Review: Mystery of the Wax Museum

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

For years recorded as lost by more than one film history, the original Mystery of the Wax Museum (remade in the Fifties as House of Wax) suddenly popped up on channel 13’s Dr. Zingrr hour with its 1933 Technicolor intact, even. Or perhaps not so intact: frequently one seemed to be watching a standard black-and-white flick on a color TV with the red turned up, and it’s difficult to say whether this reflected the natural pallor of two-color Technicolor, the fading of the dyes over the intervening decades, or bum transmission and/or reception. Whatever the precise causes of the effect, there was more of a thrill in seeing a resurrected title out of legend than there was in anything Michael Curtiz and company had wrought onscreen.

Warner Brothers has had it right good, cultural status–wise, the past few years. Warners series have enjoyed healthy box-office up and down the West Coast, and a recent tribute to the studio’s output, staged at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, made it official. A history of Warners is in the works—in fact, maybe a couple of them—and the studio’s journeymen metteurs-en-scène, most especially the Hungarian-born Mike Curtiz, have been celebrated in such (alas) standard reference works as Hollywood in the Thirties and …Forties and in the always-interesting periodical The Velvet Light Trap, to the extent that they have begun to constitute some kind of alternate Pantheon. One of the most delightful things about seeing Mystery of the Wax Museum is the light, at once fresh and familiar, it throws on the Warners experience.

Indeed, in the Wax Museum we find a sort of Warners time capsule. Clicking her staccato heels in and out of editor Frank McHugh’s newspaper office, Glenda Farrell pauses between outbursts of genial abuse (“I’m gonna make you eat dirt, you soap bubble!”) to telegraph the imminent advent of the Torchy Blane–girl reporter series she would soon be making on the same soundstages. And the denizens of Lionel Atwill’s various galleries reflect the Warners biopic cycle that had already begun with the George Arliss films (Disraeli, Voltaire, Alexander Hamilton, et al.) and would within a couple years encase Paul Muni in one waxily made-up historical incarnation after another. Atwill’s suspended tableaux are scarcely less dynamic—or less Germanic—than what director William Dieterle would be setting in oh-so-allegorical motion very shortly.

The film also serves to demonstrate all over again (it’s a lesson we can’t relearn too many times) how vividly yet casually the program pictures of that comparatively cheapjack, highballing studio responded to the sociopolitical realities of the day. A minor character is offhandedly brutalized by a couple of cops who don’t even have particular reason to suspect ill of him. They tweak his nose, gouge his eyes, and haul him off to the hoosegow, without any mention of constitutional rights that I heard, there to sweat a confession out of him (they spot him as a “junkie” and take particular delight in discussing how he “needed something” all night long). A couple minutes after his apprehension, Glenda Farrell dips her mitt into a crate of illicit gin and claims a bottle to see her through a case of the jitters; when a cop calls her on it, she allows as how they’re going to be taking their cuts of the confiscated hootch, too, and no one bothers to deny the allegation. This has nothing at all to do with the film’s nominal business of telling a not-very-credible tale of ghastly mutilation and improbably delayed vengeance, but it has a lot to do with business-as-usual at the Brothers Warner.

The screenplay’s pileup of characters who happen to be multiply involved in one another’s histories and futures verges on the ludicrous and then merrily crosses over. Perhaps that is why the distinctive pleasures of Curtiz’s own part in the show tend to be free-floating, peripheral to the narrative proper. It may be due to the broken condition in which the film and whatever serves as a master print survives, but there are more than a few events in the picture that are eerily abstract: Atwill’s horribly disfigured agent (apparently…) just walking, or a deafmute assistant seen wheeling a gurney between two other scenes, neither of which has anything to do with his actions. The ground- and seared-meat complexion of a fire victim offers a shudderingly effective example of horror makeup. But the most disturbing effects in the film are at once inhuman and hideously sympathetic: the tearing and blearing of wax heads melting in a blaze and tumbling off hollow necks; and the undramatic, impersonal gesture of a museum attendant sinking a prop dagger in a new statue of Citizen Marat.

RTJ

THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM
Direction: Michael Curtiz. Cinematography: Ray Rennahan.
The Players: Lionel Atwill, Glenda Farrell, Fay Wray, Gavin Gordon, Frank McHugh, Edwin Maxwell.

Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson


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