May 30, 2006


I recall first viewing this movie in its two-tone glory on Channel 4 one late Friday night. It was part, as I recall, of a clutch of similar movies such as ‘Doctor X’, ‘Dr. Cyclops’ and hefty dose of ‘Fu Manchu’ that were shown as part of a season what must have been ‘Deco Terrors’ or something instantly as forgettable.

Even as far back as then, and we would be talking many moons ago, I was fascinated by it, it grabbed my attention as it was a well balanced ‘comic strip’ style piece of ingenious thriller.

It seemed surprisingly ‘modern’ for it’s’ time, then I realised it was in the 1930-34 of pre-Hays code filmmaking. The Hayes code crippled freedom of expression when this twisted piece of legislation spat its’ moral venom on a reasonably coy but ‘forward thinking’ period in Hollywood’s history.

Some of the quotes such as ‘boy, what I wouldn’t do for a slug of gin’ would simply be such a taboo under the new regime. To see it freely vocalised in a humorous ‘down to earth’ way is enlightening for this period. Glimpsing a society not to dissimilar to how it was (with the low key tendency towards the depression of course). Not a ‘christian friendly utopia’ it tried to become (I say tried as after the Hayes code was introduced directors used ingenious ways of getting around such puritanical bollocks).

It is also refreshing to see one of the main protagonists as a strong female character to counteract Fay Wray’s more ‘demure’ screecher. The women in the film are all independent characters and are so strong especially Glenda Farrell’s’ wise cracking sleuth/reporter ‘Florence Dempsey’.

One can only wonder what possible movements and developments would’ve occurred if it was not for the Hayes code. This movie could be used as a slice of what was emerging at the time before censorship intervened; where it would’ve ended up we remain unknowing.

What is also of interest is the beautiful ‘erotic’ artwork advertising the movie. This also demonstrates the liberalised and openness of such times. The emphasis is mainly on the breasts than on the Technicolor process of the actual movie itself, could be one of the earliest examples of sex allure and a welcome site for most I am sure.

At this time sociologically the depression was affecting American society; I am sure the last thing the public would have wanted would be oppression as well as the other load of misery at this point in history. It’s probably a good thing that the Hayes code surfaced when it did preferably not at all.

What’s most fascinating about this superb, once thought ‘lost’ classic is the way two tone Technicolor has been used. Many of the creepy visuals benefit from a process not to far away from ‘Friese-Greens’ technique practiced almost a decade previously and as highlighted in a recent BBC2 documentary.

As I haven’t viewed the 1953 3-D remake ‘House of Wax’ I will take the pleasure in avoiding comparison.

Such an important movie and treasured addition of the horror genre cycle of films is worthy of an article in its’ own merit anyway.

The last prints of the movie were thought destroyed in 1953, unusually at the same time of the re-make? Anyway it wasn’t until 1969 when a 35mm negative was found amongst the personal collection of Jack Warner.

It received the attention it deserved but this came to an abrupt end as ‘The Old Dark House’ was also discovered at the same time and the attention was drawn to that instead. Instead of a‘re-pristine’ in two-tone wonder - a monochrome print done the rounds or when televised a shoddy remastered edition capable of negatively impacting the two-tone method and losing much of the pastel credibility on display.

This also happened to the ‘first’ movie to use this technique ‘Doctor X’ a year before. This movie also cast Wray and Atwill and featured a ‘Moon Monster’ as well as a cannibalistic ghouls wandering around in the middle of the night murdering young ladies.

Despite the ‘priority’ switch I guess at the time it was great to see something of so much rarity especially unearthed when such a fascination with monsters and macabre was at a boom with the mainstream.

Although the loss of the two tone was not such an impediment to ‘Doctor .X’ it could be considered such for ‘Wax Museum’. Gone would be the bubbling green waxen ooze and the grand finale would have also suffered maybe not too dramatically but significantly less.

It truly is an absorbing view, the story is pure nightmare mechanique and was the first in setting the trend for many, many imitators and according to numerous film scholars remains one of the best and definitive examples.


London 1921 – Gifted sculptor ‘Ivan Igor’ (played with skill, pathos, melancholy and madness by Lionel Atwill) tends to his exquisite waxwork masterpieces. Despite admiration from an elite of appreciates this does not generate much income.

Ivan is visited by his backer who tells him that he has a £10,000 insurance policy should the premises be burned to the ground. This is what he wants to compensate (albeit an over inflated guess) for lost revenue. An argument between the two leads to a brawl where a fire is started it begins to engulf the London Waxwork property.

‘Ivan’ is left for dead in the enraging inferno and Worth his business counterpart goes missing ………………..

New York 1933 – Amidst the New Year celebrations something mysterious is occurring in the city. Scandalous socialite ‘Joan Gale’ dies from an overdose of drugs and her millionaire boyfriend, George, is locked up for questioning regarding the death and possible foul play.

Desperate for the scoop of the century, journalist ‘Florence Dempsey’ (played brilliantly by gutsy Glenda Farrell) becomes involved with George and believes in his innocence.

When Gale’s body goes AWOL from the morgue whilst George is incarcerated Florence decides to snoop further leading her to the grand opening of a new Wax Museum.

Florence shares with Charlotte Duncan (played by one of scream queens first Fay Wray) conveniently her fiancée, Ralph, works as a sculptor at the museum enabling Florence to investigate further. She discovers that a current exhibit ‘Joan of Arc’ bares an uncanny resemblance to the currently vanished ‘Joan Gale’.

When Florence, Charlotte and Ralph are introduced to the proprietor it is none other than a wheelchair bound ‘Ivan Igor’ rendered a cripple due to the intense fire ; his hands rendered charred claws.

Ivan seems transfixed by Charlotte and asks if she could pose for his ‘Marie Antoinette’ waxwork. Flattered Charlotte agrees but with a small amount of discomfort ……..

Florence on the other hand makes more discoveries and is well on the way to unravelling the mystery of the wax museum and achieving the scoop of the century but in doing so jeopardises the lives of her friends at the mercy of a madman ……..


As highlighted at the beginning Farrell definitely steals the show. Admittedly Fay Wray is beautiful and as graceful on the screen as ever but Farrell’s’ gum chewing, spade-a-spade character is an absolute marvel.

She comes out with some wisecracking remarks that win on two counts the first is that they are genuinely amusing, well written and delivered in perfect time. The second is that they are, thanks to the lack of the Hayes code, surprisingly ribald and perfectly down to earth ideal for this barnstorming characterisation.

Most of the settings are contemporary and flashes some beautiful examples of Deco, especially the entrance of the Wax Museum. Anton Grot creates some wonderfully moody settings and the light interior of the museum seems to animate via well crafted shadow play.

Michael Curtizs’ direction is well paced and blends perfectly with the smooth, fluid pans of Ray Rennahans camera technique.

There are flaws such as the twitching replicas, although not that apparent it can be seen fleetingly in a couple of instances.

We have to remember that this was due to the virtually unbearable hot temperature in the studio causing the wax statues to melt and therefore needed people substitution. Although this prevented continuity problems and a general ‘mess’ some ‘replicates’ actually fainted.

The movie flows hauntingly with that mystery, that eerie sense that in all the dark corners there hides something unseen. Dominating the purple shadows and providing further answers to the mystery.

This though is one of many layers of the film and is expertly balanced causing chills and intensity where absolutely crucial without dominating all the time, paving way for the quirky, the surreal and the wittiness delivered in an up front ‘30’s style, all necessary but dished out evenly and fluidly over the running time.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s did the UCLA clean up and restore the print even further, revealing the print as to how it should be viewed with the colourisation correctly balanced. Making its’ correct two tone debut on Channel 4 in 1994, we could all finally witness Wax Museum in all its glory.

A poignant chapter in the development of colour cinematography and the development in horror cinema neglected for so long and finally available.

Sadly justice has still not been done to this movie in a digital age, the only way Wax Museum can be seen digitally is a ‘tucked away’ extra on Warner Brothers ‘House of Wax’ DVD for region 2 custom.

The print is possibly the most watchable I have seen despite lines and glitches , but being so aware of technology available for film restoration be it sound or visual, I am most surprised this has not had a bells and whistles release ages ago in the U.K.

With such a history, with such an important ‘genre’ impact and with such cinematic importance it beggars belief why this hasn’t been available in a newly restored digital package it really is a crying shame and as big a mystery as the wax museum itself.

Most Outstanding Moment;

When Fay Wray smashes the wax mask to reveal the twisted disfigurement beneath is awesome stuff. The effects are quite gruesome to. Most suspenseful and chillingly rewarding on all counts.

The Movie; The Mystery of the Wax Museum

The Year; 1933

The Players;

Lionel Atwill - Ivan Igor

Fay Wray - Charlotte Duncan

Glenda Farrell - Florence Dempsey

Frank McHugh - Jim

Allen Vincent - Ralph Burton

Gavin Gordon - George Winton

The Director; Michael Curtiz

The Producer; Henry Blanke

Art Director; Anton Grot

Available in an o.k print as a bonus feature on Warner Brothers ‘House of Wax’ (Region 2).


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