Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933): Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz’ Pre-Code Horror Mystery, Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell

Michael Curtiz directed Mystery of the Wax Museum a pre-Code mystery-horror, starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, and Frank McHugh.

Released by Warner in two-color Technicolor, this feature and Warner’s Doctor X were the last two films made using the two-color Technicolor process.

Ivan Igor is a sculptor who operates wax museum in 1921 London. He gives a private tour to friend Dr. Rasmussen and investor Mr. Galatalin, showing them sculptures of Joan of Arc, Voltaire, and his favorite, Marie Antoinette.

Formerly a stone sculptor who did wax modeling as hobby, he turned to wax sculpting, because he felt more “satisfied” to reproduce “the warmth, flesh, and blood of life far better in wax than in cold stone.”

Impressed by his sculptures, Galatalin offers to submit Igor’s work to the Royal Academy after he returns from Egypt. Unfortunately, business at the museum is failing due to people’s attraction to the macabre at nearby wax museum.

Igor’s partner Joe Worth proposes to burn the museum down for the insurance money, but Igor will not allow such travesty. Igor tries to stop him, and he and Worth get into a fight, during which wax masterworks melt around them. Worth knocks Igor unconscious, leaving the sculptor to die in the fire.

Twelve years later in New York City, Igor, who survived the fire, reemerges and opens a new wax museum. His hands and legs have been badly crippled, and he must rely on assistants to create new sculptures. Meanwhile, spunky reporter Florence Dempsey, on the verge of being fired for not bringing in any worthwhile news, is sent out by her impatient editor, Jim, 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. The finger initially points to George Winton, son of a powerful industrialist, but after visiting him in jail, Florence thinks differently.

Florence’s roommate is Charlotte Duncan, whose fiancée Ralph works at Igor’s new wax museum. While visiting the museum, Florence notices an uncanny resemblance between wax figure of Joan of Arc and the dead model.

Meanwhile, Igor spots Charlotte and remarks on her resemblance to his sculpture of Marie Antoinette. Igor employs shady characters: Professor Darcy, a drug addict, and Hugo, a deaf-mute. Darcy also works for Joe Worth, now a bootlegger.

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 sculptures.

Charlotte, visiting Ralph at the museum, is trapped there by Igor, who can still walk. When Charlotte tries to get away, she pounds away at his face, breaking a wax mask he has made of himself; he had been horribly disfigured.

He also shows her the dead body of Joe Worth, whom Darcy had been tracking down. When she faints, he straps her onto a table, intending to make her his lost Marie Antoinette sculpture.

Florence leads the police to the museum just in time. For a man supposedly crippled by fire, Igor moves with surprising speed and agility. He’s fighting off the police but is finally gunned down. He falls into the giant vat of molten wax which was intended for Charlotte.

Charlotte is saved by Ralph just before the wax is to pour onto her.

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

Lionel Atwill as Ivan Igor
Fay Wray as Charlotte Duncan
Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey
Frank McHugh as Jim
Allen Vincent as Ralph Burton
Gavin Gordon as George Winton
Edwin Maxwell as Joe Worth
Holmes Herbert as Dr Rasmussen
Claude King as Mr Galatalin

TCM showed the movie on May 5, 2021.