Glorious looking now with its two-color Technicolor in full bloom and its juicy performances and outstanding production design present for all to see, The Mystery of the Wax Museum is nevertheless fully worthy of one’s attention.
The Production: 4/5
A marvelous, macabre mystery from the early pre-Code sound years of Hollywood, Michael Curtiz’s The Mystery of the Wax Museum was once considered a lost film, but in the last thirty years, its rediscovery and now its full restoration mark it as one of the gems of early Hollywood horror storytelling. Glorious looking now with its two-color Technicolor in full bloom and its juicy performances and outstanding production design present for all to see, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, while maybe not as famous as its 1953 remake in full color, stereophonic sound, and 3D House of Wax, is nevertheless fully worthy of one’s attention.
Gifted wax sculptor Ivan Igor’s (Lionel Atwill) London Wax Museum is destroyed and Igor seriously injured when his unscrupulous partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) sets fire to the building for £10,000 in insurance. Twelve years later, Igor resurfaces in New York to reestablish his museum with new versions of his original creations with drug addict Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and other assistants serving as his sculpting hands. But there are suspicious events happening in the Big Apple including the body of recent suicide Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) stolen from the city morgue by a deformed creature hiding in the shadows and Joe Worth now established as a bootlegger servicing the city’s upper crust families like George Winton (Gavin Gordon) who had been arrested for the death of his former girl friend Joan Gale but who is now released when her body goes missing. Intrepid reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell) smells a rat when she notices that Darcy has ties to both Igor and Worth, and with her best friend Charlotte (Fay Wray) dating one of Igor’s assistants (Allen Vincent), it gives her the perfect opportunity to snoop around to her heart’s content.
The screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson has had most of its shocks and surprises revealed over the years due to the popularity of the original movie and later especially from the notoriety of House of Wax, but apart from failing to explain how Igor could afford to finance a new museum in New York after losing everything in the London fire (he didn’t share in the insurance claim), the mystery is nicely set up and has a fair number of red herrings and dead ends sprinkled about before the final revelation of its murderer’s identity. While costing Warners under $300,000 in depression era coin, the production values are superb especially the backlot streets of London and New York (the former drenched in a heavy downpour that’s as realistic as in any movie ever made), the elaborate wax museum in both its incarnations, and the impressive basement waxworks where the climactic face-offs and revelations occur. Michael Curtiz helms the action with a sure, steady hand staging the blazing fire sequence superbly (where the melting wax faces of the figures remain a horrifying sight to behold) and sustaining a creepy basement investigation by Florence with low level lighting and unexpected sounds and sights accentuating the suspense of the moment (and with a grand payoff and capper). The director likewise wrings as much anxiety as possible out of the climactic encounter between the murderer and the intended victim, scream queen Fay Wray.
Fay Wray does get second billing in the film, and she indeed lets loose with her patented series of screams in the later moments of the film, but she’s actually not the movie’s leading lady; Glenda Farrell, later to make her presence known in a series of Torchy Blane comic mysteries, gets the lion’s share of screen time investigating the queer goings on amid this group of people who all seem to be harboring secrets of one kind or another. She’s typically tough talking and determined and is met every step of the way by her demanding editor Jim played zestily by Frank McHugh. Lionel Atwill makes a fantastically broken artist, speaking ardently of his wax creations as his “children” and transfixed by Fay Wray as she resembles his finest creation, a wax sculpture of Marie Antoinette. Arthur Edmund Carewe is admirably pitiable as the addicted Professor Darcy (this being a pre-Code film, his heroin addiction is obvious and commented on by both his supplier and the police alike). Allen Vincent and Gavin Gordon are typically vacant romantic leading men of the era.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in 1080p using the AVC codec. Forget the 480i versions of the film added as supplements in the DVD and Blu-ray releases of House of Wax. This is a full blown restoration, and it’s glorious to behold with the two-color Technicolor in full bloom and looking as impressive as in Criterion’s King Of Jazz from a couple of years ago. Flesh tones are very appealing, and while reds usually take on an orangey coral hue and green is monotonously present just about everywhere else, the overall effect is wonderfully creepy and atmospheric. Sharpness is acute enough for us to notice actors blinking, swallowing, and breathing as they play various wax sculptures in the museum though the ancient nature of the elements necessitates occasional less sharp shots to be used in certain scenes. All of the scratches, reel cues, and emulsion chips have been repaired and smoothed over almost seamlessly. The movie has been divided into 37 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix will greatly impress you despite the age of the elements. All age-related problems with hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter have been eliminated, and the depth of the thunder in the opening sequence, the blazing crackle of the fire with the collapsing timbers, and the machinery in motion in the climactic waxworks sequence are all striking. Dialogue and other sound effects have also been skillfully mixed in the sound design (there is no music apart from the opening and closing credits).
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentaries: there are two provided on the disc: by Alan K. Rode and by Scott MacQueen which combined tell you just about everything you’d ever want or need to know about Mystery of the Wax Museum. Both film historians have scripted their remarks most professionally (MacQueen supplements his commentary with telephone interview remarks from Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell) making them a complete pleasure to listen to.
Remembering Fay Wray (18:49, HD): Fay Wray’s daughter Victoria Riskin shares memories of her mother and her work on The Mystery of the Wax Museum among other movies.
Restoration Comparison (7:11, HD): before and after shots demonstrating the extent of the elaborate restoration efforts on behalf of his film. Preservationist from the UCLA Film & Television Archive Scott MacQueen offers some commentary to the images.
The Mystery of the Wax Museum can now take its place with pride alongside its more famous offspring House of Wax looking and sounding like a million bucks. The movie offers excellent performances and a pre-Code style and feel to its proceedings that presents a nice alternative to its 1953 relative and comes highly recommended.