In Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Lionel Atwill plays a gifted sculptor who creates uncannily lifelike figures such as Joan of Arc, Voltaire, or Atwill’s pride and joy, Marie Antoinette. On the verge of gaining respect and widespread recognition for his artistry, his crooked financial backer (Edwin Maxwell) visits to complain about the unprofitable exhibition. He blames Atwill’s insistence on creating artistic nonsense instead of crowd pleasers like Jack the Ripper or related ghouls. Maxwell then sets fire to the exhibition so he can collect the insurance money, leaving Atwill badly injured and his work destroyed.
Twelve years pass before we meet Atwill again on New Year’s Eve 1933, watching the body of a young socialite, “beautiful Joan,” being carried off by the coroner. Over at the “Express” newspaper, reporter Glenda Farrell is issued an ultimatum by her editor Frank McHugh: bring in a juicy story or be fired. Farrell is soon deep into an investigation into Joan’s stolen body, which connects to the recent disappearance of eight people, which leads to that new wax museum, with that strange, wheelchair-bound museum manager Atwill and his crew of weird assistants. She’ll be the first to surmise, and then try hard to prove, that Atwill has been reproducing his lost collection of statues, this time using humans. In the meantime, Atwill sets his sights on her friend (Fay Wray) to serve as his new and improved Marie Antoinette.
I like this film a lot, but one quibble is the depiction of police as bumbling and rude imbeciles, and here you get a generous serving of that type, outnumbering the few lawmen shown to be likable and professional. My other problem is Frank McHugh’s character; sometimes his acting works for me but this is one of the other times. He wants to use his paper to smear his chosen targets, and generally has no use for Farrell other than as “ornamental” presence, so he shoots her down every time she brings him a scoop or works out an idea. You can’t even call what he does “countering” with a wisecrack or put down, since she never gets to finish a statement presenting enough for him to debate, and it’s terribly annoying. It seems everyone loves to dump on Farrell, even Wray mocks her dedication to her job, her personality and inability to find a boyfriend.
The great thing is, Farrell takes all their insults and volleys them back with ease and a spin that’s always fun to watch. Here she establishes the wisecracking, clever reporter persona that she would play again and improve upon a few years later in the Torchy Blane series. She’s a strong dame who brushes off your doubt and negativity, tells you where to go, knocks down the obstacles, gets it done when nobody will help and finds a way to get the truth, even if it means putting herself in danger. In a world of faceless fiends, bootleggers, junkies and wax encased bodies, she provides welcome comic relief. My favourite bit is her impatience with excess romantic fluff; after Wray and fiance (Allen Vincent) chitchat about whether or not he’s seen her dress, Farrell says, “thank goodness that’s settled.”
Atwill does an excellent job as the mad genius and frustrated artist, though I prefer Vincent Price in the remake, House of Wax (1953). At first Atwill just likes wax better than “cold hard stone,” but when he expresses his desire to “triumph over” his figures, to get them just so after days of struggle, it’s clear that he has always seen himself not just as artist but also as their Creator, and after being mentally and physically damaged, he predictably takes this complex and ambition to its logical extremes.
Mystery of the Wax Museum was directed by one of my favourite moviemakers, Michael Curtiz. He creates countless images that stun, shock, impress and remain in the memory long after viewing. Eyes from a hooded “statue” follow passersby, a body in the morgue sits bolt upright and during the theft another is slid off a stretcher and lowered down the side of a building. How bizarre that a morgue exists on a high floor, in a circular sunroom-style structure with an industrial vaulted ceiling. Shadowy figures sneak or spy, casting long shapes into massive, empty, endless rooms, staircases and railings bend and lean in ways that violate every building code but the Expressionist one, and giant sliding doors lead to suspended ramps that spiral down toward a giant vat of boiling wax.
This was the last movie made with two-colour Technicolor, and the process adds a gorgeous glow and tone, even if it is a little off and unreal. The camera sometimes tips to disorienting angles, it moves up a street and then up the outside of a building to show us New Year’s revelers and their wild parties. Curtiz also has the camera track along rows of desks and typewriters to introduce the bustling newsroom, a shot that’s repeated as a mirror image at the end of the movie to show Farrell has kept her job. I like how conversations are cut when it’s either obvious where they’re going, or we’re next shown where they end up; it’s economical and efficient storytelling. Character connections and relationships are revealed creatively yet naturally. For example, we meet Farrell, follow her busy evening, meet Atwill’s eager young protege Vincent, see him phone up his fiance Wray, and only then discover that Wray’s roommate is Farrell.
The fire that destroys Atwill’s first statues melts their faces and causes their eyeballs to roll down lumps of wax. It’s a terrifying horror movie effect, as well as a disturbing and repulsive destruction of dreams, of hard work, and of a man’s spirit. Such disregard for human life or beauty breaks your heart, makes the firestarter played by Maxwell a more loathsome villain and Atwill a more sympathetic one. Faces are studied for resemblances, or lifelike qualities, and in the end, in an unforgettable image, Atwill’s mask cracks open to reveal his own deformed, scarred, tragic face. I’ve seen this movie a few times now and those images never fail to spook me, so while it may not be the greatest horror picture of its era, and I like the remake better, it still ranks high in its decade and genre and among my sentimental favourites.