Once thought lost forever, Mystery
of the Wax Museum starring Lionel Atwill quickly became recognised as a true classic of
the horror movie genre.
Mystery of the Wax Museum
Images of wax that throbbed with human passion.
Almost woman! What did they lack?
(1933/ Warner/ Vitaphone) 77mins. Two-tone
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.
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
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
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.
During 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.
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
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
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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