Mystery of the Wax Museum – USA, 1933 – overview and reviews

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Mystery of the Wax Museum is a 1933 American mystery horror feature film released by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz. The movie stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell.

A follow-up to Warner’s 1932 horror success Doctor XMystery involved many of the same cast and crew, including actors Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Arthur Edmund Carewe and Thomas Jackson; director Michael Curtiz; art director Anton Grot; and cameraman Ray Rennahan. The film also re-used Doctor Xs opening theme music by Bernhard Kaun.

This film is notable as the last dramatic fiction film made in the two-colour Technicolor process. Unfortunately, the extremely bright light required for filming using the Technicolor process melted the wax figures, and they instead had to be played by actors. Some actors even received eye damage from the lights.


Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is a sculptor who operates a wax museum in 1921 London. His prize creation is an image of Marie Antoinette, which he shows to his investment partner, Joe Worth, along with other masterpieces.

When business is failing due to people’s attraction to the macabre (a nearby wax museum caters to that), Joe Worth proposes to burn the museum down for the insurance money of £10,000. Igor won’t have it, but Worth starts a fire anyway. Igor tries to stop him, and he and Worth get into a fight. As they fight, wax masterworks are melting in the flames. Worth knocks Igor unconscious, leaving the sculptor to die in the fire. Igor survives, however, and re-emerges twelve years later in New York City, reopening a new wax museum. His hands and legs have been badly crippled in the fire, and he must rely on assistants to create his new sculptures.

Meanwhile, feisty reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), on the verge of being fired for not bringing in any worthwhile news, is sent out by her impatient editor, Jim (Frank McHugh), to investigate the suicide of a model named Joan Gale. During this time, a hideous monster steals the body of Joan Gale from the morgue. When investigators find that her body has been stolen, they suspect murder…

Reviews [click links to read more]:

” … there is no denying  that of its kind this one is very good. It is decidedly not a picture to which to take nervous people and that is, I suppose, also a recommendation, for it has obviously fulfilled it to do — to horrify.” Picturegoer

“The movie, later remade as House of Wax in 1953, benefits from Curtiz’s atmospheric direction and early two-strip Technicolor photography. Performances are good and Atwill is outstanding but, unfortunately, the movie suffers from the inclusion of too much would-be comedy relief.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

“Atwill is splendid throughout as the sculptor forced to wear a waxen mask … but the film really only comes alive in the climatic sequence of the fire, with the waxen figures twisting and writhing as though alive while the terrified Wray, first striking at Atwill’s face and then clawing at it as she realizes it is as mask, reveals for the first time the monstrous, shrivelled thing beneath.”  The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

Cast and characters:

  • Lionel Atwill … Ivan Igor
  • Fay Wray … Charlotte Duncan
  • Glenda Farrell … Florence
  • Frank McHugh … Jim
  • Allen Vincent … Ralph Burton
  • Gavin Gordon … George Winton
  • Edwin Maxwell … Joe Worth
  • Holmes Herbert … Dr Rasmussen
  • Claude King … Mr. Galatalin
  • Arthur Edmund Carewe … Prof. Darcy
  • Thomas E. Jackson … Detective (as Thomas Jackson)
  • DeWitt Jennings … Police Captain
  • Matthew Betz … Hugo
  • Monica Bannister … Joan Gale

Technical details:

  • 77 minutes
  • Two-strip Technicolor
  • Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1
  • Audio: Mono (Vitaphone)

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