"I offer you immortality, my child. Think of it: in a thousand years you shall be as lovely as you are now!" – Ivan Igor
You say “Wax Museum” in a film context, and most people right away think about Vincent Price in House of Wax, a film that is a horror movie staple, and an acknowledged classic. But what about the original, directed by Michael Curtiz who, a decade later would helm one of Hollywood’s best loved classics, Casablanca?
Okay, let’s turn the wayback machine to way, waaay back to 1933, and Warner Brothers production of Mystery of the Wax Museum, a film that was considered lost until the late sixties when a print was discovered in the late Jack Warner’s collection – he was a stickler for having personal prints of his studio’s procutions, thankfully. The film features Lionel Atwill before he became an unending succession of lab assistants, chiefs of police, bartenders and burgomasters in Universal Films, and co-starring Fay Wray the year before she played second fiddle to the tallest, darkest leading man Hollywood had ever seen in King Kong.
Apart from seeing those two cult stars before they found their real fame and enduring glory, this film has another aspect that makes it all the more intriguing – it’s actually a very early colour movie. The Technicolor is a little bit crude, to be honest – a primitive two tone process that seems washed out, but there’s no doubt that it adds to the ambiance and there’s a sense of seeing film history when viewing it – particularly as the two tone process was abandoned shortly after the completion of this film. (The same process had been used earlier by the same studio with the same stars, on basically the same sets in ther production of Doctor X.)
The film opens in Paris, in a run down wax museum where a talented wax sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is about to get his dream come true. A potential investor offers to submit Igor’s work to the Royal Academy. But his joy is short lived, as his current investor, a seedy individual named Joe Worth can’t see the art on what Igor produces and wants to torch the joint to make a quick buck on the insurance.
During the ensuing struggle, the place catches fire with some horrible ensuing images of the melting wax figures with eyes dribbling down oozing faces. These scenes were a bit too much for the tender audiences of the early thirties and in some cuts of the release print, these scenes were excised.
Twelve years later, Igor shows up in New York, ready to open another wax museum, though he’s confined to a wheelchair and unable to sculpt now with his hands burnt and disfigured. He’s dependent on his helpers to sculpt for him under his direction.
The film departs from its horror origins for a while, becoming a crime thriller as an intrepid and annoying girl reporter for a New York newspaper played by Glenda Farrell. It’s all dames with moxie, wisecracking fast patter dialogue which Warners would put to better use in their gangster movies.
She’s investigating the suicide and ensuing disappearance of the body of a model. A model who bears a striking resemblance to the Joan of Ark exhibit in the soon to be open wax museum.
Igor isn’t as crippled as he seems, and his mind is more twisted than we’re aware. He’s after revenge, having tracked Joe Worth to New York via a junkie kept on a short leash by drugs. (This was in the pre-censor days. All references to junkies and drugs were omitted from the remake.) He’s also rebuilding his works of art from Paris by seeking out people who resemble his original sculptures, killing them, and covering them in wax. His masterpiece was Marie Antoinette – who better to replicate Marie Antoinette than Fay Wray’s Charlotte, currently dating one of Igor’s assistants?
The high point of the film is, much as it was in Phantom of the Opera, the unmasking of the villain – and this scene is every bit as memorable as Chaney’s Phantom was, mainly because of Fay Wray’s reaction and ensuing scream.
She strikes out at Lionel Atwill’s face, and it begins to crack and crumble, revealing a grotesque, twisted burnt face underneath. Legend has it that Wray hadn’t seen what Atwill’s makeup would look like, and they filmed her reaction upon seeing the monster unexpectedly for the first time. A mean trick, maybe. But it made for a hell of a scene.
You can see this movie by buying House of Wax. It’s a special feature on the disc and actually makes for an awesome double bill. (Actually this is a disc worth buying for the special feature alone – the main movie itself is just added value)
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