The Mystery of the Wax Museum, a two-tone Technicolor mystery from 1933, was a great scheduling pick from the New Beverly theater on this week of creeps leading up to Halloween. Directed by Michael Curtiz–who would later win an Oscar for helming a little film called Casablanca–the film is a curious mixture of Vincent Price spooks, quick screwball comedy banter, and a dash of German expressionism evidenced in the angular set design.
The film may feel familiar, in part, because the story is the original movie form of the House of Wax films, which star either Vincent Price or Paris Hilton, depending on your generation and cinematic inclinations. Thus, the “mystery” of the wax museum is pretty well-known to modern viewers, as those nefarious structures always seem to come to the same solution in avoiding the work of hand-sculpting their figurines. (The secret is dead people.)
In this version, Lionel Atwill stars as the villainous Ivan Igor, who runs the museum and supervises the undertaking [har, har]; Glenda Farrell is Florence, the sassy gal reporter on the verge of breaking the case; and Fay Wray plays Florence’s roommate, whom Ivan problematically believes to be a dead ringer for Marie Antoinette.
Part of the charm of this film is the easy humor, which you lose in the later iterations of the story that tend to focus more on the inherent horror of the situation. Florence, in particular, seems like she’d be well-suited to trading barbs in a Howard Hawks comedy; she definitively ends one argument with the zinger: “You can go someplace warm… and I’m not talking about California.”
There are also some great, true horror moments, stemming not only from the nefarious actions of Ivan, but also from the creepy nature of wax museums themselves–even before we know anything’s really gone awry. We also get the fun reveal about Ivan’s true nature–same as the other versions–and the great, early makeup work seen here really enhances that moment.
The film ends very abruptly–in place of a scene with one of Ivan’s henchmen or a cop explaining his actions, perhaps, the final scene has Florence’s editor at the newspaper gruffly proposing to her. I suppose successfully marrying off the lone single woman is a happier ending than seeing Ivan swirling in his vat of hot wax, it’s just not the more satisfying one.