Pre-Code mystery-horror film is fully restored and a sight to see. 4.5 Stars

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.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
Released: 18 Feb 1933
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 77 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh
Writer(s): Don Mullaly (screen play), Carl Erickson (screen play), Charles Belden (from the story by)
Plot: The disappearance of people and corpses leads a reporter to a wax museum and a sinister sculptor.
IMDB rating: 6.9
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 18 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 05/12/2020
MSRP: $21.99

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.

Video: 4.5/5

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.

Audio: 5/5

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.

Overall: 4.5/5

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.

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Matt Hough

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OLDTIMER

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I’ve just placed my order! This movie fulfills my enjoyment of pre-code Warner’s dramas plus the joy of watching two-color Technicolor as it was meant to be seen.

According to my “Dawn of Technicolor” book, the movie was released in Hollywood on Feb 9, 1933 and in New York on Feb 16. Technicolor made 389 IB prints of 7184 ft (8 reels) each. Apparently blue filters were placed over the lights in the morgue scenes to give the desired effect.
 
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mystery01.jpg


It is interesting that MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) occurs in more contemporary times (circa the 1930s) while its remake HOUSE OF WAX (1953) takes place (presumably) in the late 1800s.

The characters of the heroine (Fay Wray) and snoopy female newspaper reporter (Glenda Farrell) in MYSTERY have been merged into the single heroine (Phyllis Kirk) in HOUSE. This explains just why the latter is so unconvincingly overly suspicious of the wax figure of Joan of Arc (Carolyn Jones) displayed in Jarrod's (Vincent Price) museum. Something that I've never been comfortable with.

Lionel Atwill generally gives an unrelentingly highly theatric bravura performance as Ivan Igor while Vincent Price is much more subdued by comparison as Henry Jarrod.

One thing both have in common is that the facial appearance of the malformed terror at large featured in MYSTERY and HOUSE betray the fiend's true identity so that the climatic revelation comes as no real surprise at all.

Albeit the makeup application in MYSTERY is superior to HOUSE.

Fay Wray was certainly a very attractive female in her youthful prime (to be sure) and her character is much more likeable and better performed than Phyllis Kirk's the latter who comes across mostly as a wet blanket.

Both films have their enthusiastic and vocal supporters so it becomes a matter of personal preference as to which is (ultimately) the better film.

One thing is for certain on the basis of the samplers of the restoration work done on MYSTERY it has truly been vastly improved upon.

wax01.jpg


:)
 
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TJPC

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Ok. “Mystery” in colour, “House” in 3D, what about the next re-make? Wide screen feel-a-vision or “smell-a-vision”?
 

Johnny Angell

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The characters of the heroine (Fay Wray) and snoopy female newspaper reporter (Glenda Farrell) in MYSTERY have been merged into the single heroine (Phyllis Kirk) in HOUSE. This explains just why the latter is so unconvincingly overly suspicious of the wax figure of Joan of Arc (Carolyn Jones) displayed in Jarrod's (Vincent Price) museum. Something that I've never been comfortable with
Didn’t Phyllis Kirk ”know” the wax figure victim? My memory is that I bought into her reaction. Of course movies like these two do require some suspension of disbelief.
 

ahollis

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Didn’t Phyllis Kirk ”know” the wax figure victim? My memory is that I bought into her reaction. Of course movies like these two do require some suspension of disbelief.
Think she was her roommate or close friend.
 

Stephen_J_H

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Ok. “Mystery” in colour, “House” in 3D, what about the next re-make? Wide screen feel-a-vision or “smell-a-vision”?
There was a 2005 version (though not actually a remake per se) with Paris Hilton. And yes, it DID smell!
Though I will say that the death of Ms. Hilton is immensely satisfying and pretty much the only reason to watch the remake.
 

warnerbro

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It looks nice, but... it seems like there was a little too much digital clean up and it looks a little smeared. I wish they had given the option to watch un-digitalized raw version as well. In the comparisons, it does look a bit scratched up, but you can see much more detail.
 

Matt Hough

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I watched Doctor X off the TCM app today. Because it stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray and was filmed in two-color Technicolor right before Wax Museum, it was discussed in the special features of this disc, and since I had never seen it before, I took advantage of it today. Very entertaining though not as good as Wax Museum.
 

lark144

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And also the image that goes with that line. I was first fascinated by that image as a black and white still in the pages of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" when I was a precocious tween. I never imagined that some day I would be able to see it in garish color. What I also found intriguing about that still were the words underneath, "make-up by Max Factor." Am I the only person who finds that an oxymoron?
 

John Sparks

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I wonder when Amazon will start shipping, ordered mine on May 3rd?
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