Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

I paused this movie about three-fourths of the way through, checked the time stamp, and pumped my fists in the air as I confirmed it qualified under our guidelines as a holiday movie. In case that reaction wasn't clear enough, Mystery of the Wax Museum is getting a recommendation, which means it also gets a spoiler warning. I don't think knowing details about the premise, characters, or plot will significantly undermine the experience in this case, but - just in case - if you're a fan of movies from this era, horror/comedy/adventure hybrids, or really movies in general, this one's a blast.

It's also an absolutely gorgeous film that will challenge most viewers' assumptions of what movies from the early '30s looked like. Utilizing the now largely forgotten two-color Technicolor process, the film is both beautiful and eerie. The color, coupled with clever lighting and set design, creates a world that's unreal, evoking the feel of looking at a wax sculpture that's realistically detailed but also strangely unnerving. As the story moves in darker, more nightmarish directions, the color pallet grows darker, the sets begin to mimic those in German Expressionist films, and shadows become prevalent. Even if the script had nothing to offer, this would still be worth seeing on artistic merit alone.

Fortunately there's also a great deal to love about the writing, particularly as it relates to the movie's other genres. While the villain and premise are straight out of horror, its protagonist is a plucky, wise-cracking reporter named Florence (played by Glenda Farrell), who feels closer to a pulp adventurer than the usual terrified survivor. She reminded me at once of Lois Lane, and that instinct turned out to be right: Farrell's performance in Mystery of the Wax Museum got her cast as Torchy Blane, a pulp reporter who directly inspired Lane. I've only had a chance to watch a few excerpts from Blane films, but Farrell seemed to be giving a very similar performance there. Fans of comics history shouldn't sleep on this - in a real sense, Mystery of the Wax Museum is the secret origin of one of the most important characters in that medium.

Even that might not be giving this movie enough credit. While Lois Lane is now the best-known character of her archetype, the adventurous woman reporter was a popular character type in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Mystery of the Wax Museum largely reuses a template from an earlier horror/mystery movie, Doctor X, from the same studio, director, and some of the same cast (minus Glenda Farrell). There's a similar reporter as the main protagonist, but in Doctor X the character is a man, leading me to suspect this could really be where the archetype started. While it's possible there were earlier adventurous female reporters in film, this does offer a plausible origin.

Florence also has a lot in common with Hildy Johnson (the protagonist in His Girl Friday) - both are reporters with a love-hate relationship with their editors, both are brilliant and quick-witted, and both are more afraid of potentially losing a story than they are about their safety. It's also worth noting that, while it's only a subplot in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Florence's relationship with her editor is very similar to the sort of comedy that would define screwball comedy films of the '30s and '40s. I haven't seen anywhere enough movies from the early '30s to comment on how common or uncommon any of this was, but regardless of whether she influenced any of these emerging character types or genre conventions, she's a fantastic example.

Let's move on to the actual mystery, which concerns the survivor of a fire in a London wax museum rebuilding his life's work in New York without the use of his hands due to a disability caused by the aforementioned fire, Florence's roommate, the roommate's boyfriend who works for the museum, a bootlegger responsible for the fire, a millionaire falsely implicated in the death of his girlfriend, and a series of bodies stolen from morgues around the city by an inhumanly strong man with a horrifically disfigured face.

The plot makes use of a number of red herrings, but it's going to be pretty obvious to anyone watching now that the museum owner is killing people who resemble his destroyed exhibits, casting them in wax, then displaying them as if they're new sculptures. He's also out for revenge against the guy who started the fire that cost him his hands and horribly disfigured him (though the latter is hidden by a false wax face).

Also, by sheer coincidence Florence's roommate (played by King Kong star Fay Wray) is a dead ringer for his version of Marie Antoinette, so the movie's climax involves her tethered to a cart while Florence rushes to lead the police in before Wray is drenched in searing hot wax (they make it in the nick of time, of course).

As convoluted as all that sounds, the key points are pretty obvious early on, regardless of how many red herrings are thrown at the audience. I think the plot is fun in a gothic horror way, but - at least from the standpoint of someone watching ninety years after this was released - none of the twists are at all surprising.

What was surprising, however, was Farrell's Florence, who's delightful as a protagonist. She sidesteps the laundry list of sexist tropes that would plague female characters a few years later, while still coming off comically aloof. She's not portrayed as being perfect - she makes countless mistakes throughout the movie but always rolls with the punches. She feels like she was intentionally written out of step with the genre of her own story, as if she's never quite scared enough because she's too preoccupied with her own internal narrative to view the objectively horrific events around her as anything other than a potential opportunity.

For comparison, think of the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies, Ash from the Evil Dead films, or even the Ghostbusters. The humor comes out of the disconnect between the story and heroine: this is a plucky reporter facing off against gothic horror, and neither side really understands the other.

I suspect that's the rationale behind the decision to set the movie on and around New Year's, in fact. Depending on how you interpret a few cuts, nearly the entire film could be playing out on the 31st and 1st, minus the prologue and an ending sequence on the 2nd (though the timeline does work out better if you assume a day-long break at one point, which pushes it out to the 3rd). Regardless, the holiday mirrors the conflict between an old world and a new one - a European horror villain facing off against a modern (then and frankly still now) heroine. The set design seems to echo this idea, showing us flashing neon city lights contrasted with gas and candle-lit rooms: a potentially bright future breaking away from a terrifying past.

That said, there are a few elements in this movie that are unfortunately a bit too rooted in the past. The most prominent issue concerns the depiction of disability, which is essentially equated with monsters. In addition to the wax sculptor himself, the museum also includes a mute assistant, who's treated as terrifying. There's also at least one racially insensitive line of dialogue (though it's depressingly rare to find a movie from this era where that's not the case).

Honestly, I was almost more annoyed with the fact the police took down the villain, rather than having Florence play a more pivotal role in the resolution (just about the only aspect of Doctor X I preferred was that the reporter defeated the villain at the end). Granted, I'm imposing modern story conventions on a film made in the '30s. Florence functions like a detective in the mystery by putting the pieces together, locating the evidence, and ultimately solving the whole thing. But the fact this plays so much like a modern adventure flick makes the relatively mundane resolution of having the police shoot the monster feel anticlimactic.

The movie makes up for this in the final sequence, however, when Florence accepts a marriage proposal from what at that point is one of two suitors. The sequence is perfectly in keeping with her character and absolutely hilarious. This also ties the film to His Girl Friday and the entire screwball comedy subgenre (but I've already gone on enough about that).

There's a lot more to admire here, too. I haven't even touched on Lionel Atwill's performance as the sculptor, in which he cleverly restricts his expressions after the opening to foreshadow the reveal that his face isn't actually his face. And Fay Wray is always great as the damsel in distress, a role that feels less regressive given the fact the movie's primary hero is Florence (though Wray's love interest does swoop in to get her to safety while the police battle the villain). I also loved Gavin Gordon as one of Florence's suitors, George, who looks the part of a dashing hero but consistently shies away from opportunities to prove his mettle while Florence charges in headfirst.

While the horror elements aren't likely to scare modern audiences (I've yet to find a movie from this decade that actually clears that bar), the movie does feel disturbing when it wants to. And for what it's worth, it certainly seems to have creeped out viewers in 1933, if the handful of excerpts from reviews of the time I've seen are any indication. Regardless, it's the other genre aspects that make it work, along with the ways these butt up against the horror. It's a great deal of fun and - at risk of belaboring the point - simply beautiful to watch. This one's an easy recommendation to anyone able to appreciate the era and who's able to stomach the ableism.