Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933):

The ol' corpse-under-the-wax-skin gag, only here it's new, the clash between Germanic Grand Guignol and American slanginess shot by Michael Curtiz, as in Doctor X earlier, for all its vintage bizarrerie. The prologue, London in 1921, sets things up with tracking shots taking stock of the lavish dummies (Joan of Arc, Voltaire, Napoleon, et al.) before finding Lionel Atwill, the artist, immersed at work, too busy to notice his shady partner's (Edwin Maxwell) plans of taking advantage of the fire-insurance by torching his beloved expo. A literal cut (from a guillotine) ushers in Act Two, the confetti of New York City, New Year's Eve 1933, as a corpse is whisked away from the morgue while Atwill, gray and in a wheelchair, watches from a window. The opener is in dark blues lit by the yellow of flames, though for the most part the celluloid is fleshy-pink -- the early two-strip Technicolor nod to the inherent cheesecake potential of leading ladies Glenda Farrell and Fay Wray? Either way, the tones are cannily faded, like a magazine left in the sun, utilized by Curtiz, shrewdly, as one of many European expressionistic elements smuggled into the fabric -- others include shadows on walls, Arthur Edmund Carewe playing a junkie henchman, the rapidity of the changing angles, zigzagging staircases (courtesy of Anton Grot) mirroring the crooked perspectives of the villain's vision, swaying, blinking humans disquietingly standing in for paraffin statues in close-up. Reporter Farrell gets closer to the mystery of disappearing stiffs and Atwill's likelife death masks ("Used to be married to one," snaps editor Frank McHugh), but it's Wray who's to replace Marie Antoinette, the artist's lost masterpiece. De Toth's and Corman's 1950s updates are contemplations of macabre art; Curtiz's is about Old World artisans toiling in a New Land, Atwill's "I am going to give you immortality" shot back with Farrell's "Go to some place warm, and I don't mean California," in full Vitaphone brassiness. With Allen Vincent, Gavin Gordon, and Matthew Betz.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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