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Review: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Ghouls. Body snatching. Murders. Fay Wray screaming. All in two-tone Technicolor!

Such are the tropes of the 1933 horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum.

The story begins in 1921 London, in the wax workshop of Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill). Igor, a talented artist, recently shared a guided tour of his studio with his friend Dr. Rasmussen and a potential investor, Mr. Galatalin. Galatalin, impressed with Igor’s work, promises to share Igor’s work with the Royal Academy. Soon after they leave, the artist is approached by his business partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) with the bad news: they are both broke and in need of money. Worth proposes a dastardly plan: to burn down the waxworks and collect the insurance money. Igor objects to this, and a fight ensues. Worth is successful in setting the workshop ablaze and knocking Igor unconscious; leaving him for dead among the inferno.

Fast-forward to New Years Eve, 12 years later: New York City is partying like only it can, welcoming 1933. Amongst the celebration, the body of a woman is taken from amongst the revelers and sent to the city morgue: the official explanation, a suicide. However, in the darkness of the morgue, a cloaked figure with a terrifying face arises from the covered tables and proceeds to steal the body away in the night.

Which one’s which?

On the trail of the murder and body-snatching is reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) and her editor, Jim (Frank McHugh). Florence starts to piece together a puzzle that she thinks is related to the opening of a new wax museum in town; on opening night, she sees a wax statue that looks awfully similar to that of the murdered woman…

At opening night, Florence arrives with her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) and Charlotte’s boyfriend, a sculptor in the employ of the recently-reemerged Igor (Ralph Vincent). Igor, seeing Charlotte, is entranced by her image and wants to have her sculpted into Marie Antoinette… at any cost.

I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but rest assured: mayhem erupts and someone definitely gets the works… wax works, that is!

Mystery of the Wax Museum runs at a pretty energetic pace during its 77-minute runtime. And although it may drag a bit in the middle, the thrilling moments on either end more than make up for it. In addition to good acting and great direction by famed director Michael Curtiz (more on him later), the film’s imagery positively pops thanks to the (then-new) two-strip Technicolor process, making all sorts of wonderful shades of oranges, greens, and more.

Mystery of the Wax Museum was remade 20 years later as House of Wax (1953), a Vincent Price-starring vehicle that is also a fun watch, but doesn’t hold a candle to the raw thrills its predecessor has. If you do decide to pick up the 1953 version, be sure to watch out for an insanely young Charles Bronson!

…and if you’re here looking for any mention of the 2005 “version” of House of Wax… you’re in the wrong place. The less said about that movie, the better.

The role of Igor is played by one of my favorite Classic Hollywood actors: Lionel Atwill. His voice is iconic, his acting superb, and he starred (or co-starred) in some of the best Hollywood chillers during its classic era. Doctor X, The Vampire Bat, Mark of the Vampire, and Son of Frankenstein (a role parodied by Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 hit Young Frankenstein) all are a testament to his horror work, but make sure and catch him in other films like Captain Blood, Charlie Chan in Panama, The Gorilla, To Be or Not to Be, and Pardon My Sarong.

What’s there to say about Fay Wray that hasn’t already been said? The classic Scream Queen was most active on the screen for a relatively short period of time (1925–1940, with smaller/less frequent roles occurring before and after that time), but her output was no less impressive. While she did act in several films spanning genres, her primary claim to fame arose from her acting in 5 films between 1932 and 1933:

  • Doctor X (1932)
  • The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
  • The Vampire Bat (1933, also with Atwill)
  • Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
  • and last (but certainly not least) King Kong (1933)

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out all 5 of these classics.

No better actor could have taken on the role of a hard-hitting, quick-witted reporter like Glenda Farrell did with the role of Florence. Farrell seemed to excel in these kinds of roles, playing similar tough-but-smart characters in Miss Pacific Fleet and the Gold Diggers films (1935 and 1937, respectively). And she also got to portray a reporter in the hugely successful Torchy Blane series as well (1937–1939)!

The remaining cast each have their individual claims to classic Hollywood “fame”, too: Frank McHugh (a reliable co-star/supporting player in films like Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1935, etc), Arthur Edmund Carewe (himself a horror stalwart in films like Doctor X, The Cat and the Canary, and Charlie Chan’s Secret), Edwin Maxwell, Holmes Herbert, and Claude King.

The entire proceedings are under the direction of one of Hollywood’s most iconic directors: Michael Curtiz. Curtiz’s career spanned decades and includes classics of almost every genre:

  • Doctor X (1932)
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • Angels with Dirty Faces (also 1938)
  • Casablanca (1942)
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy (also 1942)
  • Mildred Pierce (1945)
  • White Christmas (1954)

Honestly, if you’re new to classic films, just watch those 7 films you’ll get a good head-start!

You can currently stream Mystery of the Wax Museum on HBOMax, or you can pick it up on Blu-Ray and DVD (https://a.co/d/1BqcNOo)

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