Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

“Before this terrible thing happened to me, I made a very beautiful statue… And my child, you are that figure, come to life!”

Synopsis:
A plucky reporter (Glenda Farrell) discovers that a mad artist (Lionel Atwill) has been using corpses as the models for his wax sculptures — and that his next victim is her beautiful roommate (Fay Wray).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is less than impressed by this once-lost early horror film, lamenting that it has “several dull stretches, unfunny comedy, and uninteresting subplots”. While there’s some truth to this assessment, I think it’s unduly harsh; and unlike Peary, I find this film to be superior to its 1953 remake, the 3-D extravaganza House of Wax. In MotWM’s lead role, Glenda Farrell is infinitely more interesting than HoW‘s insipid Phyllis Kirk, who doesn’t have much to do other than look wide-eyed and worried. Farrell, on the other hand, is a go-getting journalist with genuine spunk and, as noted by DVD Savant, “pre-code attitude”; her wisecracking banter with editor Frank McHugh is a delight. Atwill is also wonderful — he approaches his role differently than Vincent Price, but just as effectively. Perhaps most memorable, however, is the use of muted, two-tone Technicolor hues, which (Savant again), “give the film the look of a faded vintage magazine”. This, along with the expressionistic sets, make the film a visual treat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Glenda Farrell as the spunky female reporter
    Farrell
  • Lionel Atwill as the mad sculptor
    Atwill
  • A striking example of the early two-color Technicolor process
    Two Color
  • The creepy museum fire
    Fire
  • Igor’s expressionistic laboratory
    Lab
  • Fay Wray screaming her famous line: “You fiend!”
    Fay Wray
  • Plenty of snazzy throwaway dialogue: “OK, then you can go to some nice, warm place — and I don’t mean California!”

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical notoriety.

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One Response to “Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)”

  1. A must. And, as noted, superior to the 1953 remake.

    With director Curtiz at the helm, a similar yet better screenplay results in a thrilling film – at about 15 minutes less running time than the remake.

    Not only that – for one thing, this film satisfies because it’s less a showcase for the main, dastardly character; it’s more opened-up, less hemmed-in by the restriction of focus on the lead. (Also, the bitterness of the main character is more apparent: note when Atwill sees Wray for the first time – this very bitter man is transformed to the former lover of beauty he once was.)

    As well, there is a split of comedy and drama. The newsroom sequences are, for example, similar to Hawks’ comedic atmosphere in ‘His Girl Friday’, esp. with great dialogue like:

    Farrell: “Did you ever hear of such a thing as ‘a death mask’?”
    McHugh: “I used to be married to one.”
    Farrell: “And it came to life and divorced ya. I know all about that.”

    Farrell’s delivery puts one in mind of Bette Midler.

    What’s interesting here as well is the influence of German expressionism, esp. the use of light and shadow. And the ending is better than the remake’s – clearer and cleaner.

    As much as I love Vincent Price, Atwill’s performance is more believable – fuller, more complex. Also impressive is Arthur Edmund Carewe as Prof. Darcy (with a touch of Oliver Reed).

    And what can be said about Fay Wray? Most film watchers will only remember her (without knowing her name) as the blonde in ‘King Kong’. Though she probably should have had more of a career, she also appeared memorably in ‘The Clairvoyant’, ‘Viva Villa!’, and ‘Queen Bee’ (perhaps among others). She was also, of course, given due in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (“Whatever happened to Fay Wray?…”).

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