The Mystery of the Wax Museum/Wax Museum (1933) *½
As far as I can tell, this film did more than any other to establish the wax museum as an appropriate setting for horror movies. In the seven decades since it appeared, it has spawned both a direct remake (1953’s vastly superior House of Wax) and innumerable copies, rip-offs, and wannabes, which is frankly pretty surprising, considering what a miserable old clunker The Mystery of the Wax Museum is.
One night in 1921, a pair of men come to visit a sculptor named Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill, from Murders in the Zoo and Doctor X, who despite his character’s Slavic name delivers all his lines in an overcooked French accent) at the wax museum he runs in London. Igor’s visitors are an old friend of his and a representative of the Royal Gallery, which has lately taken an interest in the artist’s work. As Igor explains to his guests while he shows them about the gallery, he switched to the somewhat unorthodox medium of wax when he grew to appreciate the greater realism it offered in comparison to clay or stone. It seems to have been a wise decision, too, as all of Igor’s historical-themed sculptures are strikingly lifelike. (Of course, the fact that Igor’s “sculptures” are all portrayed by underpaid extras trying their damnedest not to breathe, twitch, or cough might have a thing or two to do with this lifelike quality...) The man from the Royal Gallery is so impressed after completing his tour of Igor’s museum that he promises to do anything he can to get some of his work displayed. With their business for the evening concluded, the two men say their goodbyes, leaving Igor glowing with excitement at his prospects for the future.
Igor’s next visitor, who arrives just moments after the others leave, takes a rather less sanguine view of those prospects, however. Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell, from Night Key and Night of Terror) is Igor’s business partner, and he has come to tell the sculptor that the two of them are now officially flat broke. The wax museum just isn’t pulling in any customers, for the seemingly obvious reason that, whatever the artistic merits of the exhibits it does have, it has no house of horrors. No matter how big Igor’s hard-on for Marie Antoinette, the public at large finds Sweeney Todd, Burke and Hare, and Jack the Ripper far more to its taste; the people of London have voted with their pocketbooks, and Igor and Worth have come out the losers. In fact, the only asset left to either man is the £10,000 fire insurance policy they have covering the museum itself, and Worth thinks the time has come to cut their losses by cashing that policy in. All they’d need to do is “accidentally” drop a match on the floor or leave a cigar lying about unextinguished when they went home for the night. Igor protests most strenuously, but Worth’s mind is made up, and he sets fire to the sculptor’s workshop even when Igor’s protests turn to physical resistance. Worth is the bigger, younger, and stronger of the two men, however, and he gets the better of his erstwhile partner. Then, with the fire spreading rapidly, Worth runs off and leaves the semiconscious Igor to fend for himself.
Twelve years later, in New York, the biggest news story of the day is the apparent suicide of heiress Joan Gale. There are those on the police force, however, who are not so sure the girl really died by her own hand, and they have begun looking into the affairs of Gale’s wealthy playboy boyfriend, George Winton (Gavin Gordon, from Bride of Frankenstein and The Bat). This sensational new angle to a story everyone’s already talking about would be a great scoop for the newspaper that got hold of it first, and luckily for her, the first reporter on the scene is Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), who has just been informed by her editor that she’s about to get the sack if she doesn’t dig up a real story right quick. And when Dempsey finds out that some bastard (some bastard with a burned-up face, as a matter of fact) has stolen Gale’s body from the morgue, she gets so excited that she heads right down to the precinct to have a little talk with Winton herself. This talk convinces her that the man is innocent of any crime in connection with his girlfriend’s death, but all that means is that the mystery has gotten that much deeper.
Meanwhile, we see that two people are in town whom we would not have expected to see, had we not known this was a horror movie. First of all, Worth has come to New York with his ill-gotten gains, and whatever his new line of work is, it involves lots of big wooden crates. Could there be stolen bodies inside them, do you think? Second, Ivan Igor is revealed to have miraculously survived his experience in the burning wax museum, though he is now confined to a wheelchair, and has lost most of the use of his hands. Igor’s new gig is the same as his old one, to the extent that his new wax museum (set to open in a couple of days) even duplicates most of the exhibits that Worth destroyed twelve years before. And interestingly enough, a junkie named Jim (Mighty Joe Young’s Frank McHugh) turns up in both Igor’s museum and the headquarters of Worth’s mysterious, shady operation. Hmmm...
Now Ivan obviously can’t do his own sculpting anymore, so he has hired a staff of artists, including a young man named Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), to do the delicate work for him. Burton is dating a girl named Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray, from King Kong and Black Moon), who is of such radiant beauty that Igor immediately upon meeting her decides he wants her to model for the re-creation of his greatest work, the Marie Antoinette from his old museum in London. The funny thing about Charlotte is that she just happens to be Florence Dempsey’s roommate. Shit. Looks like this is going to be another coincidence movie... Anyway, Florence tags along with Charlotte when the latter girl visits Ralph at the museum, and while she’s there, the reporter notices that Igor’s Joan of Ark sculpture looks more than a little bit like the vanished Joan Gale. This gets her to wondering, and after Winton’s father bails him out of jail, Dempsey looks him up and asks for his help in digging up clues that could prove his innocence. Winton mulls the idea over for a bit, and ultimately concludes that it’s a good one.
The two would-be sleuths soon notice Jim running back and forth between Igor’s place and Worth’s, and they understandably figure the latter might hold the key unlocking the secrets of the former. Dempsey has Winton drop her off around the back of Worth’s warehouse and wait for her in the car. While Florence is poking around in the warehouse, she comes within inches of a nasty encounter with the crispy-faced morgue-robber, and it is his frightening visage, as much as anything else, that convinces the reporter that the crates in the room with her contain bodies. The moment the coast is clear, Dempsey sneaks back out to the car, where she finds Winton busily trying to explain himself to a pair of police detectives who have been following him around town ever since his release from jail, and who would like to know what he’s doing hanging out in front of a locked warehouse. Dempsey excitedly tells the cops that she’s uncovered a body-snatching ring, and leads them down to the basement of Worth’s building, where she sets them to the task of prying open one of the crates she saw earlier. But it turns out Dempsey isn’t such a hot-shit crime-solver after all, because there’s no body in the crate, just a whole lot of bootleg whiskey. At least the cops are able to apprehend Jim, who came looking to buy dope from Worth at exactly the wrong time.
The junkie eventually spills his guts to the police, revealing that he was working for both Worth and Igor, the latter of whom was paying him to set a trap for the former. And though he knows about the creative new use that Igor has found for Joan Gale’s body (and the bodies of several other recently deceased notables, as well), he personally had no part in that end of Igor’s scheme. It may take longer, but prying the story out of a dope-sick junkie is at least a much safer way of learning the truth about Ivan Igor than the route Charlotte inadvertently takes. While the cops are grilling Jim, she’s making the mistake of paying a visit to the wax museum after closing time in the hope of hanging out with Ralph. Ralph isn’t in, though, so Igor takes the opportunity to make his move, unexpectedly rising from his wheelchair and strapping his new Marie Antoinette into the slightly silly machine he uses to turn the bodies of his victims into wax dummies. And in a sequence that’s almost good enough not to suffer from the comparison it naturally raises with the unmasking scene from The Phantom of the Opera, Charlotte’s struggles destroy Igor’s ingeniously wrought false face, revealing that he and the burned body-snatcher are one and the same. It’s a good thing for Charlotte that her roommate stubbornly insists on making one last effort to prove a link between Igor and the disappearance of Joan Gale, and it’s an even better thing for her that the policemen in this movie aren’t nearly as incompetent or dismissive as those in certain other old horror flicks I could name.
If ever you wanted to know what was meant by the term “dated” as applied to movies, then have a look at The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Lionel Atwill’s performance is very good (the accent aside), but every other aspect of the film is so over the top in its early-30’s mannerisms that the movie treads dangerously close to self-parody. The worst feature is the central role played by Florence Dempsey. Glenda Farrell plays her as an overwrought distillation of the stereotypical wise-cracking, hard-boiled New York journalist that was forever turning up in movies of this vintage. If this flick had an ironic bone in its body, I might suspect that she and director Michael Curtiz were deliberately ridiculing this type of stock character, but such a thing scarcely seems possible in the context provided by the rest of the film. This is a character that ought to have been relegated to comic relief status (her complete omission would obviously have been too much to ask in 1933), but because of the script’s over-reliance on coincidence to advance the plot, the reporter is forced to take center stage, as only she is in a position to have access to all the pieces of the puzzle. As for the other players, Fay Wray repeats her “look pretty and scream real loud” performance from King Kong, Frank McHugh plays Jim as a generic gangster-movie stool-pigeon, and both male leads are so completely bland and vapid that their places could just as easily have been taken by life-sized cardboard cutouts.
The script also has far more wrong with it than its nearly exclusive use of coincidence to drive the plot. Too much time is devoted to Dempsey hanging around the police station waiting for news to happen. Worth’s motivations for moving to the United States and going into the bootlegging and dope-peddling business are never established. The two aspects of Igor’s villainy— his use of real human bodies to take the place of the wax dummies he can no longer make and his revenge plot against Worth— sit uneasily together, as if there weren’t quite enough room in this movie for both of them, and the revenge angle is glossed over much too quickly. And worst of all, The Mystery of the Wax Museum ends with a completely false-feeling romantic pairing between Dempsey and her editor, who have expressed nothing but utter contempt and loathing for one another all throughout the preceding 70-odd minutes. It’s enough to give you a real headache.