Bros. leaped into a pair of creepy ‘Mad Genius’- type movies directed by the versatile and prolific Michael Curtiz. Somebody at the studio understood the stylistic connection with silent expressionist movies, for the Warner art department went to town, taking full advantage of the weird possibilities of 2-color Technicolor’s limited range of hues. 1932’s Doctor X combined haunted house chills and goofy pre-Code comedy with Lee Tracy and used some striking designs for a weird Mad Lab and a morgue.

The next year’s Mystery of the Wax Museum doubled down on the same formula, adding the pulp horror idea of a wax museum composed of the corpses of murder victims. Both Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray returned from Doctor X. The more elaborate production features a couple of spectacular scenes, a difficult-to-film major fire and a police battle in a lab with a giant vat of boiling wax.

An un-restored version has been out on home video since the 1990s, and was paired with the Vincent Price remake House of Wax on a 2003 DVD and a 2013 3-D Blu-ray. That transfer has been criticized by experts from the beginning. Overseen by archival experts, this new restoration takes care to make Curtiz’s film look as it originally did. The colors now make their full effect, and when combined with Anton Grot’s marvelous expressionist settings, the result is a delirious world of horror fantasy visuals.

 

The tale begins with a backstory in 1921 London. Idealistic wax museum sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is so caught up with his creations that he treats them as if they’re alive. But his partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) is determined to burn the entire museum for the insurance money. Twelve years later, a crippled Ivan turns up in New York, ready to re-open his museum shortly after New Year’s Day. His hands destroyed, Ivan has trained several assistants to do the sculpting, including the hopelessly drug-addicted Prof. Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe). A pair of roommates become involved with the museum, by different routes. Wisecracking reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell) thinks she has a good story for her hardboiled editor Jim (Frank McHugh) in the murder of beautiful Joan Gale (Monica Bannister), whose body has disappeared from the morgue. Flo thinks that the suspect being held on the charge, Gale’s wealthy boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon) is innocent. She becomes convinced when she sees that Mr. Igor’s new ‘Joan of Arc’ statue looks just like Joan Gale’s file photo. Flo’s beautiful roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray) is the girlfriend of the penniless apprentice sculptor Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent). When Ralph introduces Charlotte to his wheelchair-bound mentor, Ivan immediately asks if she can pose for him, to become his new Marie Antoinette. The eccentric Ivan wants to ‘immortalize’ her.

The basic ingredients of Mystery of the Wax Museum can’t be beat. The smooth-talking Lionel Atwill comes into his own as a horror star, waxing enthusiastic over the gorgeous Fay Wray. The lack of a supernatural aspect is offset by Mr. Igor’s obsession with the past, and his mad delusion that his wax figures are living beings. His notion that Charlotte can be made artistically immortal aligns somewhat with the supernatural immortality that Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep offers Zita Johann’s Helen in the previous year’s The Mummy.

Most of the tale plays out in a typical Warner Bros. hardboiled newspaper and police milieu, with Glenda Farrell’s high-spirited news hen swapping asides with her cynical editor. The patter she dices with Frank McHugh is so fast-paced, the English subtitles are a welcome assist… some of the double-entendres are pretty arcane: “A cow does that and gives milk, besides.” McHugh shows fine form in a smart-mouthed quasi-romantic role — he even makes time for one of his signature sing-song “haww-hah” retorts. I’ve heard more than one fan complain that snappy WB comedy is a poor fit with horror, but I disagree completely. The horror content is never diminished, and Flo and Jim’s cynical comic asides add to the intrigues. For me it’s win-win, the two extreme complement each other. Wax Museum’s pre-Code ribaldry certainly beats the dull comic asides and domestic trivia that pad some other ’30s horror efforts. For a painful example, Gary Teetzel reminds me of Charlie Ruggles in Murders in the Zoo.

 

For pre-Code provocation, Flo’s run-ins with the cops narrowly outpace the horror content. Poor Prof. Darcy is an addicted wreck, abused by Joe Worth (who is now a bootlegger) and tormented by the pitiless cops, who grill the junkie until he finally tells them what they want to hear. Arthur Edmund Carewe has the longest history of horror credentials, with roles in The Phantom of the Opera and The Cat and the Canary. His tortured appearance as Prof. Darcy seems even more authentic when one learns that he died as a suicide only four years later.

The other sculptor Allen Vincent was apparently able to build on his horror experience. He contributed to the screenplay for the obscure Columbia disfigurement tale The Face Behind the Mask, and was eventually nominated for his co-screenplay adaption for 1948’s classic Johnny Belinda. We’re told that Vincent turned to writing (and was a good pick for the Belinda job) after he experienced a hearing loss.

Fay Wray enjoyed a variety of roles but is most remembered for her horror pictures. Just one month later she’d be genuinely immortalized for screaming at King Kong. She puts in standard damsel-in-distress duty here. We first see Wray’s Charlotte exercising her long legs at home; she has a few more scenes to demonstrate her poise before falling into Ivan Igor’s demented, murderous clutches. The re-directed rape fantasy in this tale sees Wray’s Charlotte bolted into a candle mold, and prepped for the wrong kind of shower. The show does not trade in the peek-a-boo nudity of some pre-Codes. In the 3-D remake it’s implied that Phyllis Kirk awaits the scalding wax when completely starkers, but Fay wears some kind of body wrap. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Ms. Wray will forever be a beacon of charm and decorum, despite the simian mauling she received on Skull Island. *1

 

Glenda Farrell’s Florence is the dominant character. I think Farrell is terrific; she really ‘sells’ her personality on screen. The smirking Florence is entirely capable of dishing smut talk with the boys, and is as likely to tell some guy to jump in a lake as kiss him. Flo will call an NYPD officer corrupt, right to his face. When she uncovers a coffin packed with bootleg liquor, she demands her share before the cops can take it all! At one point Flo comes this close to saying, ‘Son of a b …’ before overlapping dialogue blocks her off.

For a while Glenda Farrell seemed interchangeable with Joan Blondell, but Blondell’s sassiness was softer and more feminine, which may be why she got more and bigger roles. That, and the code liked women to be less assertive. After her run as the Flo-like Torchy Blane, Glenda retreated to smaller character parts. We’re told that her spirited femme reporter characters were a key inspiration for Superman’s Lois Lane.

Lionel Atwill starred in too many memorable horror pictures to escape the association. He made a stack of them after Doctor X, played in prestigious movies for Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Borzage, and then found a home as a character actor for Universal’s monster revival of the 1940s. Atwill plays the deranged sculptor Ivan Igor without frothing at the mouth; his ‘inspired artist’ jargon when wooing Charlotte is as smooth as silk. I guess it’s possible that Atwill played key scenes under makeup as the creeping morgue ghoul, but the rough action finale surely merited a stunt man substitution.

 

Yeah, but what does it look like?

With only two colors instead of three to work with, the surviving samples of 2-color Technicolor (actually, Technicolor Process 3) usually look like something’s missing, as if the movie were a magazine illustration left out in the sun too long. Mystery of the Wax Museum accepts the color system’s limitations and works terrific variations on what the screen could show. The two hues were red and green, which could approximate a certain hue for face tones. Greens predominate while pure reds are used sparingly, as with a clock face in the New Years’ sequence. The air of eerie unreality obviously adds to the ‘creepy’ factor, inside the morgue and within the bizarre passages below Ivan Igor’s waxen house of horrors.

The muted, restricted palette has a dream-like quality. An unexpected effect, seen well in the new restoration, is an added illusion of depth. If we think of the process as ‘dueling monochromes,’ a slight hue change between a dark foreground and a lighter mid-ground creates a slight 3-D feel.

It takes talented graphic designers to know how to handle a project like this one. How many promising horror films have we seen in which the filmmakers fail to (or can’t afford to) find a distinctive ‘look’ to keep the audience off balance?  Designed by the great Anton Grot (A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Sea Hawk, Mildred Pierce) Mystery of the Wax Museum is a masterpiece of expressionism. Igor’s lab several levels below the Wax Museum is a riot of off-kilter staircases, weirdly-lit cubistic corridors, and a steel-and-concrete waxitorium where boils a giant vat of pinkish wax, ready to engulf Mr. Igor’s next victim. Who was his contractor?  The steel girders in his mad-lab lair could have been constructed for an iron foundry.

 

Curtiz and his designers also create two entire wax museum sets, fabricating figures that wouldn’t melt under the hot lights required for Technicolor. Many mannequins are used, and real wax heads melt in the fire scene, to macabre effect. But just as many real actors are employed, standing stock still in tableaux vivants. In giant closeups, the wax statues are seen to wiggle their lips and eyes, right in the middle of shots. A figure of Queen Victoria blinks visibly in longshot. On a big screen some of the wiggles and twitches are almost funny, although Monica Bannister’s big close-ups as Joan of Arc are entirely convincing ( ↑ ). Fay Wray’s actual first scene is as the original Marie Antoinette in London. To me her Antoinette looks very much like Kim Novak.

Were early Moviolas not good for spotting such details?  It’s more likely that the filmmakers figured that nobody would notice. Director Curtiz worked his cast and crew unbelievably long hours, under near-brutal conditions. It’s easy to imagine the ‘statuary’ trying to hold still so long that uncontrollable tics and jitters would set in.

 

Aided by Michael Curtiz’s expected peppy pacing the show offers a surprise in every scene. Except for some title music, there is almost no soundtrack score, which is not at all a detriment. Curtiz’s dynamic direction adds meaningful camera moves to almost every scene. The ending fight in the temple-like waxitorium is worthy of a Marvel superhero battle, with cops leaping down from ten-foot catwalks.

I don’t think  Mystery played on TV in B&W … Forrest J. Ackerman had shown off frame grabs of the scary monster makeup in Famous Monsters, and I think the first time I saw the show was at Filmex ’71. The climactic unmasking of the villain is quite a shocker, staged with unrestrained ‘dash and panache.’ The identity of the mad, deformed killer has been fairly well hidden up until this Phantom-of-the-Opera moment. Faye Wray looks genuinely revulsed by what she sees. She lets loose with a terrific shriek, certainly one of horror’s top ten: “You Fiend!”  The ‘monster reveal’ may already have become a cliché by 1933, but Curtiz and his actors play it to the hilt. This is great Guignol-pulp horror.

Although most of the advertising adds a ‘the’ to the title, the film’s main title card reads simply Mystery of the Wax Museum.


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Mystery of the Wax Museum is the stellar restoration debut of the year so far, one big enough to merit multiple public screenings. Knowing how well the show plays with an audience, I’d heartily recommend attending a revival, you know, if and when civilized public gatherings can resume.

Anybody with an appreciation for color design is going to be at least a little bit fascinated by the film’s restored 2-color visuals. Thanks to the design intelligence that was employed, it’s not a gimmick but a real style choice. Although I admire the restored King of Jazz, the color here is used for specific dramatic purposes, not just for pretty pictures. The difference between this Blu-ray and the color on the old standard-def transfer is not easy to describe. The first transfer is not as vibrant and some of the values are off — the colorist may have tried to shift hues to give an impression of more color. The object this time out was to reproduce the limited color under which the designers and cameramen had to work.

 

The color in the new restoration is harmonious, more artist-directed and less paint-by-numbers. The color and the design work together in shot after shot.

As shown in a six-minute before & after restoration video, images swarming with scratches, chips, digs, changeover marks and missing frames were completely repaired. The marred original source materials (the famed Jack Warner’s personal print, and a French ‘workprint’) now look nearly pristine. The audio is much improved as well. It’s a genuine showcase restoration.

The information has been repeated forever that Mystery was a lost film until a single perfect print showed up in Jack Warner’s personal vault. As Bob Furmanek has documented, screenwriter Ray Russell reported seeing a full print at Warners in 1964. Russell added that the studio vault wasn’t immediately aware that they even had a copy of the film. *2

The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s head of preservation Scott MacQueen has a big presence on the disc. He narrates the six-minute restoration demonstration, and offers a full commentary. MacQueen points out a set that was re-dressed from Doctor X, and can even identify the names of the Warners street sets used. The far-ranging commentary starts with thanks for his preservation colleagues. Some older audio interviews are interpolated, allowing us to hear the voices of Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell. Quotes from cameraman Ray Rennahan discuss the use of ‘projected color’ on the set. It apparently means ‘painting’ individual bits of decor with colored light, an idea that sounds very Mario Bava-ish. MacQueen repeats one critic’s suggestion that Michael Curtiz allowed the wax figures to twitch and wiggle, as an expression of Ivan Igor’s idea that they were alive. We also learn that a missing word or two from Glenda Farrell were restored by lifting the same word from the soundtracks of her later films, reversing the meddling of the 1933 censors.

The disc carries a second expert commentary, from author and Michael Curtiz authority Alan K. Rode, of Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. The book is due out soon in a slightly extended paperback edition. Alan’s commentary is his usual incisive, research-heavy analysis of the shoot and the many personalities involved. The biographer’s inside knowledge of director Curtiz adds quite a bit, as do his personal memories of some of the other cast and crew members. I was planning to spot-check the commentaries, and ended up spending the full three hours to listen to both.

I listened pretty carefully but did not hear a repeat of Tom Weaver’s earlier report rumor that the UCLA Film & Television Archive was also working on the 2-color Technicolor Doctor X. If the project was in the works, it may have been slowed up by the everyday 21st century terror that has halted a lot of film work in progress. Tom’s note ended, “They’re still hopin’ it’ll be ready in the late summer.”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Mystery of the Wax Museum
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentaries with Alan Rode, and Scott MacQueen; Remembering Fay Wray with her daughter, produced by Constantine Nasr; restoration comparison with Scott MacQueen.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 7, 2020
(6265wax)

Footnotes:

*1 Show-off Time. One of the top events of the first (or second?) year’s Filmex festival was a midnight showing of the newly-acquired Technicolor print of Mystery of the Wax Museum. The program identified it as Warner’s personal copy. I accompanied fellow UCLA film student friend Randall William Cook to Grauman’s Chinese; I think fellow UCLA student and future career editor Howard Heard may have come along as well. When Randy spotted special guest Fay Wray behind us in the auditorium, we walked back to say hello. Randy came up with an ideal question for her: “Was Ms. Wray the model for the Columbia Torch Lady?” She said no, and talked to us for at least a minute. This was 1971 or 1972, when Ms. Wray would have been around 63-64 years old. She was still gorgeous.

*2 Bob Furmanek has also showed a TV syndication news clipping from 1972 for a Wax Museum in color, but that was after it had been ‘re-premiered.’ This ‘lost’ business always depends on who knows what, when. Perhaps a Warners vault person, aware that no negative existed, found it expedient to bureaucratically list the title as ‘unserviceable’ and without a projectable print. That would stop executives from risking the only print in a screening. Perhaps Warner kept it off the inventory to prevent just that scenario from happening. There was no such thing as restoration of old movies back then; Curtis Harrington’s rescue of The Old Dark House was an exceptional case. This ‘lost’ business always depends on who knows what.

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.