Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The Mystery of the Wax Museum has been remade several times, with the 3-D version starring Vincent Price being the best-known (and it’s a very good film), but the original 1933 version directed by Michael Curtiz may well be the best. It was made in two-strip Technicolor, and the strange and unrealistic colours that this early colour process gives actually lend the movie a wonderfully weird and other-worldly atmosphere. Curtiz was clearly very much under the influence of German Expressionism at this stage, with lots of eerie shadow effects and odd distorted camera angles. The story starts in London in the early 20s, but after the disastrous fire destroys the wax museum of the gifted but unworldly sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) the action moves to New York in 1933, where Igor is opening a new version of his museum. Hard-bitten motor-mouthed reporter Florence Dempsey is desperate for a story, and the disappearance of the glamorous and wealthy Joan Gale leads her to take an interest in the goings-on at the wax museum, while the brilliant but now thoroughly uhinged sculptor is taking an interest in her friend Charlotte (Fay Wray), who reminds him strikingly of his celebrated but now destroyed wax portrait of Marie Antoinette. Atwill is excellent, not going over the top but still disturbing. Glenda Farrell is a delight as the reporter, and Fay Wray gets to scream a lot. The movie is like one of the hard-boiled early 1930s Warner Brothers crime or newspaper movies, but with a horror theme and shot in an Expressionist style. It’s a combination that you wouldn’t expect to work, but it does. Curtiz is in complete control, moving the action along at breakneck pace and providing non-stop entertainment and visual treats that make this an absolutely superb little movie. It’s also very much a pre-code movie, with lots of drug references and some moderately risque dialogue.

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