"Mystery of the Wax Museum," or Statue of Limitations

At the heart of 1933's "Mystery of the Wax Museum" are two actresses doing what they did best in 1930s movies -- Glenda Farrell wisecracking and Fay Wray screaming. Farrell, of course, was cast as the heroine's fresh dame best friend in dozens of Warner Bros. pictures, and Wray is best known as King Kong's girlfriend.

In this movie, they're roommates -- Farrell is a reporter trying to prove herself ("I'm gonna make news if I've gotta bite a dog") and Wray is a demure little thing whose boyfriend is a wax sculptor who works for the mysterious Dr. Igor (Lionel Atwill), aka Dr. Bearded McCrazy.

As the movie opens, we learn Dr. Igor's story -- he ran a wax museum in London where his evil partner (Edwin Maxwell) torches the place for the insurance money. This leads to a striking sequence where the museum is destroyed, with echoes of the melting faces from "Raiders of the Lost Ark":

"The Mystery of the Wax Museum" was shot in an early form of technicolor, using two colors as opposed to the later version, which would use three. It looks a little muddy, and the print shown on Turner Classic Movies doesn't help. Still, the process adds an extra element of creepiness, and it also helps that in you can show dummies being stabbed, melted and beheaded as opposed to real people. Of course, in several scenes, the wax dummies are played by humans, and it's fun to try and catch them blinking or breathing. (Okay, not a LOT of fun, but fun.) 

Anyway, we move forward ten years. The doctor is wheelchair bound as a result of injuries from the fire and he can no longer sculpt. But he has assistants sculpting for him, and his new museum is just about to open in New York City. Farrell, on the lookout for a story, gets interested when she sees a resemblance between the museum's Joan of Arc statue and a recent murder victim that has vanished from the morgue:

Meanwhile, Dr. McCrazy has his sights on Wray, who looks just like his perfect vision of Marie Antoinette, and therefore must be spirited down to the doctor's ultramodern laboratory, where the centerpiece is a very nicely designed art deco cauldron of boiling wax:

With its expressionistic sets, lurid tableaus and pre-code (wax) violence and nudity, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is anything but embalmed.

Here's a list of full cast and credits.


  1. Statue of Limitations


    Great post! I really like this movie, though my heart belongs to the Vincent Price remake. Lionel Atwill was so terrific in these films; he plays Capt. Woodenarm McStern in Son of Frankenstein, and he is terrific in it.

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  3. Thanks for posting on one of my faves! I just adore Lionel Atwill, and his performance in 'Wax Museum' is marvelous. Plus Glenda Farrell practically steals the film as the speaking-a-mile-a-minute reporter. Wray co-starred with Atwill in two other films, playing his daughter in 'Doctor X,' where she's tied up and menaced by a serial killer, and his victim in 'Vampire Bat,' where she's again tied up and menaced -- she seemed fated to act in such roles!

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  4. I first saw Mystery of the Wax Museum on Halloween Night 1970 in a midnight screening at the San Francisco Film Festival (on a double bill with James Whale's The Old Dark House). Long considered lost, a single print had recently surfaced in Jack Warner's private collection, and this was it. Friends who were with me that night can testify to how I gasped and seized their arms when this proved to be not some battered, black-and-white 16mm dupe, but a genuine 35mm nitrate two-strip Technicolor -- and in pristine condition! Such discoveries were simply unheard-of in those days. (BTW, the term "two-color" is misleading; "two-strip" is more accurate, since the process employed two separate negatives, each sensitive to a different primary color; the range of colors was limited, but there were more than two of them.)

    Obviously, every present copy of Wax Museum is descended from the print I saw in 1970, since it was the only one in existence. I've seen many of those copies -- DVD, laserdisc, VHS, broadcast and YouTube -- and I'm here to tell you that in every single one the representation of Wax Museum's Technicolor is absolutely wrong. I clearly remember the color at that screening because it was so utterly unexpected: It was soft and delicate, like an old hand-tinted photograph. The limited range of colors was carefully managed so the limitations weren't obvious -- for example, the walls of sets tended to be the same shade of beige, with texturing used to distinguish one from another. Flames -- where color obviously couldn't be controlled -- photographed a sort of lemonade-pink. When I see that early fire scene with yellow and orange flames, I know it's not what it really looked like.

    Another dead giveaway is Fay Wray's dress when she's first introduced to Lionel Atwill. When I saw it in 1970 that dress was a deep, velvety green. Now it's blue -- and blue is one of the colors that two-strip Technicolor simply couldn't register.

    Since that night 44 years ago I've seen a number of other two-strip Technicolor shorts and features -- far more than I once would have expected to see. But that print of Wax Museum is the one and only time that I know I saw exactly what audiences saw when the picture was new. When I see how inaccurate those colors are in subsequent video versions, it makes me a little skeptical about the others I've seen since then.