Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) is a fun Pre-Code horror pre-Noir classic from Michael Curtiz, starring Glenda Farrell and Fay Wray.

This is a horror picture from the filmic age of innocence when in theory anything went before the Film Production Code cracked down on everybody and made morality great again, probably and incidentally creating the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s as it did so.

When sculptor Ivan Igor's London wax museum is burned down by his treacherous partner, he is left devastated. 

Ten years later in the then-present day New York, Igor opens a new museum, with more lifelike statues than ever before. Something mysterious and evil is behind his genius for wax likeness, but what could it be!

Horror films of the 1930s are an interesting prospect. Horror films of this time don't really lay bare the cultural zeitgeist, but usually looked at how science, crime and the supernatural intersected.

Frankenstein’s monster and the villain in Doctor X (1932), both of which are also pre-Code two-strip technicolor horror films, were both man-made horrors. Both creations were extensions of science, in immoral directions, and may have been levelled at the elitist scientists of the day, in an age when technological and global war was a near memory and an even nearer prospect. 

These same elites of course promised a great future but found that despite the moral purity of a technological and scientific future, people were still horrific and destructive.

Edwin Maxwell in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last dramatic film made in the old two-strip Technicolor process. This method of colour photography, which produced a most distinctive set of pastels, dated back to The Toll of the Sea (1922).

It is surprising to know it but colour films really are older than sound films. The three-strip Technicolor process, which produced a richer array of colours, replaced it around this time. 

The solidity of the tropes in the telling of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) is telling, insofar as these same to vary little from production to production.

Below are the dark and deserted city streets; the laboratory of evil where science becomes repurposed as immoral in the hands of an evil genius; and the equation of physical disfigurement with immorality and anti-social, criminal and psychopathic behaviour.

The setting is just about as suggestive as the casting. Michael Curtiz’s vision of New York City is not flattering, but shows a world divided by social strata. The clean and busy newspaper office contrasts with the confetti covered streets from the city's quite wild New Year celebrations. But even further down, and underground, there are dank basements which are full of odd angles and looming shadows.

Igor’s laboratory is lower still, and a horror of industrialisation which is underneath the modernist and bland museum itself. These rooms are quite expressionistic in the German-mode, with dark columns and weirdly-angled gangways, with the entire room resembling a massive spider surrounding a boiling cauldron of flesh-coloured wax.

This film was later remade as House of Wax (1953) which in turn inspired House of Wax (2005), although all are entirely different, and it remains to be seen what is so frightening intrinsically about wax to begin with — although mannequins, kidnap and disfigurement are all present fears, which seem to serve the ideal of mad science, as well in fact as mad art.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) is a joy to behold however, horrific or not. It has certainly generated many remakes and other creations, and generated the trope if you like, of the not bath of wax — or similar — that someone may at the conclusion meet there meted out and justified hot waxy end within. The bath of wax seems to be unique and horrific focal point with finally two purposes — for dipping victims into — for the villain to fall into at the end.

Florence Dempsey in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

This film also exists in two varieties also, which is the black and white variety and the colour variety, and the colour variety is not bad at all.

Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last dramatic film made in the old two-strip Technicolor process. This method of colour photography, which produced a distinctive set of pastels, dated back to The Toll of the Sea in 1922. Yes, colour films are older than sound films. The three-strip Technicolor process, which produced a richer palette, replaced it around this time.

For those who don't know much about pre-Code Hollywood it can be challenging to know what is so immoral about the action and the characters, such that it might cause or have caused a storm.

There are lines of dialogue here and there that may suggest a certain profanity, such as perhaps the suggestive implication of the word 'HELL' in this line cheerfully delivered by Florence Dempsey: “You can go to some nice warm place and I don’t mean California!”

At one point our same heroine also turns to a police officer and casually asks, “How’s your sex life?”

Sassy pre-Code fun with superstar Florence Dempsey
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The local playboy has his own private bootlegger, which would have been a no-no after the institution of the Code, and jokes made about a woman who was accidentally murdered by her abusive husband — not a good vibe. And also you'll spot that one of the baddies is into ‘narcotics’ and is suffering from what looks like withdrawal.

The film portrays a bunch of sculptors who, like the character in Song of Songs, like to massage their nude artworks.

There’s a remark that goes “A cow does that and gives milk besides!” which I’m not entirely sure what it means. However, the censors demanded the line be removed; I’m not sure they know what it means, either, though the implications can let the mind wander into unhealthy territories.

Ivan Igor is a most unusual name as it is also two first names. Joe, Ivan's former partner is still running shady deals which are mostly booze-related mostly after burning down Ivan's first wax museum and leaving his partner to die in the flames.

Battle among the flames is in fact a staple of adventure and horror. Joe and Ivan begin fighting each other as Ivan's first wax museum burns down around them.

Florence Dempsey is on top of everything else, a super-snarky heroine. This is a great development —  however women became more demure under the Code and other than allowances made for the femme fatale as she developed in classic film noir, a woman who was simply snarky or simply sassy was not likewise a popular look in the 1940s and 50s.

Deadpan as ever, however, Florence Dempsey snarks virtually everyone she meets in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).

Charlotte: Hello, Ralph.

Ralph: Hello, darling. Hello, Florence.

Florence: Hello.

Charlotte: Are we late?

Ralph: No, not at all. Gee, that's a pretty dress. Have I seen it before?

Charlotte: Yes, I think so.

Florence: Thank goodness that's settled.

Ivan Igor is something of an evil cripple, as might be called. The wheelchair turns out to be an obfuscating disability, although  his hands are genuinely broken. He is also a sufferer from a trope so strong, it is sometimes even used in film noir; facial disfigurement.

Moreover, Ivan conceals his disfigured features beneath a wax mask that is so perfect that no one standing near him ever even suspects it is a mask.

Lionel Atwill as Ivan Igor in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

At the conclusion of Florence's and her editor's bickering, he suddenly proposes her and she accepts. She has perhaps been instrumental in creating one of the greatest if history's tropes: strapped to an operating table. The time skip from 1921 London to 1933 New York is awesome when considered theatrically.

The horror and mystery is not a hard one to solve in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), but that doesn't mean it's not a  lot of fun. As Ivan is incapable of reconstructing his previous body of work, he has corpses delivered to him to be waxed, and this gets pretty brutal and creepy.

Master the Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) at Wikipedia

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