Wax Factor! ‘Mystery At The Wax Museum’

❉ Dan Roberts waxes lyrical about a pre-Hays Code film rarely seen in its original two-strip Technicolor glory.

I was once asked by my employer to do a piece to camera for a prospective pitch. Sadly I don’t think it ever saw the light of day but the premise was to pick a film by a particular film company and explain why you liked it. I chose Mystery At The Wax Museum (1933). Given I had only twenty-four hours to write and film I don’t think it’s too bad.

As a boy so young I watched films so old

And this from 1933 was pre-Hayes code

A Two strip Technicolor world of delight

With Fay and Lionel giving such a terrific fright.

Punches were thrown and a wax face shattered

Revealed was barely human, scarred, tattered.

Bodies were stolen and encased for the eternal

While the monster was created from raging inferno

The garish spectres and nightmares behind a mask

Was all I ever wanted. No more could I ask.

Until 1953 when it rose from its mausoleum

Adding another Mystery At The Wax Museum.


(I am aware the correct term is “two colour” not “two strip” – but the poem works better with the latter)

Fay Wray appreciates Max Factor’s handiwork (yes THAT Max Factor) in ‘Mystery At The Wax Museum’ (1933)

There was a moment in my cineaste life when all I wanted to do was watch early colour films. They didn’t look anything like the colour on TV or contemporary offerings at the cinema. There was a different spectrum at play here. So when I came across Doctor X (1932) and its sister film Mystery At The Wax Museum (1933) the subject became even more fascinating.

I believe it was on Channel 4 where I first saw the two films and I was extremely disappointed to see they were in black and white. With Leslie Halliwell and Alan Frank both confirming they were originally colour and that a copy existed when Jack Warner’s personal archive was passed to United Artists I was left obsessed with the potential colour imagery both films had to offer. Not only that, I started reading about the technology itself and the differences between two-colour and three colour Technicolor. My obsession even went as far as drawing (badly) some two colour comic strips using specially selected red and green pencil crayons to emulate the striking result.

Many of the films shot in this process tended to be musicals from impresarios such as Busby Berkeley or Florenz Ziegfield or had a colour sequence inserted as with Ben Hur (1924) or the overly-tinkered Mysterious Island (1929). There was something magical and outlandish about this format that “normal” colour just didn’t match. While colour films in the late ‘30s and ‘40s still had a novelty appeal these few early efforts in red and green were rare enough to deserve some seeking out regardless of genre. The process was eventually superseded in 1935 with Becky Sharp, the first film in three-colour Technicolor.

But it was always the two horror films that were shot entirely in this process which always fascinated me. More so because for decades they were considered lost.

For any true film fan the idea of any film being lost forever should fill your heart with chagrin. It seems almost ridiculous to suggest one of the biggest stars in the silent era (Clara Bow) has less than half her films available to view. Unless someone unearths a stash of prints they are gone. Forever.

Years passed and I just left my desire to see these films in their original glory buried somewhere. Then came the DVD release of the 1953 film House of Wax. I almost fell off my chair when I saw what the extra was. The colour print of Mystery At the Wax Museum.

There are very few times an extra becomes the main feature but in this case it absolutely was. Despite it not being a great print with only minimal repair it was still the colour print of the film and it was gorgeous and beyond my wildest dreams. The thing with two colour Technicolor is that it is predominantly red and green so defining texture and hue is quite a skill possibly more so than using monochrome. Horror films were nearly always in black and white and continued to be for the next 30 years or so. It wasn’t until Hammer and Roger Corman started making their gothic masterpieces that horror colour had come of age.

Recently though the Warner Archive label released the fully restored version of MATWM. While not initially available in the UK, someone with a modicum of interest in this era had selected it for HMV’s own-brand Premium Collection. A lot of this library has been released before and indeed available on other labels but here was something exceptional.

The artwork of the Blu-ray shows an art deco poster with a pair of figurines. One a statue, the other a woman replicating the former. Importantly the cover has had a green wash reminiscent of the Technicolor process. Inside the cover you get a poster and some postcards which are always nice to add to a package like this.

As for the film… Well, the difference between this and the extra on House of Wax is staggering. There isn’t a single scratch and the colour is balanced throughout the film. One of the extras is a short comparison of how the film was restored which is worth your time. You can see what an awful state it was in and what magic the technicians have done. It’s one of the best restorations I’ve seen. There is also a delightful and insightful interview with Victoria Riskin, Fay Wray’s daughter.

But what about the film itself? Well if you don’t know the plot, in brief, a London based wax sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is horribly scarred in a fire started by his greedy business partner. A decade later the crippled sculptor reappears in New York with a new wax museum. He’s unable to sculpt due to his injuries but through careful selection he is teaching young artists to mimic his style and rebuild his lost works. However he is also in the habit of killing people based on their resemblance to historical figures and then immortalising them in wax. This comes to a head when he spots one of his student’s fiancée Charlotte (Fay Wray) and believes her to be the living embodiment of Marie Antoinette. Interestingly when we saw the pre-fire statue of Marie Antoinette it was in fact Fay Wray herself standing completely still and not a dummy. I never knew this until I saw the extras on the Blu-ray.

Fay Wray and not a statue.

In the meantime Fay Wray’s roommate and journalist Florence (Glenda Farrell) is investigating the mysterious disappearance of a murdered girl from the morgue. Florence discovers the missing body is the spitting image of the Joan of Arc statue in the museum. Although Fay Wray’s fame through King Kong (1933) would have dominated the billing, it is Glenda Farrell who steals the film. Her sassy and smart talking journalist epitomises the period through her attitude and fantastic wardrobe. It is also her staccato swingball conversations with her editor Jim (Frank McHugh) which light up the film. You could have put these pair into any genre and it would have been a delight. The dialogue verges on poetry.

Being pre-code there are some rather nice touches. The drug dealing scene, even in silhouette, would never have been allowed a couple of years later. Note that in the 1953 remake, the hard drugs are replaced by alcohol. Fay and Glenda share a bedroom and are seen in pyjamas and shorts with Fay Wray putting her stockings on. Again, this would be an absolute no-no in later years. Although nowadays it’s all very tame it’s nice to see that studios were willing to push the boundaries. I recently watched Scarface (1932) for the first time and the violence is cold blooded and brutal even now.

A damsel in distress.

For me the triumph of the restoration is Anton Grot’s art direction and the clarity of the cinematography. Perhaps more so than in any other restoration. Grot’s expressionistic work is dominating and ranks as some of the darkest, dingiest and most emotive sets imaginable. Even the stair banisters are angled in a way to give the impression the set has subsided. The colour though is the real winner. While colour was a complicated and expensive process and used predominantly to show “spectacle” here we have colour being used to contrive a mood. Shafts of green streak across rooms while pools of red spot the floors and walls.

Some of Anton Grot’s best work.

Lionel Atwill’s grim make up is made even grimmer by the lurid green and red hue while the lighting of the sets brings them alive in a way black and white never could. It was then I was reminded of Dario Argento using an archaic Technicolor process to shoot Suspiria (1977) and its influence in his later film Inferno (1980) is also worth noting. Here then isn’t just the result of an agreement between Warner and Technicolor to use a process and fulfil a contract. It’s a film that was on the very cutting edge of film language. The use of colour is as pioneering as Fritz Lang’s masterful use of sound in M (1930).

All morgues should look like this…

The director Michael Curtiz had prior to 1933 used this colour process twice before in a pair of musicals  released in 1930 (Under A Texas Moon and Bright Lights) so he was at least fairly experienced from a technical aspect, although his work in these two horror films was something more remarkable. Ground breaking even.

Despite all of this the film suffers at times from a mundane pacing. It’s difficult to pinpoint why. Perhaps the demands of using colour equipment meant the camera was more static. For comparison look how the camera is often moved in Fay Wray’s earlier film A Most Dangerous Game (1932). At one point the camera slides down the bannister to a close up of Leslie Banks – it’s a hell of a shot even now. This is only a minor gripe as the film is a little under 80 minutes and for the most part rattles along nicely.

An injection of terror…

You will have noted I haven’t mentioned the scene that makes this film truly famous. The face mask smashing scene. If legend has it correct Fay Wray’s first attempt at smashing Atwill’s mask was deemed underwhelming by the Michael Curtiz. She’d never seen the gruesome face before and apparently she was rendered speechless. The version in the film is the second take and a little over the top – almost King Kong in its proportions. But what follows is a Best Of Pulp Magazine tableaus. A hooded and deformed figure ties a damsel to a table. Equipment crackles. Glass jars bubble. A syringe is filled. It’s a joy.

I may have cut myself shaving…

Worth a note, the gruesome make-up and Atwill’s wax mask was created by Max Factor. Yes, that one.

As for its sister film, Doctor X (1932) is a little more difficult to locate. I have a colour version on a Region 1 box set. I believe the Warner Archive has now released in the US a fully restored version. I’m hoping HMV pick it up as it’s a far weirder film with almost the same cast and crew. It involves a one armed psychotic who creates a synthetic arm to commit murder. Sleep tight.

❉ ‘Mystery At The Wax Museum’ (1933) Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly & Carl Erickson. With Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh. Distributed by Warner Bros. Running time: 77 minutes. ‘Mystery At The Wax Museum’ Premium Collection Blu-ray (HMV Exclusive) is available here: https://amzn.to/3XvHjX9

❉ Dan Roberts is usually found protecting his vegetables and watching wildlife. Every so often he manages to write something, usually about old films you’d forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Follow him on Twitter: @trampilot

Become a patron at Patreon!