Florence: Listen, Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue, have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?
Jim: I used to be married to one.
Florence: Then it came to life and divorced you, I know all about that.
—The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
In examining the horror genre, the 1930s were particularly fruitful in their output of mystery-horror films. Michael Curtiz’s The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) stands out as a Pre-Code mystery-horror shot in two-strip Technicolor. Moreover, it is one of the last two dramatic fiction films made in two-strip Technicolor by Warner Brothers, with the other being Doctor X (1932). Offering a blend of comedy and horror, the film is exceptionally as suspenseful as it is beautiful to view.
The film tells the story of sculptor Ivan Igor, who operates a London wax museum in 1921. Igor clearly takes pride in his intricate wax sculptures, depicting a wide range of historical figures, including Joan of Arc, Voltaire, and a prized sculpture of Marie Antoinette. Sadly, the business begins losing money and Igor’s partner, Joe Worth, burns down the museum in order to secure the insurance money. Igor and Worth fight, but the museum is set ablaze until both the sculptures and Igor himself are consumed by the flames.
Though badly burned, Igor survives. Unable to sculpt, he relies upon assistants to recreate his sculptures. Thus, he begins rebuilding his museum, albeit in a new and macabre manner.
During the same period, reporter Florence Dempsey is in search of an exciting news story to save her job. She investigates the suicide of a model, Joan Gale, whose body is stolen from the city morgue, leading to discussions of the potential murder of the model.
Stories begin to intertwine through the introduction of Florence’s roommate, Charlotte Duncan, who is engaged to Ralph, a worker at Igor’s wax museum. While visiting the museum, Florence notices a striking resemblance between Joan Gale and the Joan of Arc sculpture. As the situation grows more macabre, it is also pointed out that the beautiful Duncan reminds Igor of his beloved Marie Antoinette statue.
Ivan Igor: My dear, why are you so pitifully afraid? Immortality has been the dream, the inspiration of mankind through the ages. And I am going to give you immortality!
The Mystery of the Wax Museum was produced by Henry Blanke and Hal B. Wallis, based upon Charles S. Belden’s unpublished short story, “The Wax Works.” Belden also developed the story into a play entitled The Wax Museum.
The full cast list of the film is as follows:
- Lionel Atwill as Ivan Igor
- Fay Wray as Charlotte Duncan
- Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey
- Frank McHugh as Jim
- Allen Vincent as Ralph Burton
- Gavin Gordon as George Winton
- Edwin Maxwell as Joe Worth
- Holmes Herbert as Dr. Rasmussen
- Claude King as Mr. Galatalin
- Arthur Edmund Carewe as Sparrow, Professor Darcy
- Thomas Jackson as Detective
- DeWitt Jennings as Police Captain
- Matthew Betz as Hugo
- Monica Bannister as Joan Gale
Interestingly, the film used much of the cast and crew from Doctor X, in addition to the morgue set. The final feature film under a 1931 Technicolor contract, Warner Brothers had already noted that the public was growing tired of artificial color on the screen. Moreover, the use of Technicolor also came with a hefty price tag–one that no longer made sense once the novelty of the two-strip Technicolor had worn off in the public’s eyes.
However, the use of Technicolor complicated the film in a new way. The story called for the use of wax figures, which readily began to melt under the bright, hot lights required for Technicolor. As a result, roughly half of the figures are played by actors.
At the box office, the film was more of a success in Europe than in the U.S. Nonetheless, it still garnered a profit and was Warner Brothers’ fifth top-grossing film of the year.
Over the years, The Mystery of the Wax Museum became considered a lost film. Most studios of the day would have destroyed two-strip negatives, especially in the case of The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was never reissued domestically. Occasional negatives survived, though Warner Brothers tended to keep negatives of their two-strip cartoons, as opposed to their live-action work. Decaying prints of the film, including a nitrate copy of Reel 1, were located but were destroyed or had decomposed.
In the meantime, the film was remade as House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price. The remake focused upon the horror elements in the story, removing most of the mystery components and all Pre-Code reference. Like its predecessor, however, the remake took advantage of novel film technologies, including the use of 3-D and stereophonic sound.
By 1970, a studio reference print was located in Jack Warner’s personal collection. The AFI produced a new negative but the quality was poor and did not capture the vivacity of the original color. The film was screened in Grauman’s Chinese theatre as part of a retrospective in 1970, highlighting films that had not been seen since their initial release.
In 1988, Turner Entertainment created another negative of the film. While faithful to the original color, the negative was hindered by evidence of damage, poor splicing, and missing footage. The Warner nitrate exists in the UCLA collection as well as a French workprint in the Packard Humanities Institution collection. The workprint was discovered in the early 2000s. The Warner print acted as a primary resource for restoration. The film was restored thanks to a Film Foundation-sponsored digital 4K restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with funds from the George Lucas Family Foundation. Piecing together the workprint and Warner print for missing footage and audio, in addition to culling one of Glenda Farrell’s lines from Life Begins (1932), the new restoration offered a version of the the film that was much more faithful to the initial film.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray on May 12, 2020, the restored film received numerous positive reviews. In addition to the inclusion of commentaries by Curtiz biographer Alan Rode and UCLA preservationist Scott MacQueen, MacQueen shares excerpts from his interviews with the film’s stars Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell. Moreover, the picture quality of the film is especially pristine, lovingly restored to showcase the color and potent imagery in the film.
The 2020 restoration of The Mystery of the Wax Museum is not to be missed.