Friday, February 15, 2013

Mystery of the Wax Museum (Warner Bros., 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I went to my friend Bob R.’s and ran him Mystery of the Wax Museum — a movie he found at once too confusing and too predictable. The limitations of two-strip Technicolor were less annoying in this one than in The King of Jazz, partly because the print that survived was in much better shape from the standpoint of color registration, and partly because the movie was so carefully designed to work around the limitations of the process — notably by containing no daytime exteriors, thereby obviating the need to show sky. The visual quotes from the 1925 Phantom of the Opera and the 1931 Frankenstein were pretty obvious, and Anton Grot’s expressionistic sets would actually have looked better in a dark, shadowy, chiaroscuro black-and-white than they did in color, but the spectacular scenes — the fire in the original London wax museum at the beginning and the “monster” climax in which Lionel Atwill tries to murder Fay Wray by spraying her with wax — did benefit from the use of the two-strip process. (When I taped this movie, I left in the host’s introduction, in which he explained that the movie was not colorized, but was actually shot in an early color process — at the time this was aired, colorization was so poor that colorized films tended to have many of the same limitations as the early two-strip films, notably a palette biased heavily towards browns and a “smeary” effect caused by problems in matching registrations between the various “strips,” whether physical or electronic, containing the various spectral ranges. I also hadn’t remembered the host being such a queen!) — 5/4/93


I made dinner for myself and then walked over to Charles’ home and ran him Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Brasher Doubloon, two movies I’d copied from Beta to VHS recently. Charles liked them both, and was amazed at how well the two-strip Technicolor of Mystery of the Wax Museum had held up (though at least part of that may have had to do with the fact that we were watching a copy of the recording I’d originally made; the copying process, for some strange reason, tends — if it affects the color at all — to make it brighter). He’s seen the remake, House of Wax, of course, but he liked this version as well. I like it better, actually, since it’s shorter, it’s set contemporaneously, Lionel Atwill is a more subtle and less stylized actor than Vincent Price and Glenda Farrell — significantly more important than her counterpart in the remake — is a treat as the fast-talking, hard-bitten girl reporter who unravels the case; as Tino Balio put it in his introduction to the published script, “A typical Warner Brothers production dons a fright wig and tries to pass itself off as a Universal picture.” — 9/16/96


Since I got the double-sided Warner Home Video DVD of Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax I’d been anxious to run these films, especially Mystery since — aside from the fact that I think it’s the better of the two versions — I’ve been curious about how a relatively well-preserved two-strip Technicolor movie (according to the American Film Institute Catalog, the last film made in the two-strip process) would hold up in a DVD transfer. It looked about the same as it had on my previous tape (a Beta tape I copied over to VHS) and about like most two-strip films: dominated by salmon-red and turquoise-green as the main colors but also harmonious and painterly in its overall color scheme. (I often find good-condition two-strip actually pleasanter to look at than some early films in the three-strip process that succeeded it, which were frequently garish and overbright, especially in the primaries.) The film was remade 20 years later in 3-D as House of Wax (unfortunately this DVD does not contain either the 3-D version or the glasses needed to view it that way!) and according to the AFI catalog was also the basis for a 1966 TV-series pilot that wasn’t picked up but was released theatrically under the title Chamber of Horrors (and the AFI also mentions Roger Corman’s 1959 film A Bucket of Blood, a variation on the basic concept in which the protagonist is a beatnik with artistic ambitions but no talent, who kills people, plasters clay all over their bodies and exhibits these as sculptures).

The transfer is adequate and Warner Home Video deserves kudos for duplicating the color “as is” and not trying to “improve” it through color-correction or colorization, though as Charles noted as we watched the film doesn’t really gain that much from being in color: aside from the marvelous opening sequence in which the original wax sculptures of Igor (Lionel Atwill) are burned in a fire by his crooked partner, Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) — including a beautiful series of close-ups in which some of the wax women actually seem to be crying as the fire starts to melt their faces away — most of this film would have been as effective, possibly even more so, in black-and-white. I’ve also long treasured Tino Balio’s description of Mystery of the Wax Museum — “A typical Warner Brothers production dons a fright wig and tries to pass itself off as a Universal picture” — especially since Glenda Farrell, as the wisecracking reporter who solves the mystery, romances rich playboy George Winton (Gavin Gordon) but ends up marrying her editor (Frank McHugh, less oppressive than in most of his appearances at the time — the director, Michael Curtiz, must have restrained him), suggesting this as a prequel to His Girl Friday, is by far the most significant character in the story and the one with the most screen time even though she’s billed third behind Atwill and Fay Wray (as the ingenue whom Atwill marks for waxification because she’s the spitting image of his lost sculpture of Marie Antoinette), and her high-energy portrayal gives this film most of its entertainment value. (Inexplicably the writer of House of Wax, Crane Wilbur, eliminated this character completely from his story, thus significantly draining the remake of the original’s power.)

All in all, Mystery of the Wax Museum is a quite good film that holds up well. Like Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill had the sophistication as an actor to portray one of these obsessed characters with sufficient depth to make his obsession credible and genuinely pathetic instead of just evil. Fay Wray had little to do but look decorative and scream (you’re likely to remember her waxen appearance as Marie Antoinette much more than her ambulatory scenes as Charlotte Duncan, who meets Igor because her fiancé, apprentice sculptor Ralph Burton [Edwin Maxwell], works for him) but there’s a quite good supporting cast, including actors like McHugh and Gordon whom Curtiz got far better performances from than was their norm. The AFI Catalog has some rather odd mistakes in their description of the film — they don’t mention that Worth, the character who torches the wax museum in 1921 London in the film’s prologue, reappears in the main part (set in 1933 New York) as a bootlegger who’s exposed by Farrell’s character and ultimately murdered by Igor in his giant wax bath just before he tries to give Fay Wray the same treatment; and they refer to Arthur Edmund Carewe’s character as “Sparrow” when he’s actually called “Professor Darcy” in the film (Carewe, who played the secret agent in the Lon Chaney, Sr. version of The Phantom of the Opera, here is cast as a sculptor who’s become a heroin addict and, arrested for his role in Worth’s bootlegging racket, “cracks” in the police station and implicates Igor in the murders — this being a pre-Code film he’s openly referred to as a “junkie” in the dialogue; in House of Wax he was played by Charles Bronson under his real last name, Bushinsky,[1] and due to the Code his addiction had to be downgraded from heroin to alcohol); they also credit Ralph as Charlotte’s sole rescuer in the final scene when in fact a squad of police officers raid the wax museum, though it is Ralph who pushes the gurney on which Charlotte is about to be sprayed with wax away from the wax spout just in the nick of time. Mystery of the Wax Museum was thought lost until 1970, when the sole extant print turned up in Jack Warner’s home (and I first saw it that year when the San Francisco Film Festival ran that original print along with an even more delicious rediscovery, James Whale’s The Old Dark House), and since then it’s trickled out on occasional showings on various Turner channels — though one person I’m almost sure saw it early in its revival career was Mel Brooks, because he cribbed two elements from it in Young Frankenstein (the pronunciation of Atwill’s character name as “EYE-gor” instead of the more usual “EE-gor” and the scene in which a live character appears as part of a lineup of otherwise lifeless heads) — prior to this quite welcome and beautifully transferred DVD release. — 10/17/03


I ran the 1933 movie Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I have on the Warner Home Video two-sided DVD also containing its more famous 1953 remake, House of Wax. By coincidence I happened to see both films for the first time theatrically within less than a year of each other — Mystery of the Wax Museum at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1970 when the sole extant print (found in Jack L. Warner’s personal collection after he had forgotten about it for decades) had just been rediscovered and reissued; and House of Wax in 1971 in a spectacular transfer of the original 3-D version (and I pity anyone who hasn’t seen it in the 3-D format; it’s really spectacular and adds a lot to the film). Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last feature film made in the two-strip Technicolor process; all the major studios experimented with it — sometimes merely for color sequences in otherwise all-black-and-white movies — but Warners, having just hit the jackpot by being the first big studio to shoot a movie with synchronized dialogue and music and thereby sparking the talkie revolution, thought color would be, shall we say, the next sound. So they signed a big contract with Technicolor to make 60 features in the two-strip process, which involved using a camera that shot two separate negatives, red and green; the two strips of negative film were then “married” to produce positive prints through so-called “dye transfer imbibition,” a process similar to lithography. There were a lot of things that could go wrong with this in practice, and with Technicolor having stepped up (and speeded up) production to fulfill Warners’ contract, critics claimed that the quality of Technicolor’s films declined due to the sheer rush. Two-strip had a major limitation inherent in the process: it could not photograph blue, because blue has the shortest wavelength of any color in the spectrum and therefore was the hardest to photograph, period.

Anyone who did newspaper or magazine production in the era before desktop publishing will remember “non-photo blue” pencils and marking pens with which you could proofread copy without leaving an image that the camera that photographed the galleys to make offset plates would pick up (such people will also remember that red photographed black), and James Wong Howe first “made his bones” as a cinematographer by figuring out how to photograph the blue-eyed Mary Miles Minter: he hid himself and his camera behind a velvet curtain, bounced the light off the curtain and back into Minter’s eyes, and thereby created a shadow that allowed Minter’s irises to look like normal ones on screen. Indeed, when the three-strip Technicolor process replaced two-strip (three-strip was introduced in 1932 by Walt Disney in the cartoon Flowers and Trees; the first live-action three-strip films, the final reel of the Jeanette MacDonald musical The Cat and the Fiddle and the short La Cucaracha, came out in 1934, and the first feature shot entirely in three-strip, Becky Sharp, came out in 1935), directors, cinematographers and art designers seemed to go out of their way to include blue objects just because they could. What makes it odd is that the Warner Home Video edition of Mystery of the Wax Museum does feature some objects — mostly walls in nighttime exteriors — that look deep blue, and I was trying to determine whether that was an artefact of the old TV we were watching it on (not likely because other people on the message board on the film were also saying they’d seen blue), some “tweaking” of the color in the DVD transfer process (also not likely because if they’d played around with the color balance they’d have gone farther and not left many scenes in the overall brown-and-green scheme of two-strip, and in one scene a frog appears, and though you would expect it to be green it is blue), or — my guess — differential fading of the dyes used to make the color image so what looked dark green to the original 1933 audience looks blue now because the yellow components of the lithography have faded more than the blue ones.

As far as Mystery of the Wax Museum goes as a film, it’s an excellent little chiller, far superior to its slower-paced, more lumbering remake, offering not only the cheekiness of the so-called “pre-Code” era (the Production Code was actually put into place in 1930, but pressure from the Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency in 1934 forced the studios to be a lot more serious about enforcing it, vetting films both when they were in script form and after they were shot) — including a character who’s quite openly drawn as a heroin addict and a lot of sexual innuendi from Glenda Farrell, playing a reporter (what else?) who cracks the case — but also superior acting, direction and writing. The story in both versions is the same (a recently made House of Wax junked the original tale by writer Charles Belden and substituted a typical modern-day slasher story with blood and gore replacing the Gothic terror of both this version and House of Wax): a talented sculptor leaves the fine-art world and starts making figures for a wax museum in London he co-owns with a crooked entrepreneur. Alas, just as respected art critics are drifting in and offering him the acclaim he wants, the crooked entrepreneur burns the place down for the insurance money, destroying the sculptor’s cherished figures and leaving him badly scarred and with stumps for fingers. Twelve years later, his museum reopens in New York City with figures duplicating the originals, only the sculptor can no longer make the figures himself and has to depend on assistants to do the actual work. The artist is particularly obsessed with restoring his lost wax sculpture of Marie Antoinette, and he goes off the deep end when he meets the girlfriend of one of his assistants and finds she looks exactly like his Marie Antoinette. Eventually it turns out that all, or nearly all, of the “wax” figures in the museum are actually dead humans, murdered because they resembled the original statues — in a humorous topical bit obviously evoking the real-life disappearance of Judge Crater, a missing judge named Ramsey turns out to have been killed because he looked like the museum’s statue of Voltaire, while another person, a socialite named Joan Gale who supposedly committed suicide, was actually killed and embalmed with wax because she resembled the mad sculptor’s Joan of Arc.

The plots track similarly, but Mystery of the Wax Museum is a better movie because it’s shorter (by about half an hour, avoiding the longueurs of House of Wax), it’s better constructed, it has the advantage of two-strip Technicolor (superbly used by director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ray Rennahan — who was actually employed by Technicolor, not Warners — to evoke a flawless Gothic atmosphere; unable to show blue sky in two-strip, the filmmakers turned the limitation into an asset by not including any scenes that take place outdoors during daytime) and it also has a far superior cast. In Mystery of the Wax Museum the mad sculptor is called “Ivan Igor” — the last name is pronounced “EYE-gor” instead of the more common “EE-gor,” and Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein not only copied the “EYE-gor” pronunciation but also included a visual quote from Mystery of the Wax Museum (a row of wax heads in which a live human hides, concealing the rest of his body behind the table the wax heads are sitting on — in Young Frankenstein it was a row of severed human heads but the gag was the same) — and he’s played, superbly, by Lionel Atwill. In the remake, House of Wax, he was called “Henry Jarrod” (apparently the filmmakers didn’t want to insult Russians!) and played by Vincent Price, who camped his way through the role in a performance that eventually “typed” him as a horror actor after a 15-year film career in which he’d played mostly lounge-lizard second leads. (Eventually Price’s camping through horror part after horror part would itself become the major appeal of his films — though given a good “straight” role in a genuinely sinister movie like Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm, he proved as late as the 1970’s that his acting chops were still A-O.K.)

By contrast, Atwill brings to the role the same twisted pathos Boris Karloff did in the 1932 version of The Mummy (another horror classic that as a work of art towers far, far above its remake!); like Karloff, he’s able to convince us that he’s so bonkers that he genuinely believes that killing the heroine and reincarnating her (as a living mummy in Karloff’s film, as a dead wax sculpture in Mystery) he’s really doing her a favor! Mystery also benefits from the rambunctious reporter character played by Glenda Farrell — unwisely eliminated by Charles Belden when he wrote the screenplay for House of Wax: the filmmakers, including screenwriters Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, give her a showcase for her torrential energy and rapid-fire delivery of dialogue (Warners at one point even advertised her as having the fastest mouth in films!) — and by the radiance of Fay Wray in her part as the hapless heroine who finds herself at the center of the villain’s schemes due to her unfortunate resemblance to (his vision of) Marie Antoinette. It’s a wonderful movie, well directed by Michael Curtiz and with stark, stylized, almost Caligari-esque sets by Anton Grot, and it even has Frank McHugh (as Glenda Farrell’s editor) getting her at the end, as she dumps the rich guy she’s been chasing all movie (an innocent suspect in one of the murders because Jane Gale was his previous girlfriend) and ends up in his arms for the final clinch, while we just assume Fay Wray and her “stick” boyfriend (Allan Vincent) get together as well. Mystery of the Wax Museum is a gem, and while Tino Balio’s assessment of it — “a typical Warner Bros. production dons a fright wig and tries to pass itself off as a Universal picture” — is somewhat accurate, in fact the film is a clever mix of Warners’ clichés and an overall Gothic atmosphere just helped by the use of two-strip Technicolor. — 2/15/13

[1] Actually, in House of Wax “Igor,” now pronounced “EE-gor” instead of the first version’s “EYE-gor,” is no longer the name of the mad sculptor but his mute assistant — and that, not the addict sidekick, is the role Charles Bronson played under his birth last name, Buchinsky.