Music: Bernhard Kaun Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh
Mystery of the Wax Museum is probably the most famous early color film. It stars the wonderful Fay Wray in one of her most prolific years in horror films, which saw not only this film released but The Vampire Bat, also with Lionel Atwill, and King Kong. Like many films from the early thirties it suffers from the lack of a proper film score, but that is about the only knock against it. It’s a first rate thriller, perhaps not exactly a horror film proper, but it has been categorized as such for decades. Not only does it boast one of the all-time great directors at the beginning of his career, but skilled actors and a story that has been remade several times.
The film begins in London twelve years earlier. Lionel Atwill is the proprietor and creator of a wax museum that has fallen on hard times. But hope comes in the form of a rich patron who wants to promote the artistic qualities of Atwill’s work. Unfortunately his current investor is broke and, to collect the insurance money, sets the museum on fire and locks Atwill inside. Twelve years later it’s New Year’s Eve in New York City. Atwill is wheelchair bound and reopening his museum. At the same time a mysterious man with a hideously deformed face is stealing bodies from the morgue and newspaper reporter Glenda Farrell is on the case, suspicious when one of the wax figures in Atwill’s museum looks like a recent murder victim. Her roommate, Fay Wray, is dating one of Atwill’s apprentices and as the film gets deeper into the plot, all three storylines begin to converge around the museum.
Even at this early stage in his career, one notices the extraordinary gifts of director Michael Curtiz. His fluid camerawork in the early New York scenes is amazing, and his work with shadows is equally impressive. Lionel Atwill gives the kind of solid performance that one expects from him, with the added bonus that this early in his career he exhibits a lot more physicality than his parts would later call for. Fay Wray is good as well, the heroine who captivates Atwill’s imagination, putting her in mortal danger. But the real star of the film is Glenda Farrell as the wise-cracking reporter. She is magnificent in this film and one wishes she had the kind of face that would have allowed for more leading parts. Warners’ contract player Frank McHugh is terrific as the tough editor of the newspaper Farrell works for. And in a supporting role is Gavin Gordon who was so distinctive as Lord Byron in The Bride of Frankenstein.
The film was made with the same actors and crew that made Doctor X, which was also filmed in the two-strip color process. Because of the laborious nature of the Technicolor process and the lack of audience receptiveness to it, many of those films were allowed to be destroyed by the studios, including Wax Museum. But in 1970 a print was found in Jack Warner’s private collection after his death and has since become a classic of the horror genre as well as early thirties filmmaking. The film would be remade several more times, the first with Vincent Price in House of Wax, this time using the new 3-D process as well as a stereo soundtrack. One of my favorites, though, is a quirky remake by Roger Corman called Bucket of Blood. Mystery of the Wax Museum remains a gem for so many reasons and is highly recommended for fans of depression-era films.