‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’ (1933) Review

“I offer you immortality, my child. Think of it: in a thousand years you shall be as lovely as you are now!”

House of Wax (1953) is one of our Halloween traditions. No matter what else we watch – and when Halloween falls on a weekend day like it does year, we’ll watch horror movies all day – House of Wax is always the penultimate film of the night. (With the final film for the last 10 years being something for 31 Days, 31 Horror Movies). It’s a comfort-food thing for us, a classic horror film we both love.

Several years back I bought a DVD of House of Wax that had (on the flip side, back when they occasionally did that with DVDs) a copy of the original 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum, of which House of Wax is the remake. Just for the hell of it we watched the original film and were struck by how good it was and how much more… realistic isn’t the right term, but less stagey, less removed from the real world. There were references to drug use and sex and the main character is a single woman with a job and more sense in her little finger than the men around her (and she’d be happy to say the same). The people in the film and the world they lived in was somehow more recognizable and relatable than the 1953 remake with Vincent Price, as enjoyable as that film is.

That’s at least partly due to the fact that Mystery of the Wax Museum was created near the tail end of the un-enforced Hays Code days. While the Code – which regulated content and themes in the motion picture industry – had been in effect since 1929 (and existed as a list of proscribed “don’ts” and “be carefuls” since 1927) it really didn’t get enforced in any meaningful way until 1934 when Joseph Breen was appointed head of the Production Code Administration. Some studios (such as Universal) had voluntarily submitted to the code before then, but it’s really the Breen era that people talk about when they refer to the Hays Code.

We enjoyed it a lot, though it’s never replaced the remake in our affections, and I’ve recommended it a couple of times. It’s been a while since I last saw it, though, and when I was in the mood for an older film I figured I’d dig out my House of Wax Blu-ray, which includes Mystery as an extra, and give it a spin. I was immediately disappointed. The version included on that release – from 2013 – is in standard definition and is a low-quality, unrestored version with a poor presentation of the old two-color Technicolor process used in the film. I think seeing it on a larger TV might have played a role in my dismay, but the bottom line is that it looks pretty poor and I decided to turn it off and find something else.

The next day I decided to look up the film and was happy to discover that there has been a restoration and new release! I don’t have a big budget for films this year, but I immediately went out and spent the $20 for it and I’m happy I did.

The Medium
I bought the recent (May of this year) Blu-ray release of Mystery of the Wax Museum by Warner Archives. I’ll go on about the restoration in a bit, but it’s a fantastic restoration. In addition, Warner has included a new documentary and two commentary tracks – a pretty decent collection of extras for what is arguably a minor film.

For streaming it looks like it’s just for DirectTV subscribers.

The Movie
I just have to spend a paragraph or two talking about the restoration. Having just seen a chunk of the previous release I can honestly say this is a fantastic upgrade. Mystery of the Wax Museum was considered a lost film for a long time, before a copy was found in Jack Warner’s personal vault. New negatives were struck from the damaged print in the late 1980’s, and one of these was the version I had previously seen. In 2019 the Film Foundation sponsored a 4k digital restoration by the UCLA Film & Television archive, which created a complete print using the Warner version, a French workprint that contained some missing material. This is the version on the Warner Archives release.

I’m embedding a YouTube video with some comparisons of between scenes before and after the restoration, but it doesn’t really do justice to the quality of the work. One of the last films shot using the 2 color Technicolor process, the restoration manages to recreate subtleties of color gradation and lighting that had become mostly blue/pink wash in the previous releases. Though it might take a little getting used to I end up finding it an interesting and occasionally visually arresting format. In addition, the film itself benefits from an increased detail and clarity in both the image and the audio.

Alright, enough about the production aspects. What about the movie itself?

Mystery of the Wax Museum has a plot that will be familiar to fans of the remake. A gifted wax sculptor (Lionel Atwill as Ivan Igor in this) on the cusp of having his work recognized is betrayed by an unscrupulous investor who burns his museum to the ground for the insurance money. Years later the sculptor returns, about to open a new museum despite his hands and legs having been badly burned by fire. A woman begins to suspect his fantastic recreations – particularly of Joan of Arc – may be more than simple wax sculptures as they bear an uncanny resemblance to people recently deceased…

The opening scenes, in particular, contain several moments and lines of dialogue that are echoed in the Vincent Price film. After that, however, when we’re whisked away to New Years eve 1933, things depart dramatically. Our main character, Florence (Glenda Farrell), is a reporter with more spunk than work ethic. Her boss, Jim (Frank McHugh) tells her she’s fired unless she comes back with actual news.

Florence is a fantastic creation, headstrong and whip-smart – she’s just as comfortable giving the cops lip as she is interviewing suspected murderer’s in the hoosegow. (Sorry, it’s easy to slip into the slang of that era.) All the male characters, with the possible exception of Atwill, pale next to her. Even Fay Wray, in a minor role as the roommate, Charlotte, that resembles Igor’s lost Marie Antoinette, can’t hold a candle to her. I wish the film had been more popular, as I’d watch a series with Florence as the lead.

The film is primarily about Florence’s investigation of the disappearance of bodies from the morgue (another scene recreated wholesale in the remake – though I think the impressionistic sets of the original are better). She cajoles the police into giving her leads (while asking about their lovelife and making fun of the nudie mags they’re reading), browbeats a wealth murder suspect into being her chauffer, follows suspects, talks her way into locations and generally pushes the plot forward in every meaningful sense.

Atwill (Captain Blood, Son of Frankenstein) is no slouch either, though his presence on screen is sadly limited. The makeup effects of his burned face are somehow more disturbing than Vincent Price’s, perhaps because they look more like the scars of an actual burn victim. The sets of the wax museum are excellent and more interesting in some ways than the remake. The workshop areas are also fantastic, huge and modern (for 1930’s) art-deco machines, doors and walkways, with plenty of spooky shadows.

Other minor things to note:

  • The film is pretty straightforward in its treatment of drug use. In post-code films the presentation of drug use or its effects was forbidden, so the man who betrays the sculptor to the cops is an alcoholic. Here he’s a junkie, and referred to as such.
  • There are also a few moments of class issues, with the murder suspect, George Winton (Gavin Gordon) basically buying his way out of prison and admitting in front of officers that a certain character is his bootlegger! Florence’s boss is also just as happy to let the guy hang, as he’s a rich guy and so probably guilty of something! (It took me most of the film to place Gordon as Lord Byron in the opening of Bride of Frankenstein.)

The ending is familiar from the remake, with cops arriving to battle Igor in his workshop while wax boils up to cover Charlotte. She’s saved by her boyfriend, a character so minor in this version that I can’t even remember his name. Igor ends up in the wax, just like Vincent Price’s character in the remake.

For some stupid reason the film ends with Florence’s editor, Jim, proposing and her accepting rather than going with the rich guy or – more satisfactorily – kicking his ass and taking his job. (This is a guy she told earlier “I’ll make ya eat dirt, ya soap bubble.”) I guess there’s only so far even a pre-code picture was prepared to go, but it’s a sour note to end Florence’s adventure on.

The Bottom Line
Mystery of the Wax Museum is a great little horror film, and a good example of the kind of characters and plots you could get away with in pre-code Hollywood. While it might not contain the kind of grand-guignol scenes that make the 1953 remake, House of Wax, such a pleasure to watch, it’s got plenty of mood, great sets, a beautiful use of a limited color palette and a fantastic leading character in Florence, who’s almost worth the price of entry all by herself.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.