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Mr. Igor's artistically accomplished but poorly attended wax museum in London is set on fire by his backer, who wants to collect the insurance money in order to recoup his losses. Trapped inside, Igor (Lionel Atwill) watches his priceless work melt away. Twelve years later, he has relocated to New York and is preparing to open a new museum, though he is now wheelchair-bound and his hands are crippled. On New Year's Eve, the beautiful Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) is found dead from an overdose of opiates. Her rich boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon) is accused of the crime, but the sharp-tongued reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) sets out to prove his innocence when Joan Gale's body disappears from the morgue. Her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) happens to be the fiance of Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), a sculptor working in Mr. Igor's new museum. When Florence notices that one of the new sculptures in the museum bears a suspicious resemblance to Joan Gale, she decides to investigate further and enlists the help of Winton. They uncover a lurid world of junkies, disfigured human monsters and maniacal schemes behind the walls of the wax museum.
Produced in the fall of 1932 and released in February 1933, Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last feature film to be shot in the Technicolor two-color process, and it represents one of the most effective uses of it in terms of visual design. The lighting by master cinematographer Ray Rennahan and the frequently abstract set designs by Anton Grot, combined with the restricted tonalities inherent to the color process, create an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of German Expressionism. Although it is often referred to as "two-strip Technicolor," the actual photographic process, which was developed in 1920, used a single black-and-white negative. The film camera recorded two adjacent frames simultaneously on a single strip of film, one frame filtered to capture the green color record and the other filtered to capture the red. The process required extremely bright lights, resulting in hot temperatures on the set and even eye damage to many actors during that period. In Mystery of the Wax Museum, the heat necessitated the use of real people in place of wax sculptures, since the wax would have melted. If you look closely, you can occasionally spot very slight eye movements in the actors posing as the sculptures.
The color printing process used by Technicolor from 1920 to 1927 involved printing the two color records on separate strips of film: most commonly, one with blue-green dye and one with red-orange. The two strips of film were half the thickness of normal film stock and were reversed in relationship to each other, so that they could be cemented together into a single strip of film. Although the process provided consistent color reproduction within the limits of a two-color system, the prints had a tendency to split because of the heat generated by the projector's arc lamp and thus frequently had to be sent back to the lab for repair. The first feature film using the Technicolor two-color process was The Toll of the Sea (1922). Because the process was expensive, its use tended to be limited to isolated sequences within films, including major productions such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Big Parade (1925) and Ben-Hur (1925). The most notable feature using two-color process throughout was the Douglas Fairbanks adventure The Black Pirate (1926).
In 1928, Technicolor developed the dye imbibition film printing technique, which enabled more than one layer of dye to be applied to a single strip of film, thus eliminating the need for cemented prints. Some features using this improved process included The King of Jazz (1930), Whoopee! (1930), Doctor X (1932) and, finally, Mystery of the Wax Museum. In 1932, Technicolor developed a three-color system that could at last photograph the full color spectrum. This time, it used three separate rolls of black-and-white film running through a single camera to capture the red, blue and green color records. The printing stage used the dye imbibition process to combine the separate color records onto one strip of film. The result was the richly saturated color that Technicolor has become famous for. This new process was first used with the Disney animated short Flowers and Trees (1932). The first live action short filmed in the three-strip Technicolor process was La Cucaracha (1934) and the first feature film was Becky Sharp (1935), both of which were photographed by Ray Rennahan, who had by now long enjoyed a reputation as a leading expert in color cinematography. Other significant Technicolor films on which Rennahan worked include: the first Technicolor feature produced in Britain, Wings of the Morning (1937), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Gone With the Wind (1939), Blood and Sand (1941) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). For more information about Technicolor color processes, see the excellent American Widescreen Museum website (http://www.widescreenmuseum.org) and the book Technicolor Movies by Richard W. Haines.
Mystery of the Wax Museum, sometimes referred to simply as Wax Museum, was produced by Warner Brothers to capitalize on the fad for horror films at that time, ranging from the now-legendary Universal franchise of horror films to low-budget independent productions like White Zombie (1932). This particular film reunited the team of director Michael Curtiz, photographer Rennahan, art director Grot, lead actor Lionel Atwill, leading lady Fay Wray and supporting actor Arthur Edmund Carewe, who had all contributed to the success of Doctor X the year before. An important addition to the formula was the comic performance of Glenda Farrell, who plays the cynical, fast-talking reporter--a character type she would revisit in Warner Brothers' popular "Torchy Blaine" series of the late Thirties.
The squeamish critic Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times found Mystery of the Wax Museum to be "too ghastly for comfort." He wrote: "It is all very well in its way to have a mad scientist performing operations in well-told stories, but when a melodrama depends upon the glimpses of covered bodies in a morgue and the stealing of some of them by an insane modeler in wax, it is going too far." He did, however, praise the comic relief offered by Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh as the reporter and her newspaper editor. The reviewer for Variety wrote that "makeups are about the last word in gruesomeness," but complained that it had a "loose and unconvincing story," adding: "Loose ends never quite jell but it's one of those artificial things whose sole retrospection will inspire an uncomfortable feeling of the physically misshapen and little else. But it doesn't bore and should go well with the B-grade houses and nabes." Although the film turned a handsome profit--approximately 800,00 dollars--it was more successful in Europe than in the U.S., according to Curtiz biographer James C. Robertson.
The film was considered "lost" for many years until a print was found in Jack Warner's private vault. Even then, it was usually shown on television in black-and-white prints; the print shown on TCM is in the original two-color Technicolor process. While no masterpiece compared to the best Universal horror films, Mystery of the Wax Museum remains briskly entertaining and above all, striking to look at.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, based on a story by Charles S. Belden
Photography: Ray Rennahan
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Editing: George Amy
Principal cast: Lionel Atwill (Mr. Igor); Glenda Farrell (Florence Dempsey); Fay Wray (Charlotte Duncan); Frank McHugh (Editor); Allen Vincent (Ralph Burton); Gavin Gordon (George Winton); Edwin Maxwell (Joe Worth); Holmes Herbert (Dr. Rasmussen); Arthur Edmund Carewe (Sparrow).
C-78m. Closed captioning.
by James Steffen