26 October 2009

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Although conventional wisdom holds that Universal Studios had cornered the market on monster/horror movies in the 1930s, Mystery of the Wax Museum -- a 1933 foray into the genre by Warner Bros. and Vitaphone Pictures -- surely deserves to be mentioned when the topic of classic horror pictures comes up. Lionel Atwill -- who seems to have made a career of playing a wide variety of villains -- plays the oh-so-inventively-named Ivan Igor, whose sculpture collection in London is destroyed in a fire set by a business associate out for a bit of insurance money. Igor's prized work, a sculpture of Marie Antoinette, is also destroyed. Twelve years later, Igor has -- big surprise -- gone a little mad and relocated to New York, where he has begun to rebuild his collection.

Enter feisty newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), who is snooping about for a big story. As luck would have it, the body of young woman is stolen from the city morgue by a shadowy figure, and the trail leads to Ivan Igor's new wax museum. Meanwhile, Charlotte Duncan (played by Fay Wray, and who just happens to be Florence's flatmate) pays a visit to her boyfriend, an aspiring sculptor working under Igor's tutelage. Igor catches a glimpse of Charlotte, and realizes that she is the spitting image of his long lost Marie Antoinette sculpture. He requests the she pose for one of his sculptures and she, unsuspecting of his nefarious intentions, agrees. Thrills, chills and even the occasional spill ensue.

Although Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray get top billing, it's Glenda Farrell who steals the whole picture. She is eminently likable as the fast-talking, tough-as-nails Florence, and seems perfectly cast for the part. As a matter of fact, the character of Florence Dempsey seems like the spiritual predecessor of Torchy Blane, another gritty reporter type whom Farrell portrayed in no fewer than seven pictures. Lionel Atwill is also good in the role of Ivan Igor, staying far away from ham territory (I still can't get over that goofy name, though. It sounds the name of a lesser Bond villain). Fay Wray, meanwhile, hasn't much to do in this picture besides look pretty, horrified, or both (fortunately, she does a commendable job in both cases).

What might be most interesting about this picture, however might be just how surprisingly good it looks. Not only are there some unexpectedly artsy shots--including a particularly memorable one of a crucifix-clasping Joan of Arc sculpture (appropriately enough) going up in flames -- but the entire picture is filmed in two-strip technicolor, which makes everything look even better than usual, especially Fay Wray. Heck, even Glenda Farrell looks good in two-strip technicolor!

For those who like horror movies, I can't recommend Mystery of the Wax Museum strongly enough. It's good, campy fun from what -- for my money, at least -- was one of old-school Hollywood's best years (that's 1933, for those keeping track at home). Vincent Price would remake the picture as House of Wax in 1953. A remake of the remake appeared in 2005, but nobody cares about that version, except maybe Paris Hilton. Mystery of the Wax Museum was included in its entirety on the DVD release of House of Wax, which makes the package well worth picking up.

[Poster Image Sauce]

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