Saturday, October 23, 2021

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (Michael Curtiz, 1933)


A crippled sculptor with a Marie Antoinette fixation preserves corpses in wax, his inflammable historicity displaying the everyday life of  a distant and perhaps better past tense. Director Michael Curtiz’s celluloid alchemy transforms a simple murder melodrama into pure horror! DP Ray Rennahan films in striking two-strip technicolor and utilizes off-kilter and low/high angle compositions to create a nightmarish reality, as if a psychopath’s Id were projected onto the silver screen. 

Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is a talented sculptor who is on the verge of recognition and fame in London. Yet his museum is a financial ruin because he will not prostitute his Art to the lowest common denominator like his rival whose wax displays focus primarily upon the grotesque and sadistic (which is a fantastic meta-joke because this very film is antithetical to his core belief, of which he is eventually subsumed). His partner sets fire to the museum and leaves Igor for dead in order to collect the insurance money. But the artist survives, hands burned and crippled, and 12 years later appears in NYC with cohorts he’s trained to mold sculptures vicariously through his instruction. But maybe more than just his hands were damaged. Igor’s masterpiece was Marie Antoinette so when he is introduced to Charlotte (Fay Wray), the girlfriend of one of his employees, he sees her as the very image of his obsession. Lacking the digital dexterity and his employees the skill, Igor steals corpses who resemble historical figures and embalms them in wax to display in his new museum. Meanwhile, gritty and garrulous reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell, who really steals the film!) is tracking down the truth about the death of Joan Gale, a Millionaire's concubine, which soon turns into a missing corpse expose. Unresolved plot point: was Joan murdered or did she commit suicide? The doctor tells police that he can determine the manner of death by determining whether raw or refined laudanum is in her bloodstream, but he never gets the chance as her body was stolen. This is important because the Millionaire becomes a love-interest for Florence as the story progresses and we are asked to develop some sympathy for him. However, Curtiz makes sure to show his reactive cowardice in the final act just before the police arrive and save the day (or specifically, save the Wray!) This heightens the final scene when Florence and her combative and verbal sparing partner, her Editor in Chief, shake hands amid a surprising marriage declaration while the wealthy dolt waits for her, tiny and insignificant twenty stories below. Murderer? Possibly. 

Pre-Code conventions adorn the film from the very first act! Like Mamoulian's SONG OF SONGS, we get sculptures detailing the naked female form, framed in medium close-up. We get a gruesome creature with deformed face which is eventually revealed in one terrific close-up. And we get Fay Wray’s legendary scream at least half-a-dozen times. Bootlegging (fuck prohibition), morphine addiction, bondage, and a brutal police interrogation are just a few more story convolutions that would never pass the Hays Code in a year. But all of these elements come together for an exciting and suspenseful film that still titillates today. 

Final Grade: (B+)