Once thought lost forever, Mystery of the Wax Museum starring Lionel Atwill quickly became recognised as a true classic of the horror movie genre.
The Missing Link Proudly Presents

Mystery of the Wax Museum

Images of wax that throbbed with human passion.
Almost woman! What did they lack?


Lionel Atwill as Ivan Igor(1933/ Warner/ Vitaphone) 77mins. Two-tone Technicolour. US.
Credits: Dir: Michael Curtiz; Prod: Henry Blanke; Sc: Carl Erickson & Don Mullaly; Ph: Ray Rennahan; Ed: George Amy; Art: Anton Grot; Colour process: Dr. Herbert Kalmus & Natalie Kalmus.
From the play "Waxworks" by Charles S. Belden.
Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Edwin Maxwell, Glenda Farrell, Allen Vincent, Gavin Gordon, Frank McHugh, DeWitt Jennings, Monica Bannister, Holmes Herbert, Matthew Betz, Thomas E. Jackson, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Claude King, Pat O'Malley.

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is one of the all too few rediscoveries that manages to live up to it's reputation of being a terror filled and innovative classic. For almost a quater of a century, its disappearance was greatly lamented, especially after the successful release of the 3-D remake House of Wax in 1953 by the same studio. Only those who had seen the original on its first release could make any comparisons. The film's reputation grew steadily as the studios entered a new phase of the horror genre and sparked an interest in the old classics.
It wasn't until 1969 that an original 35mm colour print was discovered in the possession of Jack Warner, and immediately attempts were made to preserve it, that is until a quality print of James Whale's Old Dark House was found and was deemed much more important as a contribution to horror cinema history. Unfortunately ...WAX MUSEUM was quickly and cheaply restored losing all of the two-tone pastel colours. The result was pleasing enough for those wishing for the chance to view this once lost film, but its reputation had also grown around the fact it was in colour.

Only after the advent of the Hammer studio's contribution to the genre did the use of colour, primarily red, flourish for the horror film. However, colour was used earlier in Warner Brother's. Doctor X (1932) using an early two-tone process and also starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray; to fuller extent in Doctor Cyclops (1940) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943); and used to great effect for sequences in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).
Unlike Doctor X, a film that Warners made only as a contractual obligation to Technicolor and given a limited circulation when the more predominant monochrome print was deemed sufficient, ....WAX MUSEUM was greatly enhanced by the use of colour. From its vats of bubbling green wax to the gruesome climax, the cloured hues added to the film's already nightmarish qualities.

Igor at workDuring a violent thunderstorm in London of 1921, wax sculptor Ivan Igor, (Lionel Atwill), is visited by two dignitaries who are promising to admit his work to the Royal Academy. As soon as they leave, Igor's business partner decides on an easy way to increase their revenue at the wax museum by simply burning the place to the ground and collecting the 10,000 insurance money. As the fire grows, Igor tries desperately to rescue his treasured effigies, but they melt and Igor seemingly dies.
One oustanding shot shows the rope of a guillotine burning through causing the steel blade to fall and lop off the head of one waxwork figure.
Twelve years later and Igor's wax museum makes its grand opening in America. Now confined to a wheelchair, Igor is unable to sculpt with his fire ravaged hands, but he instructs others who create the works of art for him.
When the mysterious death of Joan Gale hits the newspapers, the police arrest a millionaire playboy as their chief suspect, but a fast-talking, wise-cracking reporter, (Glenda Farrell), investigates further into the case and discovers that Joan Gale's body has strangely disappeared from the morgue. After a visit to the wax museum's new Joan of Arc exhibit, she begins to piece the mystery together.
Igor is later introduced to the pert Charlotte Duncan, (Fay Wray), who he instantly sees as Marie Antoinette, his prized waxwork lost to him in the original museum. Slowly the evidence mounts as more bodies disappear from the morgue and new exhibits open in the famed wax museum. When Charlotte later pays a visit to the establishment in search of her sweetheart Ralph, one of Igor's trainee sculptors, Igor greets her and says "Ralph's down in the basement, my dear. Why don't you go down and see him".
Unknowingly Igor meets her in the underground processing room and gazing at her with his piercing blue-eyes he rises out of his wheelchair.
As Igor advances Charlotte hammers her fists in his face which proceeds to crumble away and reveal his hideously scarred features behind the lifelike wax mask. She then screams, as only Fay Wray can.
In her autobiography, Fay Wray maintains that she had no previous knowledge of what the make-up department had created behind Atwill's mask. During the shot she smashed enough of the mask to see a little of the shrivelled "skin" beneath and just froze. "Director Micheal Curtiz had wanted to see the whole revolting visage at the first strike. So we did it again using a second mask. Now that I knew what to expect, I could do it technically".
Igor proceeds to undress Charlotte and places her on the slab to recieve the boiling wax, but alerted by her screams Ralph and the police arrive to rescue her in the nick of time while Igor meets his demise when he falls into a vat of wax.Frame showing the early Technicolor Process

In many ways this remains a first class classic. Ray Rennahan's fluid camerawork pans through Anton Grot's superbly constructed and lit museum set, providing plenty of shadows that seem to give life to the waxworks within. Born Antocz Franziszek Groszewski, Anton Grot came to Hollywood during the early Twenties, making his mark in Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and later heading Warners art department. His other credits include work on Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932) and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (1935), of particular note because it best displays Grot's huge artistic creativity.

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM also benefits from a strong cast. Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray naturally take all the honours and the climactic unmasking scene is on par with Lon Chaney's famous unmasking scene of Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Also worthy of note is the performance of Arthur Edmund Carewe (1894-1937) as one of Atwill's cohorts in crime helping to obtain the corpses needed for his sculptures. Carewe was a well respected character actor who appeared in many of the horror genre's finest examples including The Ghost Breaker (1922) starring Wallace Reid in the second of three adaptations of Paul Dickey's stageplay; The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Warner's aforementioned horror entry Doctor X (1932). For that film Carewe portrays a lugubrious drug addict who is dealt with quite explicitly while under interrogation by the police.

Despite what the title suggests ...WAX MUSEUM is actually more of a macabre melodrama than an outright horror film and is cluttered with several extraneous sub-plots that tend to detract from the basic storyline. Furthermore the wise-cracking news reporters played by Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh are quite out of keeping with the film's mood and seem to be there as a means to contemporise the story. These two annoying characters also provide the seemingly tagged-on ending when Farrell accepts McHugh's proposal of marriage, despite the fact that he has been insulting her throughout the entire film.
The film also suffers due to the lack of a music score that would have heightened the dramatic intensity.

Michael Curtiz found that he had to use actors to stand-in as the wax figures because the hot lights kept melting the originals. Subsequently, you can see Fay Wray struggling to remain motionless as she doubles for "Marie Antoinette" in the opening reel.

Despite never managing to master the English language, Hungarian born Michael Curtiz became one of Hollywood's finest and most respected directors. His list of accomplishments include films made in Hungary, Austria, Denmark and Germany including AZ EZREDES (1917) and KILENCVENKILENC (1918), both featuring Bela Lugosi in two of his earliest roles. One film made in Austria brought the young Curtiz to the attention of Jack Warner who hired him in 1926. Curtiz soon proved to be adept in any genre and in 1942 he won an Oscar for his work on CASABLANCA. He worked right up until his death in 1962 at the age of 74.

Warner's 3-D remake titled House of Wax (1953) cast Vincent Price in the lead role as Professor Jarrod alongside Phyllis Kirk who unfortunately has none of the lung-power of Fay Wray. Twenty years after the original the film is much slicker with a streamlined plot that does away with the distracting sub-plots and concentrates on the story and its central characters.

Despite its flaws, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is thankfully with us again after so many years of hibernation in Jack Warner's private vaults. To see it now in its intended form can still be considered a treat for us all.

 

Note: On September 23rd. 1994, just as this article was to be published, Britain's Channel 4 screened the original two-tone Technicolor print on television.

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