Jun 17, 2020

On Blu-ray: A Magnificent Restoration of the Two-Strip Horror Flick The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

My introduction to the pre-code horror flick Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) came from the book that provided most of my early film education, 500 Great Films, by Daniel and Susan Cohen. The brief passage dedicated to the movie revealed that it was lost for twenty-five years and over that time, “developed the reputation of being a masterpiece.” This was apparently was not found to be true upon its rediscovery, though it still had a lot to offer, enough to be included among “500 Great Films.”

I can see why audiences could have been underwhelmed the newly unearthed film: it’s a horror movie with half of its running time devoted to a high-spirited, wisecracking reporter trying to unravel the titular mystery. Picture a movie with the pep of a Gold Diggers flick without the musical numbers and with a healthy helping of Grand Guignol folded in. It’s an important film though: highly influential in both the horror genre and in the development of the lady reporter archetype, and as can be seen in a beautifully restored version of the film now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, a striking example of the short-lived two-strip Technicolor process.

Lionel Atwell stars as Ivan Igor, the talented sculptor who creates a collection of stunningly realistic wax figures. When the museum that houses his figures is set ablaze and his masterpieces melt away, the artist resorts to desperate measures to rebuild his life’s work. Fast-talking newspaper reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell) becomes suspicious of the mysterious Igor’s methods and begins to investigate, while he develops an obsession with her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray), also the girlfriend of one of his sculptors (Allen Vincent). The reason? She is a dead ringer for his most lamented loss, a masterful rendering of Marie Antoinette. While Florence snoops around Igor’s basement and banters with her editor (Frank McHugh), Charlotte falls more deeply into danger.

Two-strip Technicolor is a great process for horror, its wash of seawater green and petal pink lends an eerie, otherworldly appearance to a film. Here it is most effective in the gallery scenes, where several live models were enlisted to stand in for wax figures that melted too quickly under the hot lights required for color filming. They briefly blink, purse their lips, or sway, adding to a sense of unease and the feeling that you can’t believe what you see.

I don’t think I would have enjoyed the film’s combination of horror and comedy if the journalists had been anyone but Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh. Aside from being irresistible in any setting, they appear worn enough around the edges to make you believe that they’ve seen plenty of horrors and would be able to crack wise in the face of a situation as startling as this one. While Fay Wray was clearly hired to scream and look pretty, she’s too charismatic to be a passive horror doll; she plays her character with intelligence and gravity, despite having to go over-the-top with her screams, clearly a directive of director Michael Curtiz. For all the death and destruction he causes, Atwell is not entirely creepy in his role; you consistently feel the pain of his artistic loss, as unsympathetic as he is in the end.

Curtiz populated his film with a cast of fascinating supporting characters and bit players, creating a lived-in feeling of realism. His camera smoothly glides through his remarkable sets with a calm eye on the bizarre proceedings. Even in a clearly perilous scene like the burning of the wax museums, where it is obvious the actors are actually in danger, Curtiz’ camera stops to observe, watching the eyes slide down a waxy skull with as much attention as the battle taking place in the foreground.

The special features on Blu-ray are especially robust for a Warner Archive release. They include the documentary Remembering Fay Wray, which is essentially an interview with the actress’ daughter and biographer Victoria Riskin, who provides great background and analysis of her mother’s career. There are two commentary tracks: one with Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rhode and the other with Scott MacQueen, head of preservation at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which has includes the added bonus of audio clips from reviews with Wray and Farrell. There’s also a brief featurette about the restoration, which in several comparison shots shows how ragged the film has been for the past several decades and how remarkable it is to finally be able to view it as intended.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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