May 18, 2011

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

In the late 20s, Hungarian director Michael Curtiz was a recently arrived foreigner working at Warner Bros. after having impressed legendary producer Jack Warner with the Biblical epics he crafted while working in Austria (he would make a Biblical epic for Warner in 1928, "Noah's Ark"). Part of that influx of European filmmakers that arrived in those years, Curtiz began to make himself a name as a hard working director who managed to work efficiently under the studio system, working in several films a year. In 1931 Universal studios had found success with horror films, and Warner decided to enter the game as well, and so Curtiz found success with the horror films "The Mad Genius" and "Doctor X", proving to be not only and efficient filmmaker, but also one able to make box-office hits. It was the success of "Doctor X" what prompted Warner Brothers to make another horror movie in the same style (in two-strip Technicolor), with the same same cast, and keeping Michael Curtiz as director. The result was the now classic, "Mystery of the Wax Museum".

In the film, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is an extremely talented sculptor of wax figures in 1921 London, however, his investment partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) thinks that Igor's business is not making enough money for both of them, and starts a fire at Igor's Wax Museum in order to collect the insurance money. Thirteen years later, Ivan Igor is tragically crippled and unable to use his hands, but with the help of his students he is finally ready to reopen his wax museum in New York City. In the meantime, the police is baffled by the case of several corpses stolen from the City's morgue, including the one of a famous socialité, model Joan Gale (Monica Bannister). The case attracts the attention of Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), a young and ambitious reporter looking for the story that would launch her career. Dempsey immediately starts to investigate, and her suspicions lead lead her to important clues. Igor's strange obsession with Florence's roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) will take her to uncover the dark mystery of the Wax Museum.

The key word in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is "Mystery", as unlike it's better known 1953 remake (which focuses instead on more graphic horror and suspense), this version of Charles Belden's short story behaves more like a traditional, yet really captivating, murder mystery where the main character, Florence, must discover who is committing the crimes, and more importantly, "how". Adapted to the screen by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, the movie has a pretty nice twists, a good amount of suspense and a very original premise (for the time) that keep the mystery and suspense high as the plot unfolds smoothly despite the fast pace of the film. The fact that it was written before the days of the Hays code allows the film to include lots of sexual innuendo and situations that, while the Hays code would later consider immoral, do add a lot of the story. The characters are overall very well developed, and the addition of comedy (courtesy of Farrell's wisecracking character) works nicely within the creepy mystery of the story.

One of the lasts movies to be shot in the primitive two-color Technicolor system, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" has a marvelous bleached look that suits perfectly the modernist art-deco style of the sets designed for the film. As in "Doctor X", director Michael Curtiz allows himself to show the influence he received when working in Europe during the years of German expressionism, and gives the film an ominous dark look as Florence gets deeper inside the Wax Museum. While maybe not as visually striking as the Gothic horror of Universal Studios (or Curtiz' own "Doctor X"), the dark atmosphere of "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is still felt in the art-deco walls through the camera of cinematographer Ray Rennahan. Anton Grot's work of art direction is certainly, a highlight of the film, as it truly has a very unique visual style. The use of two-strip Technicolor is superb, adding a lot of emotion to the already atmospheric work of cinematography (the fire scene at the beginning is particularly great). The result is probably the best that was done using this technique.

The cast delivers performances of great quality, although it is of course difficult not to make comparisons with the performances of the better known 50s version. Lionel Atwill offers one of the best and most underrated performances of his career as the sculptor Ivan Igor, and while he lacks the charm that Vincent Price would give to the role, Atwill has a strong presence and dignified stoicism that makes him very believable as the tortured artist, victim of a misfortune that has rendered him unable to do the work he loved. Glenda Farrell's turn as Florence Dempsey is terrific in the classic role of the wisecracking reporter. Her comedic timing and joyful attitude truly elevate her role beyond the typical archetype of murder mysteries. In fact, Farrell manages to overshadow the more famous Fay Wray; who while looking stunningly beautiful in "Mystery of the Wax Museum", lacks the presence that would make her an icon in "King Kong". Granted, her role is probably the weakest and falls between the more interesting roles of Atwill and Farrell.

As written above, it's hard not to make comparisons, but while 1953's "House of Wax" tends to get the upper hand when compared to the original version, "Mystery" is by no means a bad movie, simply a very different one. Perhaps more than other horror films of the same period, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" focuses completely on the mystery aspect of the story, and while it does have its fair share of horrific elements, they are minimal when compared to Universal horror films, not to say the lavish Gothic horror of "House of Wax". True, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" certainly looks dated by today's standards, but the movie has a notorious modernist touch in its production design that makes it a quite interesting piece to look at. This, coupled with the suggestive lines in its dialog and fast wisecracking comedy give the film an edge, making it different than the norm. All in all, Curtiz' "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is a stunning tale of mystery which suffers, simply, of having aged badly.

Nevertheless, that's far from being an impediment for the enjoyment of the film. On the contrary, it allows (perhaps more than any of Universal horror films) to take a look at a 30s horror from a urban perspective. There are no Gothic castles, no somber cemeteries, instead we have a monster from the old world roaming the modern museums and apartment buildings of the new world. Quite a concept. Personally, I find in "House" and "Mystery" the perfect example of what a remake should be: a reinvention, as the two are excellent movies that explore the same story under very different angles. Overshadowed by the legendary Vincent Price film, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is a very interesting movie that deserves to be rediscovered as a definitive must-see for those interested in horror movies of the 30s.


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