Thursday, October 4, 2018

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

After it had first introduced me to many of the classic horror films from Universal throughout the month of October in 1998, I was fully expecting Turner Classic Movies to show me some more on Halloween, which fell on a Saturday that year, but much to my chagrin, they instead decided to focus on flicks I wasn't interested in, like The Ape Man with Bela Lugosi and I Walked With a Zombie late that night. Sure, they showed the documentary, Universal Horror, which was nice, but I wanted to see more of the actual monster flicks that I'd read up on for years, so I was more than a little disappointed. The reason why I bring this up here is because it was on that Halloween when I got my first couple of looks at this movie: once during the day, when they actually showed it and I saw the tiniest little bit when I flipped back to the channel to see if they were showing anything I'd be interested, and then during Universal Horror, where it showed the scene where Fay Wray smashes Lionel Atwill's wax face and reveals the hideous disfigurement underneath. I always remembered that, both for the scene itself and how the documentary immediately cut to James Karen, who talked about how that moment really scared the crap out of him (he also mentioned how that movie in general gave him nightmares). I also became aware that day that this movie was one of a couple of different versions of this story, thanks to the informative intro that they played before it, but I didn't actually see it until late 2009 when I was 22 and had bought the DVD of House of Wax with Vincent Price. As I'll get into more when I talk about that film, though I hadn't seen the whole thing, I had seen much more of it than Mystery of the Wax Museum, knowing that it was a remake, and it was only after I bought the DVD that I saw that the earlier film came with it as a bonus, which was a pleasant surprise, as I had become interested in seeing it as well. When I did see it, my thoughts were simply, "Eh, that was okay." I felt that the acting was fine, especially from Atwill and Glenda Farrell, and the production values seemed high, but I didn't find it as entertaining or memorable as House of Wax (mainly because I like Price as an actor much more than Atwill) and I've never liked the look of that two-strip Technicolor process, as it feels very faded and is downright unpleasant to look at, for the most part. Looking at it now, my opinion hasn't changed: it's an okay film but this is a rare instance where I feel that the remake is superior in every way.

On a stormy night in London in 1921, artist Ivan Igor, who runs a small wax museum, is visited by a friend and an investor, who is eager to see his works. Igor proudly gives them a brief tour of his museum and the investor is so taken by his talent that he offers to submit his sculptures to the Royal Academy when he returns from an excavation in Egypt. Igor is ecstatic at the news but his joy is short-lived when his shady business partner, Joe Worth, tells him that they're in dire financial straits from lack of attendance and that the rent for the building hasn't been paid. Worth proposes that they burn the place down in order to collect the insurance, an idea that Igor is staunchly against, as he's very fond of his sculptures, which he often refers to as his "children," especially his Marie Antoinette. Worth, however, makes it clear that he's going to do it despite Igor's objections, and despite the artist's attempts to stop him, the entire building and his sculptures are soon engulfed in flames, with Worth eventually knocking Igor unconscious and leaving him there to die. Igor survives, however, and twelve years later, he's living in New York City, where he plans to open a new museum, as well as to eventually get revenge on Worth, who's also working there as a bootlegger. Shortly after the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, model Joan Gale is found dead in her apartment from an apparent suicide and her body is later stolen from the city morgue by a horribly disfigured man dressed in a black coat and hat. The next day, fast-talking, sarcastic reporter Florence Dempsey is threatened to be fired by her editor unless she comes up with a story and when she decides to investigate Gale's death, she's present at the morgue when it's discovered that the body has been taken. Gale's lover, wealthy playboy George Winton, who's had a history of bad behavior, is suspected of having murdered her but Florence, after talking with him in his jail cell, decides he's innocent and tries to find the real killer. Florence's roommate, Charlotte Duncan, happens to be engaged to a sculptor who's working at the wax museum with Igor, and when the two girls meet up with him there, Igor becomes transfixed by Charlotte, who resembles his beloved Marie Antoinette; at the same time, Florence notices an eerie resemblance between a Joan of Arc sculpture and Joan Gale. Florence digs deeper to find a connection between the two, with the reluctant help of Winton once he's released on bail, and soon, she and the police uncover a horrific scheme by Igor to replace his lost sculptures with the bodies of real people dipped in wax, and Charlotte is intended to become his next intended victim.

Mystery of the Wax Museum was one of many films directed by the eclectic, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, who had already directed over 60 films in Europe before coming to America in 1926 and working for Warner Bros. He helped put the studio on the map with his films Tenderloin and Noah's Ark, and the year before Wax Museum, he'd already directed another two-strip Technicolor horror film called Doctor X, which also happened to star both Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. (Just a heads up: that movie is going to be mentioned a lot in this review, as its shadow was often hanging over this film.) Filled with boundless energy, Curtiz got into the habit of directing at least four movies a year throughout the whole of the 1930's and he continued to maintain a pretty steady pace into the 40's and 50's, working with numerous big stars like Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Elvis Presley, Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, and Lauren Bacall, among many others. However, his high energy and workaholic nature often put him at odds with his casts and crews, who found him to be demanding and arrogant (Fay Wray once said of Curtiz, "I felt that he was not flesh and bones, that he was part of the steel of the camera,"), and he didn't have much of an opinion of actors in general, although he typically got along well with his stars. While he made a good number of well-regarded films throughout his long career, his most beloved by far is Casablanca, and he continued working right up until his death of cancer in 1962 at the age of 75, with his final movie being the John Wayne western, The Comancheros.

Lionel Atwill is probably best remembered for his supporting roles in many horror films of the 30's and 40's, often as either a police inspector or a scientist and most notably in every Universal film featuring the Frankenstein monster from Son of Frankenstein to House of Dracula, but in the early 30's, he did have a few leads, with other examples being the aforementioned Doctor X and The Vampire Bat. While I still enjoy Vincent Price's take on this character in House of Wax more, Atwill does give a performance as Ivan Igor that's memorable in its own way. He starts off as a very focused, sort of eccentric artist, one who sees the wax sculptures he's created as his children, especially his Marie Antoinette, and is ecstatic when he's told that his creations are good enough to be put in the Royal Academy. He's so convinced that his sculptures are living, breathing people that he tells his influential admirer that "they" are indebted to him and, once they've left, he asks his Marie Antoinette her opinion and says, "Of course, you'd say that." However, his hopes are dashed when his scheming business partner, Joe Worth, comes up with the idea of burning down the wax museum in order to collect insurance to get them out of the hole of debt they're in and, try as he might, he's unable to save his sculptures and is left behind in the museum to burn to death along with them. When he resurfaces in New York twelve years later, his hands burned beyond use and his legs seemingly crippled, he's a very embittered man and a sharp-tongued taskmaster towards those who work for him, asking Ralph Burton, upon seeing his sculpture of a woman, "It would be interesting to know, young man, where and when you studied anatomy," and comments on the deaf-mute Hugo's tendency to sculpt everything in his likeness. Igor further laments his need to train others to do his sculptures, saying, "It is a cruel irony that you people without souls should have hands." And in this mindset, he's decided to cater more to the type of crowd who loves sensationalism and horror that he once denounced to Worth. The only thing that softens Igor is when he meets Charlotte Duncan, who is the spitting image of his Marie Antoinette, and he becomes positively entranced by her visage, often staring at her obsessively. He tells her of the likeness and asks her to serve as a model some time, intending in reality to make her a permanent part of the wax museum, along with the other people whose bodies he's used to create his new sculptures. When he finally reveals his plan to her when he has her alone, as well as show that he can walk just fine and doesn't need the wheelchair or crutches that he's been using, he becomes completely obsessive and fanatical, telling Charlotte, "Immortality has been the dream, the inspiration of mankind through the ages, and I am going to give you immortality... I have no desire to hurt you. You will always be beautiful. Think, my child: in a thousand years, you will be as lovely as you are now!"

This is when Charlotte, in an attempt to get away from him, slaps Igor's face and it cracks, revealing itself to be a wax mask covering his real, horribly burned face (a memorably hideous piece of makeup work by Ray Romero and Perc Westmore), revealing him to be the monstrous man who stole Joan Gale's body from the mortuary and who brought back a body revealed to be Joe Worth after the commotion at the house where Worth kept his bootlegged liquor. His visage so horrifies Charlotte that she screams and calls him a fiend, but he assures her that, while there was a fiend, it's not him, saying, "For twelve years, twelve awful years, this terrible living dead man, with his burned hands and face, has searched for this fiend. Now the account is closed! He is here!", and reveals Worth's body to her. As pitiable as this makes him, though, it doesn't change the fact that nothing will stop Igor from turning Charlotte into his new Marie Antoinette and he's only stopped when Florence Dempsey leads the police to the museum and he's gunned down while fighting with them (for a guy who's as burned as he is, he manages to put up quite a fight, coming across as very strong and nimble), falling into the vat of boiling wax.

After Igor, the most memorable in the film is the female lead, Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), a female reporter who may be good looking but is definitely one of the boys. She's a fast-talking, spunky, tenacious, and acerbic young woman, one who's not afraid to speak her mind, be it when she's trading shots with her editor, Jim whom she loves to tease and who gets sick of him constantly dumping on all her ideas, and telling Charlotte Duncan, her much more feminine and reserved roommate, how little she thinks of her fairly poor fiance, Ralph Burton, commenting, "I can just see it now, you telling the landlady you didn't have the rent, but Ralph was awfully sweet." She has some memorable tics as well, like how she snaps her fingers whenever she's got something or is frustrated and blows a raspberry at others. What's more, while she hasn't come up with a story in a while and her editor threatens to fire her if she doesn't, Florence proves to be quite a savvy reporter when she puts her mind to it, heading to the morgue to witness an autopsy on Joan Gale's body once she hears that it's believed she may have been murdered, and when it's discovered the body was stolen, she talks with Gale's former lover and suspected, George Winton, as he's being held in jail. It's during this scene where Florence shows that, despite her sharp-tongued, sarcastic nature, she is a decent person, as she's willing to believe Winton when he insists that he had nothing to do with what happened to Gale and gives him a break, while others would point to his unsavory past as proof of his guilt. She refuses to run with her story from that angle, going so far as threatening to quit when JIm tries to pressure her to do so, and you find out that she gave a judge who disappeared the benefit of the doubt, feeling he may have been murdered while others feel he may simply be hiding for whatever reason (said judge later turns out to have been one of Igor's victims). When she goes to the wax museum for the first time and sees how the Joan of Arc sculpture there looks so much like Gale, she's convinced that her body may have been stolen to be used as a death mask for the sculpture and becomes further convinced that there's something strange going on at there when she realizes that a piece of paper she found by the sculpture was lifted from her pocket. She's able to talk Winton into helping her, having him wait for her outside the museum while she does some more investigating after it's officially opened, and when Igor tells her that Prof. Darcy was the one who worked on the Joan of Arc, she and Winton follow him to the building where Joe Worth operates his bootlegging from. Sneaking inside, Florence believes that a crate she finds in the cellar may contain Gale's body and is further horrified when the disfigured Igor shows up there.

While her hunch about the crate turns out to be wrong, Florence's curiosity does lead to Darcy's arrest and the missing judge's watch being found on his person. Knowing that this is a significant lead, she gets a photo of the judge and, ignoring Jim's mocking her for thinking she'd found a body when it was a crate of booze, she heads over to the museum with it. It doesn't take her long to find that one of the wax sculptures in there is actually the judge's body, and when she and Ralph discover what Igor is up to and that he plans to make Charlotte into one of his macabre sculptures, she tries to get Winton to help when Ralph is knocked unconscious by the madman. Fortunately, around that time, the police have learned everything and break into the place, leading to Igor's death and Charlotte being saved. After she's written her story, Jim surprises Florence by asking her to marry him, as he feels she should quit the newspaper business and "act like a lady," and Florence, who's always been more interested in how much money a man has, has a choice between him and Winton, who's fallen for her. She decides to get even with Jim and accepts his proposal, with the two of them shaking on it before kissing (as I'll get into in a bit, that felt like it came out of left-field and it ends the movie on a very abrupt note, but it's not that big of an issue).

Even though she's second-billed here behind Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray doesn't make her first appearance until about the 30 minute-mark, in a movie that's only 77 minutes long besides, and even then, she has far less screentime than him or Glenda Farrell. She also has much less to play with than they do, as her character of Charlotte Duncan is little more than a naive, young innocent, a woman who is more traditionally feminine and the exact opposite of Florence's more cynical, ballsy personality and who loves her fiance, Ralph, in spite of his being a poor sculptor. She really has little more to do in the film than bristle underneath Florence's acid-tongued comments about her and Ralph's relationship, find herself taking a backseat to her fiance's work, and unintentionally become the target of the maniacal Igor, as she resembles his long-lost Marie Antoinette and hopes to use her to recreate her. Wray does get to let loose her iconic scream a few times but, other than that, there's not much to her role here, as there wasn't with her character of Ann Darrow, aside from all the screaming. Truth be told, while she was an iconic star of her time, I've never seen a movie where Wray proved herself to be a really good actor, although I think that may have had to do with the types of roles she was given, because in interviews, she often proved herself to be quite witty and intelligent. And as for Charlotte's fiance, Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), there's even less to say about him, as he no personality, is far from being even the typically handsome leading man of the time, as he does so little, and his only function is to be ordered around and berated by Igor and have to turn Charlotte down for lunch dates because of him. He doesn't even get to save Charlotte during the climax, as he gets knocked out by Igor and the police are the ones that break in and take him down (does he put up a fair fight with him before being overpowered, though).

George Winton (Gavin Gordon) is a kind of sympathetic character since, even though we're told he's a millionaire playboy who's had numerous affairs in the past, it's clear he's gotten a raw deal as a result of his reputation, as he's the prime suspect in Joan Gale's murder since they were involved. However, not only is he as shocked as everyone else by her death and the disappearance of her body, but he tells Florence of the last time he saw Gale and the two of them clearly parted amicably. His torment doesn't end even when he's bailed out of jail, as Florence ropes him into helping her in her attempt to find Gale's real killer and, even though he'd rather not get involved, given the trouble it's caused him (his point is proven when two detectives who were following him and Florence grill him about what he's been doing as he's waiting for her outside the building she went into), he reluctantly agrees to it. But, despite this irritation, and the discovery that the place happens to be where his bootlegger, Joe Worth, operates from, Winton, who appreciate her trying to cheer him up while he was in jail, finds himself falling for Florence and even asks her to marry him. Florence says she'll "take it up with the board of directors" when he tells her how much money he has but, as I said, the film ultimately ends with her choosing Jim over him (an act of cowardice on his part during the climax when Florence tried to get him to help Charlotte and Ralph probably aided in her decision).

Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) is one of the first characters that you see at the very beginning of the movie and from the start, he comes across as very shifty, hiding nearby as he watches the two people who show up at Igor's London wax museum. He gets no better as the opening goes on, as he tells Igor of the sad financial situation they're in, clearly regretting putting any money into the museum to begin with, and also tells him of his idea to set the place on fire in order to collect the insurance. When Igor protests, Worth tells him that he has no say in the matter and sets the place ablaze, fighting with him every step of the way as the artist desperately tries to save his creations. He does seem to try to pull Igor towards the door at one but when the artist puts up more of a fight, he decides to leave him there to die and locks him as he leaves. Cut to twelve years later in New York, where Worth is now working as a bootlegger for George Winton, unaware that Igor has tracked him down and that one of his men, the drug addicted Professor Darcy, also works for him. The film seems to try to make you think that Worth is unknowingly working for Igor at first, given how the scene of him making a phone call and saying that he has to have something delivered is followed by Joan Gale's body being stolen but that turns out to not be the case, as the only thing he's keeping down in the cellar of the building he operates from is liquor. Regardless, he does see Darcy, whose addiction he placates from time to time, as a potential liability whenever he begins to get the jitters as he starts to go through withdrawals, and he has no idea how right he is, as Igor soon sneaks into the place, murders Worth, and takes his body back to the wax museum to be made into one of his exhibits.

Igor appears to have a number of cronies who help him in his evil plans, including a sinister street-sweeper who locks Charlotte in the wax museum during the third act and others disguised as wax figures who keep an eye on her, but the most notable one is Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe). As I said up above, he's a junkie who works for both Igor and Worth, the latter of whom he's actually meant to be keeping tabs on. It's never made clear whether his working for Worth is part of his way of doing so or if he's simply moonlighting because he gets a fix for his addiction from him (his informing Igor of having seen Worth before going to the place to talk with him only makes it more murky) but, whatever the case, he ends up getting arrested at Worth's hideout when Florence Dempsey brings the police after trailing him there. Initially, Darcy denies having ever been there before and says that the watch which belonged to the missing judge that was found on him was something he simply picked up in a taxi cab but, as the evening wears on and he begins to go through withdrawals, he finally breaks down. He tells the police that Igor is the one who's been doing the murdering, while he simply embalmed the bodies in wax (he'd alluded to such earlier when he eagerly asked Igor if he would have the pleasure of working on Charlotte Duncan and piqued Florence's interest when she learned who was the one who worked on the Joan of Arc, saying that he simply followed Igor's instructions), and that the whole place is a mortuary. Another person who works for Igor is Hugo (Matthew Betz), a simple-minded deaf-mute whose exact role is unclear, in that you never know if he works as a sculptor like Ralph or if he does take part in the dirty work. He does act menacingly towards Charlotte after she gets locked in the museum but that could have easily been a case of him not knowing how to react towards her and her getting spooked because of his unintentionally strange behavior and the creepy surroundings.

One character who really threw me for a loop at the end was Florence's editor, Jim (Frank McHugh). Throughout the whole movie, he's been doing nothing but engaging in a battle of wits with her (one made up of a lot of funny, snappy dialogue between them), threatening to fire her in their first scene because of her lack of recent stories, often mocking and dumping on the ideas and theories that she gets as she uncovers more information, and, in general, doesn't seem to think she's anything other than easy on the eyes... and then, during the movie's last scene, he asks her to marry him. Florence is about as shocked as I was when I first heard it, as it seemed to come right out of left field, was something I wasn't expecting in the least, and it threw me even more when Florence decided to go for it. I know that the idea is supposed to be that, after having been more interested in how much money a man has, she decides to choose real happiness over the wealthy George Winton, but besides its being like Lois Lane agreeing to marry Perry White, could she and Jim really be happy together? Really? I don't see that at all, and it was a weird way to end things to me. Speaking of the cast, you have to love how Monica Bannister is actually listed in the credits as having played Joan Gale, a character who you never see as a living person and only know what she looks like because she was made into the wax museum's Joan of Arc. It's rather odd how she got billed but a bunch of other actors in the film who have true speaking parts, even if they're only extras, didn't, don't you think?

As I said in the introduction, a major drawback to Mystery of the Wax Museum is the two-strip Technicolor process that it was shot in which, thankfully, was discontinued afterward, as the studios realized that the general public really didn't care too much for it and it was costly to do besides. In my opinion, it just doesn't look that good. Color in film would become much more vibrant and rich in later years but these early attempts at it, like the one sequence in the original Phantom of the Opera and Doctor X, look like a badly done colorization of a normally black-and-white movie, akin to the stuff Ted Turner was up to at one point. The colors don't look natural at all and often come off as faded and downright tacky as much as artificial. As you can see from the screen images, there's a lot of pink and white in the color scheme and it makes the movie look ugly more often than not, which I doubt it was they were going for. There are scenes and shots in the film, however, that do benefit from the color, especially when there are a lot of deep blues and greens onscreen, like in the rain-swept streets of London at the beginning and the corridors deep within the bowels of the wax museum, and they make me think of Dario Argento's movies Suspiria and Inferno, particularly the latter. What's also nice is that, when the film is trying to be atmospheric and eerie in its look, the color doesn't interfere in Michael Curtiz's attempt to create deep, dark shadows while highlighting other parts of the screen, like Ivan Igor's disfigured face. So, I don't think the color is a total bust and also, to be fair, I've read that the print of the film that I've seen on that House of Wax DVD isn't the best representation of how this movie looked back in the day (I don't know how well it transferred to Blu-Ray) but, given how Doctor X doesn't look much better, I'm glad that this trend went out of fashion afterward.

The filmmakers were probably glad it did too, as the Technicolor caused unexpected problems during production: due to the bright lights necessary to make it work, the wax sculptures they were originally going to use and so, actual people had to stand in for them! I'm sure that not all of the figures are real people, as some of them do look artificial, even in the long-shots, but in the close-ups, such as those of Marie Antoinette at the beginning and Joan of Arc, that is the case and it's very noticeable. In fact, it seems like this wasn't originally planned to be shot in Technicolor, as the studio heads were aware of the apathy both audiences and critics had with it, but when the Technicolor company learned of Warner Bros. violating their contract by filming Doctor X in black-and-white as well, they took revenge by refusing to allow them to use the remainder of it on shorts rather than another feature. Thus, we got this last hurrah for two-strip Technicolor.

Back before studios began to look at horror films as nothing more than B-pictures, they would often pour a lot of money into their production and this film is certainly no exception. The sets, courtesy of Anton Grot, are all excellent, lavish, and nicely-detailed, from the moody, almost Victorian-looking London street that you see at the beginning of the film and the modest wax museum full of lovely figures that Igor runs there initially, to the big, extra- and vehicle-filled streets of New York City. Even the most mundane of sets, like Jim's office at the newspaper and the large jail where Florence first meets George Winton, are worth mentioning because they're also proof of the money (a healthy $229,000) that Warner Bros. was willing to put into it. But it's the creepy sets depicting the interiors of the wax museum that are the most memorable. The exhibit area of the museum is enormous and is fairly inviting when it's running and bustling with customers, but when Charlotte finds herself roaming around the place early in the morning, the darkness and the wax figures she sees at every turn give the place an uncomfortable, eerie feel, especially since some of the figures are actually Igor's cronies standing perfectly still and watching her every move, with the guy who's watching her through the executioner's hood being especially creepy. (In fact, this movie is one of the earliest sources of these kinds of tropes you see all the time in Scooby-Doo and other shows, with another one being secret passageways, which Charlotte finds down in the depths of the place). Things don't get much better when she wanders through the corridors that lead down to the workshop, which are big, twisting, imposing passageways with Expressionistic-like shadows and shafts of light and color dotting them, and the workshop is more akin to a mad scientist's laboratory, the centerpieces of which are a long catwalk connected to an angled little staircase and a big vat of boiling wax., where Igor meets his demise. I think the place looks cooler in House of Wax but this is still some really good set design, and I'm sure it influenced Tim Burton when he did Batman, as the inside of the Axis Chemicals plant looks very similar to this place, right down to the vat of boiling chemicals that turn Jack Napier into the Joker.

While the place where Joe Worth operates his bootlegging schemes is little more than an old, rundown building, the cellar is worth mentioning in that it comes off as a pretty classic, creepy set as well when Florence wanders into it after having followed Prof. Darcy there and sees the disfigured Igor snooping around (again, twisting stairs, eerie hallways, a broken down, dirty look, lots of crates, and darkness and shadows galore are classic stuff we've seen time and time again on Saturday morning cartoons but is where it all came from). The only thing is, couldn't they have come up with something better to scare Florence, like a rat or something, rather than a croaking, hopping frog? Finally, I have to touch on the interior of the city morgue, where Igor's real, first face is first seen when he comes out of his hiding place, takes Joan Gale's body, and lowers it out a nearby window and into a waiting truck below. It's a simple but effectively eerie set, as a big, wide open room with a cold, clinical color scheme and cadavers hidden beneath sheets on slabs in a big circle, although it's also a moment where Warner Bros. cut some corners, as it's a recycled set from Doctor X (but Grot was the art director on that as well, so at least the design fits).

Cinematographer Ray Rennahan was another member of the Doctor X crew who reunited with Michael Kurtiz and the two of them managed to make the film look as good as they could in the photographic sense, in spite of the handicap of the two-strip Technicolor. As I mentioned, they were successful in establishing a mood here, managing to create a lot of deep shadows and areas of darkness with highlights here and there, as well as sometimes use the deeper colors to their advantage, and they shoot things in ways they make them look menacing and eerie, like the close-ups of the eyes of the people disguised as wax figures as they watch Charlotte roam around the empty museum and the hallways in both the museum and the cellar of Joe Worth's bootlegging hideout. In particular, that image of Charlotte approaching the secret hatch that leads down into the workshop is shot in a very memorable way, which is punctuated by the featureless, colored background, all of the angles, and the high ceiling and large width of the corridor. And while Kurtiz and Rennahan don't experiment with the camera like Rouben Mamoulian did in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they do manage to come up with some interesting shots and movements, such as these long, continuous crane shots (which would become something of a trademark for Kurtiz) during the first scenes in New York City that pan along the sides of the buildings, up to the windows, and track above the streets; a tracking shot that follows after Worth as he walks the streets to his hideout; an interesting instance of framing where Hugo's head is juxtaposed with these sculpted heads on a long shelf he's sitting behind, making it look as though he's one of them come to life; and numerous high-angled shots and pans that show off the scale of the sets, like in the jail and the lost shot of George Winton as he waits for Florence on the street below Jim's office. Nothing too flashy, but enough to show that this was a film that had as much talent behind it as it did money.

The editing in the film is a little more mixed. Some of it is nice, like the kinetic cutting during the action setpieces at the beginning and end, especially the former, where it goes back and forth between Igor and Worth fighting and close-ups of the wax figures melting in the fire, and the interesting use of an animated clock to represent the fact that it's midnight on New Year's Eve when the story transitions to New York, but then are there other instances where it feels awkward. There are some instances during those fights where the editing is a little too choppy, with shots cutting away before punches land, and the film is clearly sped up, as well as moments elsewhere where dialogue abruptly cuts off in mid-sentence (I think one of those is meant to signify Florence saying something you couldn't say in a movie back then but it fell kind of flat and seemed like a major error) and a notable bit where Charlotte begins to faint after Igor shows her Worth's body, only for it to cut to something before she's even halfway toppled over! You could chalk these errors up to the time in which the film was made and the editors still finessing and refining their work but, like the two-strip Technicolor, they are archaic enough to make the movie feel painfully dated.

If you want an example of the liberty that filmmakers had in the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, all you have to do is to watch Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax back to back because, while this film isn't as subversive as some of its peers, it does contain some stuff that they could have never gotten away with in the 50's. The most significant example is Professor Darcy's drug addiction, which is shown to be quite major, as he's often jittery whenever he hasn't had a fix in a while, saying that he needs something to settle his nerves, and he looks really gaunt and unhealthy, with sunken in eyes that have dark circles around them. By contrast, his counterpart in House of Wax, Leon Averill, is simply an alcoholic, although in that film, the police still get him to talk by keeping him away from his vice for a long time. Another example is a moment where Florence heads to the police station to get a scoop from one of the officers and catches one of them reading a magazine that's literally called, Naughty Stories. She even asks him, "How's your sex life?", a line that about caused me to drop my teeth when I first heard it, as I didn't think they could get away with stuff like that in the 30's. Nothing of the sort can be found in House of Wax but, besides its being made in the more conservative 50's, it could also have to do with the fact that, unlike this film, the story takes place around the turn of the century, when such things were far more repressed. The only thing that movie has over this in terms of boldness is the fact that Professor Jarrod places Sue beneath the vat of wax completely naked (you don't see anything explicit but you get the idea that that's the case), whereas Igor places a sheet over Charlotte's body, although it does look as if he removed her clothes offscreen.

One way in which this film and House of Wax are very similar, aside from sharing the same general plot, is that they're both bookended by spectacular setpieces within the wax museums, with the fire that destroys the original one at the beginning and the climax where the villain is stopped before he can turn one of the female leads into a wax sculpture. In the case of Mystery of the Wax Museum, the beginning is a pretty exciting scene, with Igor struggling with Joe Worth to try to stop him from setting figures on fire but ultimately failing and the two of them get into a fight, punching and shoving each other throughout the place, as the figures burn and melt around them. There's one moment where Igor gets shoved into this sculpture he was working on, toppling it over to the floor, and Worth a bottle of some sort of combustible chemical at him that misses him and explodes onto his beloved Marie Antoinette figure, setting it aflame. He rushes to the figure, shocked and horrified at what's happening, and this is where Worth seems like he tries to pull Igor away to try to get him outside, but he continues resisting and is shoved backwards over a railing, causing it to crumble. He tries to crawl back up the small flight of stairs at Worth but loses consciousness, as Worth walks around him and leaves him behind to die along with his sculptures as the fire continues to spread and sections of the ceiling fall in. The scene ends with Worth locking Igor in, as he wakes up and is only able to watch helplessly as everything burns down around him, with a notable last moment being when a figure holding a rope to a guillotine is burned and the rope snaps, causing the blade to drop and lop off the head of the figure beneath it. It's a memorable way to open the movie, although the scene in House of Wax feels much bigger and more epic in scope, which, as we'll get to more in that review, may actually be something of a detriment to the film. I will say, however, that Wax Museum does suffer from the same problem, which is that the movie is never able to top this awesome setpiece and it feels much more climactic than the actual finale. Despite the chopping editing I mentioned, it's still a nice sequence, as Igor attempts to recreate his Marie Antoinette through Charlotte, only to be interrupted when Ralph and Florence, hearing her screams, rush down to the workshop. Like I said earlier, Ralph does what he can against Igor but is easily overpowered and knocked out with a small club, with Florence trying to get Winton to help. Igor comes very close to covering Charlotte's body in wax but is stopped when the police arrive and he has to fight with them. Again, he manages to hold his own with them, hitting and tossing them aside, throwing his wheelchair at a couple, and knocking one off the walkway, and is only stopped when he's shot at the top of the walkway and falls into the vat of wax below, with Ralph regaining consciousness and saving Charlotte... and then, the film wraps up with that last scene between Florence and Jim, which takes the wind out of the climax's sails.

Aside from a number of the characters being a tad bit bland and the often tacky look of the two-strip Technicolor, my only other major qualm with Mystery of the Wax Museum is that the story is sometimes a little hard to follow and I had to closely re-watch the movie in order to make sure I got everything straight. For instance, Joe Worth's introduction in New York City cuts from him calling someone up and saying that he has to have some unnamed shipment directly to the theft of Joan Gale's body from the city morgue and then back to Worth's hideout as a crate is delivered there, making it seem as if the two are connected. In hindsight, I guess that you're supposed to think upon your first viewing that the crate contains Gale's body and that it was used as a model for the Joan of Arc in the wax museum, as Florence theorizes, but if you were to stop and think about it, it wouldn't make sense, as you'd have to wonder why Worth and Igor would be working together after the opening that we just saw. You could then think that maybe Worth didn't realize he was working with his former business partner but that becomes problematic once you see the first scene between him and George Winton and it's only confirmed when you learn that Worth is working for Winton as nothing more than a bootlegger. So, once it's all said and done, Worth's only connection to Igor in New York was the fact that Professor Darcy worked for both of them and that the sequence of events was nothing more than the filmmakers trying to make you think something more complex is going on, and it's possible that it didn't work for me since I already knew the gist of the story because I'd seen House of Wax. That still doesn't explain, though, why Darcy was going back and forth in his dealings with Igor and Worth, what made him decide to suddenly tell Igor that he's seen Worth, how Igor could've tracked Worth to New York but know where he was operating from all this time, and how he eventually did find out where his hideout was (it's possible that Darcy phoned him from outside, as he was attempting to make a call, but it's a shaky notion). Speaking of which, what exactly was Igor doing down in the building's cellar? I know he went there to finally settle the score with Worth but why was he pushing around the crate full of bootlegged liquor? And he also slips away through what appears to be a secret door, which feels out of place in that cellar. The only thing I can think of to explain this is that it's just another part of the filmmaking artifice to make us think that Gale's body could be in there, as well as to have a moment of suspense where Florence risks being discovered by him. This is another reason why I like House of Wax more: it's much less complicated and ties up this loose end right after the opening.

As you might expect, this is another early sound movie that has no music score except over the opening credits and over the end title card. Moreover, one of these pieces is the opening music from Doctor X, composed by Bernhard Kaun, while the other is just generic music by Cliff Hess; they're both fairly forgettable. In any case, like the other "talkies" we've talked about so far this month, this is a very quiet movie in regards to its ambient sounds when there's no dialogue to be heard and while it does help create a mood most of the time, there are some moments where, as is the case with other movies from this period, the lack of auditory stimulus does get to me. I know, it's unfair to judge these movies on that score, given how limited resources were at the time, but I have to be honest. That said, though, it doesn't affect me as much as in other movies like Murders in the Rue Morgue and Island of Lost Souls.

All in all, Mystery of the Wax Museum is a fair little movie for its time. It benefits from good performances by Lionel Atwill and Glenda Farrell, nice direction by Michael Kurtiz that has moments of creativity, great, memorable production design, well-done cinematography that really helps in the atmosphere the film's going for, and big setpieces that bookend the film, but it does have a good amount of cons to it as well. A lot of the other characters and performances (including by Fay Wray) are bland and forgettable, the two-strip Technicolor looks ugly and painfully dated 90% of the time, the editing can sometimes be a tad bit choppy, and in the center of the film, the story has instances where it's hard to follow, due to circumstances that sometimes feel contrived, and the actual ending really hurts the impact of the climax that it follows. I would recommend it classic horror film fans check it out at least once but it's certainly not a major classic, unlike its 1950's remake, which we'll get into next.

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