Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). 77 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Lionel Atwill (as Ivan Igor), Fay Wray (as Charlotte Duncan), Glenda Farrell (as Florence Dempsey), Frank McHugh (as Jim), Allen Vincent (as Ralph Burton), Gavin Gordon (as George Winton), Arthur Edmund Carewe (as Professor Darcy), Edwin Maxwell (as Joe Worth), Matthew Betz (as Hugo), and Monica Bannister (as Joan Gale). Art direction by Anton Grot.

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a notable pre-Code horror film about a mad sculptor and his menagerie of ghoulish statues. While less well known today than its contemporaries Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), nevertheless it was a commercial hit in its time and has since made a place for itself in history as one of the best of the two-strip Technicolor movies. This limited but spirited color scheme infuses the wax museum setting with beauty, vivacity, and even a certain amount of sex appeal. True, the kitsch and sleaze latent in wax museums are also present here, but the film has fun mingling its more tasteless elements with a loftier project of examining the power of human images both to move us and to make us feel uncomfortable. Mystery of the Wax Museum will likely not terrify a twenty-first-century audience, but in the spirit of other pre-Code horror films I have mentioned, it seeks to unnerve us through uncanny moments, and much like the slightly later, similarly kitschy The Devil-Doll (1936), it triumphs most when it allows itself to be weird.

The film opens after hours in London, where sculptor Ivan Igor is busy at work in his wax museum. His associate Joe Worth pays him a visit to let him know that business is not going well, then lights the museum on fire for the insurance money, destroying the wax statues and maiming Igor in the process. Years later in New York, a recovered Igor opens the successor to his former museum, but journalist Florence Dempsey suspects that something is up; the city morgue reports that corpses have been stolen recently from its premises, and Igor’s Joan of Arc statue closely resembles the recently deceased Joan Gale, whose body has gone missing. Meanwhile, Florence’s roommate Charlotte Duncan (who is dating Ralph Burton, one of Igor’s artists) catches Igor’s eye because she resembles his prize Marie Antoinette sculpture from the London museum. Florence makes her case to the police that Igor is stealing corpses and turning them into wax statues just as Charlotte has made her way into the bowels of the museum. There in the lab, Igor subsequently attempts to turn her into yet another wax statue, but Florence and Ralph arrive with the police in time to free Charlotte and destroy Igor.

This is the last of the two-strip Technicolor films, and it piggy-backs on director Michael Curtiz’s previous two-strip film, Dr. X (1932), a science-fiction/horror story that features many of the same actors and crew. Although two-strip Technicolor could be striking with its accentuation of shades of red and green, especially when used deliberately and artistically (see as an example King of Jazz [1930]), it always registered as artificial and unrealistic. After all, one does not go through life seeing only rose and mint coloring. As a result, the two-strip phenomenon was, not surprisingly, short-lived. But Mystery of the Wax Museum is a memorable last hurrah of this technology, which is put to beautiful use through the art direction of Anton Grot. Grot’s labyrinthine laboratory has walls and angular corridors that seem to ooze and pulse with their slime greens, channeling the shades of pulp science fiction covers and an emerging color horror film aesthetic.

Two-strip Technicolor may have been artificial and at the end of its life by the time Mystery of the Wax Museum was made, but its colors, particularly its reds, both breathe life into the film and heighten our sense of the connection between artifice and flesh-and-blood people. We see the peach-rose color of living people’s flesh (they are all Caucasians) up close in the characters that the film focuses on, but also in crowd scenes when the streets radiate with the skin of city dwellers (especially the scenes with the New Year’s Eve crowds). The streets are even littered with inanimate pink streamers on New Year’s Eve—the discarded souvenirs of a joyous, raucous night that are, like the pink faces they remind us of, signifiers of life.

There is a sense that the whole city is pulsing with vivacity—even a kind of sexy fleshiness—and if the party streamers, city faces, and characters we see up close are connected in this way, then by extension the wax figures contained in the museum are also vested with this shared, peculiar life force by virtue of their glowing rose skin, even though they either are made of wax or are dead humans coated in wax. The coloring of the wax figures bonds them to the live humans convincingly and continuously, and the boundaries between the deceased and the living erode through Technicolor as the film plays out. The fact that the technology is able to bind these two groups together by virtue of something as simple as a limited color scheme speaks to the potential power of two-strip to build powerful thematic foundations—and in this case, to implicitly foreshadow the solution to the film’s mystery.

It is appropriate that the film’s technology draws us closer to the line between the corpse sculptures and their human counterparts because Mystery of the Wax Museum is fundamentally about the boundaries of artistic expression. The film depicts its core subject by juxtaposing two people, Ivan Igor and Florence Dempsey, who both engage in a passionate creative practice—for Igor, the obsessive sculpting of wax figures, and for Florence, the obsessive storytelling of newspaper reporting. The two thrive in their distinct environments, which help to set them apart. In the first New York scene on New Year’s Eve, we see the streets packed with partying people; upstairs in an apartment, Igor sits peering out from a window and does not join in. He will primarily be seen indoors within the context of his wax museum full of Old World historical figures, many of which are on the brink of death, and his criminal art is imbued appropriately with inner torment and hidden secrets.

In contrast, while Igor sits indoors and schemes on New Year’s Eve, Florence will emerge onto those streamer-strewn streets in pursuit of a story that is both powerful enough to save her career and worthy of public dissemination. Unlike Igor, she is full of New World, New York sass, slinging fast-paced, edgy dialogue back and forth with her editor Jim as she argues, works, and reworks the story that will save her job—much as we see Igor tracing lines in wax repeatedly on a bust in an early scene at the London museum.  All of this adds up to a journalistic liveliness that exists in strong opposition to Igor’s death-laden wax sculpture project. Although the film attempts to fascinate us with both Igor and Florence’s creative energies, Florence is in the end the triumphant victor as her story goes to print and Igor perishes in a boiling wax bath.

But while Florence and Igor battle to determine whose creative passion will prevail—will Igor’s secret be contained and his museum full of statues thrive, or will Florence’s pursuit of a story expose his crimes and bring an end to his mad creations?—it is important to remember how the two characters also resemble each other. Florence seeks to loudly proclaim the truth, and although Igor in comparison harbors many secrets, within the safety of his own museum he is a loud proclaimer, too—an impresario, asserting the value of his statues to the visiting public when he chaperones them through the gallery space. As guests follow him through the exhibits, he drums up their interest and engagement, sharing historical tidbits and witticisms in his role as enthusiastic tour guide. Much like Florence, he knows how to captivate the public’s interest—a least in the New York museum.

Because Igor is hell-bent on putting on a good show and on capturing and preserving lively images (through whatever means necessary), it might not come as a surprise that The Nitrate Diva has argued that Igor’s practice is strangely reminiscent of the art of filmmaking. It may be tempting to see his statue-creation process as a metacommentary on what a film such as Mystery of the Wax Museum itself does with the actors whose images it has captured; indeed, films do encapsulate images of living people and, if the films are properly cared for, make them available for viewing long after the actors are deceased. But if Igor’s attempt to preserve dead bodies in wax is a project akin to a filmmaker’s, we must also consider that the film is working intensely to convince us that Igor’s artist/filmmaker is not worthy of admiration. And if the wax figures are stand-ins for film art, we must also observe that not only are they creepy (i.e., decidedly linked to the horror world rather than mainstream art), but they are only a lifelike art because they cheat and use dead bodies; in other words, their art form is not honest or genuine. Although the film causes us to question the nature of artists and their work, nevertheless the central crime of Mystery of the Wax Museum fails to serve as a more widely applicable, comprehensive metaphor for the filmmaking process—at the very least, it does not offer a metaphor for a filmmaking process that we would elect to have anyone follow.

The full extent of Igor’s diseased artistic process is eventually revealed, but we should keep in mind that he, at least at first, views his museums as showcases for beauty and the sublime, not as freak shows or as houses of frights. In London, the creep-show title belongs to Igor’s rival institution, another wax museum in the city that caters to the macabre, displaying statues of Jack the Ripper and other salacious murderers. Why can’t your museum be more like that one, asks Joe Worth before he lights Igor’s museum on fire for the insurance money. But the London Igor is committed to the purity of his art in spite of his poor sales. The New York Igor, now maimed and mentally tweaked, can no longer sculpt. The closest he gets to creating art is berating his assistant Ralph for sculpting the female form without proper reference to classical anatomy. If only his hands worked, he would do it himself, but because he cannot, and because he cannot rely on others to achieve his artistic goals, Igor turns to insane and illegal means of creating his sculptures.

In this way, Mystery of the Wax Museum is a story about a tortured artist, but because wax is his means of creation, the idea of Igor as artiste is necessarily limited by the kitschy novelty of his medium of choice. At their worst, real wax figures are cheap imitations of life, typically found in seedy locales with campy themes. At best they are a novelty. When we think of wax art today, we likely think of the Madame Tussauds museums—tourist traps spread throughout the world with wax likenesses of superstar pop singers, the British royal family, and famous film actors.

Igor’s statues avoid some of Madame Tussauds’ tackier qualities by sticking to extremely classical subjects—mostly continental European, especially French. Some are so deeply grounded in specific historical moments from the last millennium that they will likely be unrecognizable to a modern audience. You might also wonder why we are made to focus on not one but two wax figures of the French writer Voltaire (which hold the secret to the wax museum’s mystery) and why we are treated to a conversation focused on him that describes him as the ultimate radical rebel (that conversation may come as a bit of a surprise in a 1933 film). Admittedly, there are some figures whose identities might be more easily grasped: Joan of Arc surrounded by firewood and the aforementioned Marie Antoinette in a voluminous dress, for example.

But lest you should think that Igor’s work is rather formal and stodgy with a minimum of space permitted for fun, consider that in the New York museum, the camera pans over a scene from what looks like prehistoric times, with scantily clad female forms draped loosely in animal skins—an appropriate touch, given that this is a pre-Code film. We will, of course, later see Charlotte nude (barely covered in a sheet) on a gurney, undressed personally by Igor for the purposes of wax mummification. As the film works to reveal its pre-Code nature in images such as these, it offers sordid content as well: Igor is supported at the museum by Professor Darcy (a drug addict with dark circles under his eyes who is paid with illicit substances for managing Igor’s dead bodies), and Igor’s corpses of choice include another drug addict and a corrupt judge—both elements contribute to an intriguing but unsavory backdrop to the museum. The combination of lofty artistic intentions, tawdry sculpture, sleazy operational details, and of course, blatant crime combine to make the museum a decidedly weirdo pleasure destination for idle New Yorkers.

As you may have gathered by now, although the historical vignettes that Igor depicts may often strike us as antique, the characters, crimes, and kitschiness of Mystery of the Wax Museum infuse it with an odd life force. The museum’s figures may be stationary and its environment may be cold, yet the beauty of Mystery of the Wax Museum is that it manages to make this variety of museum modern and human. But it also uses the human qualities of the statues to generate a museum environment that is rich in the uncanny—an unsettling, eerie atmosphere that ultimately overshadows whatever beauty or dignity Igor has attempted to impart to his creations.

One way that the film achieves this unsettling quality is by using human actors (who are motionless or nearly motionless) to portray the wax figures in both London and New York. As a result, the sculptures are infused with a vitality that stretches beyond what would have been achievable on film merely using wax materials. (Indeed, the human actors posing as sculptures made for more durable figures, as the harsh lighting required for two-strip Technicolor was not kind to the wax sculptures.) Of course, the goal of wax figures in any museum is to convince us that they are real, but because some of the figures in Igor’s museums are really humans posing, we are left with the uneasy feeling that the figures could come to life at any point. Our belief that this very well may happen is underscored by the fact that we can see the live sculptures moving subtly, albeit unintentionally. Fay Wray plays both the character Charlotte Duncan in New York and the statue of Marie Antoinette in Igor’s London museum, and as Antoinette, she is clearly alive and moving slightly; we can see her breathing and struggling to remain fully still. In New York, the Joan of Arc wax figure who is tied to a stake, and who is really the deceased Joan Gale, is depicted by the actress Monica Bannister and seems similarly on the verge of breaking her resolute pose. The use of live actors in this way underscores the fragile boundary between life and art in the film but is also useful in the film’s horror-story context, causing us to register discomfort and feel as if something is not right about the museums and their human images from the beginning.

Although the use of live statues throughout the film uncomfortably erodes the line between living beings and created things, Mystery of the Wax Museum reaches its true horror climax preemptively while still in London, where the film most effectively conveys the true emotional strangeness triggered by the wax museum’s agitation of the human/sculpture relationship. For the London scene in which the museum is lit on fire contains the multi-faceted eeriness of living people pretending to be statues combined with the creepiness of wax statues—which come close to convincing us that they are living people—catching fire and melting away. As we watch the flames consume the facial features that most define the sculptures as human, it is possible to feel a peculiar concern for the wax creations whose faces are melting in front of our eyes.

The sense that we are potentially seeing something like ourselves burning up reinforces and rationalizes Dr. Igor’s approach to his work, specifically his tendency to refer to the statues as people, particularly his Marie Antoinette, whose face we watch succumb to flames. As the museum begins to burn, he risks his life when he rushes to her, struggling to prevent her from being consumed by flames—but it is no use. The set is engulfed, and both the sculptures and the moving actors are in danger: as Igor wrestles with his financial backer Joe Worth, Igor comes close on multiple occasions to being touched by flames himself. The concern we feel for the live actors fighting amidst the fire thus amplifies our concern for the live actors posing as statues and even for the wax statues themselves. In this way, Mystery of the Wax Museum does not merely blur the lines between humans and their art—if it is successful, the film also causes us to feel emotionally for Igor’s sculpture collection and therefore brings us closer to identifying with Igor, the madman, too. That, in the end, may not be quite as bizarre as the corpses on display in Igor’s exhibition, but encouraging us to feel empathy for Igor is just one way that Mystery of the Wax Museum flirts with the unconventional. The movie is at its best when it embraces that side of itself.

Through these images and the use of the uncanny, Mystery of the Wax Museum makes a place for itself among notable early sound horror films. It is true that the movie is not scary in a conventional twenty-first-century sense; it is not full of things that jump out of nowhere, unkillable slashers with supernatural powers, or grisly gore. But while the film may not be strong in the fright category by today’s standards, it manages to take something that is by its nature potentially unsettling and seedy—the wax museum of curiosities—and uses it to tap into some very basic fears about how we represent ourselves. And it largely works: the images of burning wax faces, combined with shots of statues that are on the verge of snapping into life, make for a disquieting experience that lingers on after the screen fades to black.

Perhaps this movie, by virtue of its uncanniness, is not the greatest encouragement for you to plan your next trip to the wax museum, but the creepiness of wax sculpture existed before Mystery of the Wax Museum and will persist long afterwards, as long as such museums exist. Mystery of the Wax Museum, you might say, does a clever job of reminding us of what we already knew, and in doing so channels an awareness that we already have, a horror that is already a part of our psyche, and leaves us sitting at the end not with a palpitating heartbeat, but a sense that sculpture is somehow not safe and not what we are expecting it to be. That ultimately may be a horror-movie revelation that is more philosophical than scary, but it also has the potential to disturb us in a way that cannot be mollified by a reassuring newspaper exposé, the timely arrival of the police, or the assertion that the mad scientist has been destroyed forever.