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Mystery of the Wax Museum

Mystery of the Wax Museum
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Henry Blanke (uncredited)
Written by Carl Erickson
Don Mullaly
Story by Charles S. Belden
Starring Lionel Atwill
Fay Wray
Glenda Farrell
Frank McHugh
Music by Cliff Hess
Cinematography Ray Rennahan
Edited by George J. Amy
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.
Release dates
  • February 18, 1933 (1933-02-18)
Running time
77 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a 1933 American mystery horror-thriller film released by Warner Bros. in two-color Technicolor and directed by Michael Curtiz. The film stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, and Frank McHugh.

This film is notable as the last dramatic fiction film made, along with Warner's Doctor X, in the two-color Technicolor process.[1] (Constance Bennett and her husband filmed two documentaries Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935) and Kilou the Killer Tiger (1936) in the old process.)


Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is a sculptor who operates a wax museum in 1921 London. He gives a private tour to a friend and an investor, showing them sculptures of Joan of Arc, Voltaire, and his favorite, Marie Antoinette. Formerly a stone sculptor who did wax modeling as a hobby, he explains he turned to wax sculpting completely because he felt more "satisfied" that he could reproduce the warmth, flesh, and blood of life "far more better in wax than in cold stone". The investor, impressed by his sculptures, offers to submit Igor's work to the Royal Academy after he returns from a trip.

Unfortunately business at the museum is failing due to people's attraction to the macabre (a nearby wax museum caters to that), Igor's partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) 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 reemerges 12 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, spunky 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 (Monica Bannister). 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. The finger initially points to George Winton (Gavin Gordon), son of a powerful industrialist, but after visiting him in jail, Florence thinks differently.

Florence's roommate is Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), whose fiancé Ralph (Allen Vincent) works at Igor's new wax museum. While visiting the museum, Florence notices an uncanny resemblance between a wax figure of Joan of Arc and the dead model. At the same time, Igor spots Charlotte and remarks on her resemblance to his sculpture of Marie Antoinette.

Igor employs a couple of shady characters: Prof. Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), a drug addict, and Hugo (Matthew Betz), a deaf-mute. Darcy also works for Joe Worth, now a bootlegger in the city, among whose customers is none other than Winton.

While investigating an old house where Worth keeps his bootlegged alcohol, Florence discovers a monster connected with the museum, but cannot prove any connection with the disappearance of Joan Gale's body. Darcy is seen running from the house and is caught by the police. When brought to the station, he eventually breaks down and admits that Igor is in fact the killer and that he has been murdering people (including a missing judge whose watch was found on Darcy's person), stealing their bodies, and dipping them in wax to create lifelike statues.

Charlotte, visiting Ralph at the museum, is trapped there by Igor. When Charlotte tries to get away, she pounds away at his face, breaking a wax mask that he has made of himself, to reveal that he had been horribly disfigured. He also shows her the dead body of Joe Worth, whom Darcy had been tracking down for him for some time. When she faints, he ties her up and sets her on a table, intending to douse her with molten wax and make her his lost Marie Antoinette. Florence leads the police to the museum just in time: for a man supposedly crippled by fire, Igor moves with surprising speed and agility, successfully fighting off the police, but is finally gunned down. He falls into a giant vat of wax, which was intended for Charlotte. Charlotte is saved when Ralph moves away the table she is tied to from where the wax is about to pour onto her.

When Florence reports her story to her editor, Jim, he proposes to her. Having to choose between money (Winton) and happiness (Jim), she picks the latter.



Based on an unpublished short story entitled "The Wax Works" by Charles Spencer Belden (1904–1954), Warner Bros. optioned the story's rights after Belden started writing dialogue for the studio in the early 1930s. A follow-up to Warner's 1932 horror success Doctor X, Mystery involved many of the same cast and crew, including actors Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill, Arthur Edmund Carewe; director Michael Curtiz; art director Anton Grot; and cameraman Ray Rennahan. The film also re-used Doctor X's opening theme music by Bernhard Kaun.

Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last First National feature film under a 1931 Technicolor contract. Warner had already noted the public's apathy with the artificial color system. Technicolor was greeted with hostility by critics and public awash in its unreal hues and humdrum quality control since 1929. The considerable additional expense of the compromised two-color spectrum, which was a fine idea when color was a novelty, was now anathema. Warners had tried without success to get Technicolor to permit them to swap out the last feature commitment for a series of shorts, but when the studio violated the contract by filming Doctor X with an additional black-and-white unit (thereby permitting them to process prints at their own lab and avoid paying Technicolor thousands of dollars) Technicolor dug in their heels and refused. Consequently, Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last studio feature in the two-color Technicolor system. It was also one of the very best, with Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus declaring it "the ultimate that is possible with two components."

The process combined red and green dyes to create a color image with a reduced spectrum. (Technicolor would introduce their three-negative process in 1932 with Flowers and Trees, cutting an exclusive deal for animation only with Walt Disney. Warner Bros. was the first to use the new process commercially for live-action on shorts like Service With a Smile in 1934).

A similar storyline was also used for an episode of the hit radio mystery drama The Shadow, with Orson Welles. It was entitled The Murders In Wax and first aired on July 24, 1938.

The film was remade as House of Wax (1953), directed by Andre De Toth and starring Vincent Price. Whereas the original was more of a mystery film, the remake focused more on the horror elements. However, the two films shared a common theme; while Mystery was shot in the early two-color Technicolor system, House of Wax used two other then-new film making techniques: 3-Dimension and stereophonic sound. A 1965 TV pilot, Chamber of Horrors, was released as theatrical feature in 1966 featured its own gimmick, a "horror horn" that would blare on the soundtrack as the image flashed red prior to scenes of violence and murder.


Mystery was never reissued formally and over time was considered a lost film. In 1936, Technicolor-Hollywood ceased servicing two-color printing after issuing a "last call" to their customers for prints and converted the final imbibition rig for three-color. The response of most studios was to junk the two-color negatives (which had been stored at Technicolor) of their now-obsolete films. Warner Bros. seems to have kept the negatives for only their two-color cartoons.

William K. Everson reports that Warner's London exchange kept a 35mm color print on hand and that the film screened there in the late 1940s. A 35mm nitrate copy of Reel 1, the "lab reference" print, was still held by Technicolor-Hollywood and screened privately in the 1960s; that reel is today in the collection of the Academy Film Archive. A 1970 check of Jack Warner's old personal vault on the Burbank lot uncovered a 35mm nitrate print of Mystery in very good condition. With much fanfare the film screened in the summer at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood (with Fay Wray in attendance), and then in October at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 8th New York Film Festival.[2] Oddly, no attention was paid at the time to the color print of Doctor X found along with it.


Upon its release, Time felt it was a good mystery film but was disappointed with the abrupt ending and lack of an explaining-it-all scene.[3]

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