Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

*. I wasn’t long into this one before I felt sure I’d seen it before. This was not, however, because I was familiar with the 1953 remake House of Wax starring Vincent Price, which remains pretty faithful to the original (outside of losing the girl reporter). Instead, what I was remembering was Doctor X.
*. Doctor X had come out just the year before and had also been directed by Michael Curtiz, starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, had the same art director and cinematographer, was shot in the same two-color Technicolor system (the last studio feature filmed using this process), and had the same opening theme music. Even some of the plot elements are the same as in Doctor X, which also had a fast-talking reporter and made use of waxwork figures to dramatize the crimes.
*. I mentioned that the 1953 version cuts out the lady reporter character, replacing her with a giggling, gold-digging bimbo. I also mentioned the names of the two top-billed stars here: Atwill and Wray. In doing so I’m guilty of promoting what I think is a common misunderstanding of this movie. The thing is, this is really Glenda Farrell’s movie. She’s the spunky reporter Florence Dempsey, and I suspect she has the most lines in the movie and perhaps the most screen time as well. She’s also the character who does all the work of the plot in uncovering Mr. Igor’s foul scheme. Wray is really just a damsel in distress who screams.

*. I enjoy the newspaper angle, even if all the wisecracking, sarcastic quips, and sexual innuendo is an odd fit with the Mr. Igor story. Indeed, it’s not just an odd fit. It actually overwhelms Igor’s mad revenge. I’ll admit I got lost figuring out what his long game was vis-a-vis his former partner Worth. And where did the hophead Darcy fit into all this?
*. The ending confused audiences then and now. Florence turns down the rich kid Winton for her editor Jim. Plausible, but Winton had seemed like fun while there wasn’t much going on between Florence and Jim but the usual banter.
*. The Technicolor system required so much lighting the heat apparently melted some of the wax figures, requiring them to be played by actors. A lesson in irony there.

*. I wonder if the lighting requirements were also behind the giant sets. Igor’s museum and studio look the size of airplane hangars. The morgue is a palace of the dead. Even the girls’ apartment is ginormous. There’s so much empty space.
*. There’s much to like in this movie (I haven’t mentioned the bizarre techno-expressionist lab) but I found the gap between the newspaper stuff and the wax museum story a real bother. The remake wisely got rid of the former, even though this led to the female leads being significantly downgraded. Atwill is just OK here, perhaps not realizing how much he really needed to ham such a slight part up. Curtiz goes for a lot of close-ups but they tend to be either overdrawn (Wray) or inexpressive (Atwill). All-in-all, I find Doctor X to be more entertaining fare, though it’s far less well known. Nevertheless, the basic idea here, which actually came from an unpublished story, was gold. There were going to be many more visits to this museum in the years to come.

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