Monica Bannister in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)


(director: Michael Curtiz; screenwriters: Carl Erickson/Don Mullaly/from the play by Charles Belden; cinematographer: Ray Rennahan; editor: George Amy; music: Cliff Hess; cast: Lionel Atwill (Mr. Igor); Glenda Farrell (Florence Dempsey), Fay Wray (Charlotte Duncan), Frank McHugh (Jim, Editor), Allen Vincent (Ralph Burton), Gavin Gordon (George Winton), Edwin Maxwell (Joe Worth), Holmes Herbert (Dr. Rasmussen), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Prof. Darcy, Sparrow), Thomas Jackson (Detective), Matthew Betz (Otto, the deaf mute), DeWitt Jennings (Police captain), Monica Bannister (Joan Gale); Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Henry Blanke; Warner Bros.; 1933)

“A fun weirdo classic pulp horror tale from the 1930s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fun weirdo classic pulp horror tale from the 1930s, possibly the best of the madman wax museum pics. It smoothly mixes in the fast-talking reporter act (the staple of many Hollywood films of the 1930s), German Grand Guignol, a great scream of fright from Fay Wray (a practice run for the soon to be released King Kong) and good ole American slang to keep it spicy. It’s smartly written by Carl Erickson and Don Mullaly, and is based on the play by Charles Belden. Director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”/”Kid Galahad”/ “Captain Blood”) keeps the story jumping at all times and gives it a stunning eerie look through the use of two-color Technicolor. It was remade in 1953 as House of Wax, with Vincent Price starring.

It opens in London in 1921, where the gentle artistic foreign born sculptor Igor (Lionel Atwill) works with wax to have an artistically acclaimed collection of such replicas as Joan of Arc, Voltaire, Napoleon, Marie Antoinette and many others, in a sidestreet museum. But his crass business partner, Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), could care less about art and only cares he has lost 15,000 pounds, as there are only a few paying customers. In order to recoup his loses and get out of bankruptcy, the shady partner burns down the museum to collect the insurance. When Igor tries to stop him, he’s knocked out and left trapped in the museum blaze. It’s now 1933 in New York, and Igor has survived but turned into a mean-spirited man in a wheelchair and with useless hands that were burned. Determined to still display his wax sculptures, Igor opens another museum that is just like the one in London. It only frustrates Igor that he must have others do the sculptures, as he can just direct and berate them.

Sharp dresser and wisecracking newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), on New Year’s Eve, is told by her gruff editor boss, Jim (Frank McHugh), on the New York Express, that she either come up with a juicy story that night or she’s fired. Feeling sorry for her, one of the old-time Irish cops in the stationhouse gives her a scoop that Joan Gale wasn’t a suicide but might have been killed by her millionaire playboy boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon). At the morgue, the corpse of Gale is missing and Flo runs with the story to prove Winton innocent. The story has legs and leads to the new museum, where Flo’s chic roommate, Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), has a fianc√© named Ralph (Allen Vincent) who works as Igor’s assistant. Flo finds it strange that at least eight corpses were stolen from the morgue recently and using her reporter’s nose for a story uncovers that the missing bodies are being used in the Museum’s exhibits. Even a judge is murdered because the deranged Igor thought he looked like Voltaire. When madman Igor takes one look at Charlotte, she gets on his shopping list to be the next Marie Antoinette. Meanwhile the cops, with Flo’s help, pick up a junkie, Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who happens to be a down-and-out master sculptor working for Igor on the stolen bodies. After grilling him, the heroin addict cracks and the cops raid the museum just in the nick of time to save Charlotte from getting waxed by Igor. The lunatic just finished getting revenge on Joe Worth, now a bootlegger, and with Charlotte trapped in his basement workplace Igor throws away his wheelchair and his severely disfigured face is revealed under a plastic mask, as he comforts Charlotte by telling her that “I offer you immortality, my child. Think of it: in a thousand years you shall be as lovely as you are now!”

The fascinating Wax Museum, it even has in its workplace lab a bubbling jacuzzi of liquid wax, is designed by Anton Grot, and his museum is just as much a star in this film as the great cast.

The highly entertaining film was thought to be “lost” for many years until a print was found in Jack Warner’s private vault.


REVIEWED ON 10/20/2008 GRADE: A-