Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a great early horror film.  Released in 1933 by Warner Brothers and Vitaphone it demonstrates one of the last commercial uses of the Technicolor two-strip process.  The film was actually thought to have been lost until the early 60s.

The story begins in London in 1921.  Artist "Ivan Igor" (Lionel Atwill) is part owner of a wax museum.  His partner "Joe Worth" (Edwin Maxwell) comes up with the idea of burning down the building in order to collect on the insurance.  Igor opposes the plan and when the two men struggle the museum is accidentally set ablaze.  Worth escapes the flames but Igor is trapped inside and everything is destroyed.  Worth leaves his partner to perish in the flames.

Years later in New York "The London Wax Museum" is planning a grand opening.  But as the new museum prepares to open, people begin to disappear.  When a young woman is found dead, police arrest her wealthy boyfriend for murder. But when an autopsy is ordered to determine if it was murder or suicide, the body has disappeared from the morgue.  Inquisitive newspaper reporter "Florence Dempsey" (Glenda Farrell) is hot on the trail of the culprit and determined to solve the mystery after being told she would lose her job by her boss, editor of the paper (Frank McHugh), if she didn't come up with a big story.  Florence accompanies her roommate "Charlotte Duncan" (Fay Wray) to the wax museum to visit with Charlotte's fiance "Ralph" (Allen Vincent) when she notices that one of the displays bears an uncanny resemblance to the young woman's body that is missing from the morgue.  This visit also puts the unassuming Charlotte in great danger after Igor sees her and envisions her as his next "creation."

The film just overflows with the slang and patter common to that time and dialogue frequently found in films of the 30s.  Directed by Michael Curtiz (British Agent - 1934, Casablanca1942) the film displays a pinkish and blueish tint to it which is normal for the Technicolor process used at that time.  According to some production notes the tremendous heat generated by the lights while filming caused the wax figures on the set to melt, ultimately real actors were used instead.  If you watch very closely you can see them swaying, breathing, or blinking during the film.

Viewers won't be disappointed, Fay Wray cuts loose with a couple of her signature screams during the film and Glenda Farrell comes up with a couple of good ones herself.  The film was also remade in 3D in 1953 as "House of Wax" starring one of the kings of gothic horror Vincent Price.

With a running time of about 76 minutes the story moves along pretty quickly, so have a seat, relax, and enjoy because this is definitely a classic not to be missed.


  1. This is one of my very favorite original horrors of the 1930's. Lionel Atwill was just wonderful, and Wray and Farrell also gave really good performances. I love the look of it, as you said, made by the 2-color process. I think it gave an even eerier mood to the movie. I remember reading that about the hot lights melting the wax -- Peter Lorre's weird and wonderful "Mad Love" used the same technique with a real woman as a wax statue, probably for the same reason.

    Price's House of Wax is such a great remake, something I don't think happens very often. But Wax Museum still holds it own just fine! I don't know why, but I'm a sucker for wax 'em! I really enjoyed your article!

  2. While I prefer HOUSE OF WAX, any horror film with Lionel Atwell is always worthwhile. Plus, as you wanted out, it has great historical significance as an early feature-length color film.

  3. Ah...I remember this film. I actually got a double feature DVD with this film and the remake with Vincent Price...that was one of the best purchases I ever made....

    Anyhow...hello! My name is Nathanael Hood from Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear! Welcome to the CMBA!

    I just want to invite you to my blog's blogathon. It will be taking place in about three weeks. The topic is MONSTER MOVIES FROM THE 50S!!!

    I would love it if you would participate! Send me an email at

    Here's a link to more information:

  4. I get a great kick out of Farrell & McHugh in this picture. They're a regular Walter & Hildy. I need their snappy patter to keep me from diving under the covers to get away from that great creepy atmosphere.

  5. Hi guys -
    Thanks for all the comments ... This is a great film with an awesome creepy atmosphere, and Lionel Atwill was excellent in every film he was in. The exchanges between Farrell and McHugh are priceless and give us a little breathing room between all the creepiness ...