Mystery of the Wax Museum

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a 1933 American pre-Code mystery-horror film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, and Frank McHugh. It was released by Warner Bros. in two-color Technicolor. It and Warner's Doctor X were the last two dramatic fiction films made using the two-color Technicolor process.[5]

Mystery of the Wax Museum
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Curtiz
Produced by
Screenplay byDon Mullaly
Carl Erickson
Based on"The Wax Works"
by Charles S. Belden[3]
Music byCliff Hess (uncredited)[1]
CinematographyRay Rennahan
Edited byGeorge Amy
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • February 18, 1933 (1933-02-18) (U.S.)
Running time
77 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.1 million[4]


Ivan Igor is a sculptor who operates a wax museum in 1921 London. He gives a private tour to a friend, Dr. Rasmussen and an 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 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 better in wax than in cold stone". Mr. Galatalin, impressed by his sculptures, offers to submit Igor's work to the Royal Academy after he returns from a trip to Egypt.

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 proposes to burn the museum down for the insurance money of £10,000. Igor will not allow such a travesty, but Worth starts a fire anyway. Igor tries to stop him and he and Worth get into a fight. As they fight, 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 in the fire and he must rely on assistants to create his 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 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 several shady characters: Professor Darcy, a drug addict, and Hugo, a deaf-mute. Darcy also works for Joe Worth, now a bootlegger (among his customers is none other than Winton).

While investigating an old tenement where Worth keeps his contraband, 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 it is revealed can still walk. 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 some time. When she faints, he straps her onto a table, intending to douse her with molten wax and 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, successfully 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 when Ralph pushes the table to which she is strapped away just before the wax is 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.



The film is based on an unpublished short story, "The Wax Works", by Charles S. Belden, who had also written a play called The Wax Museum, which had been optioned by Charles Rogers, an independent producer. This had been discovered by Warner's copyright attorney, but the studio optioned the story from Belden for $1,000 before getting the attorney's report. Rogers dropped his option on the play when threatened with a lawsuit from the co-author of a Broadway play with a similar plot.[6]

A follow-up to Warner's earlier horror film Doctor X (1932), Mystery involved many of the same cast and crew, including actors Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Arthur Edmund Carewe and Thomas Jackson; director Michael Curtiz; art director Anton Grot; and cameraman Ray Rennahan.[7] The film also re-used Doctor X's opening theme music by Bernhard Kaun.

Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last feature film under a 1931 Technicolor contract. Warner had already noted the public's apathy with the more 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 using the two-color Technicolor. Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus declared it "the ultimate that is possible with two components." The combination of the two-color process with the lighting of Rennahan and the set designs of Grot, greatly improved quality control in printing, and an unreal atmosphere worked well for the film's story.[7] The process may have outgrown its welcome, but it ended on a high note; contemporary exhibitor reviews in The Film Daily document that the color was greatly admired by both theatre owners and their audiences, often citing it as "beautiful" or "the best color I have ever seen".

The process had combined separation photography printed with red and green dyes to create a color image with a reduced spectrum. When the three-color process became available Warner Bros. was the first to use it for live-action shorts like Service With a Smile.[7]

The extremely bright light required for filming under the Technicolor process melted the wax figures, though many characters (Queen Victoria, Disraeli, Joan of Arc) were portrayed by actors.[5] About half of the figures are portrayed by actors. This was the plan from the start, and may have been as much out of a desire to add life-like verisimilitude to the exhibits as to protect wax mannequins from the heat.


Upon its release, Time magazine felt it was a good mystery film but was disappointed with the abrupt ending and lack of an explaining-it-all scene.[8] However Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote: "It is all very well in its way to have a mad scientist performing operations in well-told stories, but when a melodrama depends upon the glimpses of covered bodies in a morgue and the stealing of some of them by an insane modeler in wax, it is going too far." Hall found it "too ghastly for comfort" – although he praised the comic performances of Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh.[7] The Variety reviewer said that the story was "loose and unconvincing" but liked the gruesome makeup and said that the film should do well at neighborhood cinemas.[7]

Box officeEdit

At the box office, the film did better in Europe than it did in the US, but still made a profit of $80,000.[7] According to Warner Bros the film earned $325,000 domestically and $781,000 foreign.[4] It was Warner's fifth top grosser of the year.


Mystery of the Wax Museum was never reissued domestically, however, it was reissued in Franco's Spain in 1940. Over time it came to be considered a lost film. In 1936, Technicolor-Hollywood ceased servicing two-color printing and is said to have issued a "last call" to their customers for prints as the final imbibition rigs were converted for three-color; records show scattered print runs of some two-color subjects after that date. But the response of most studios was to junk the two-color negatives (which had been stored at Technicolor) of their now-obsolete films. A precious few negatives survived, including the Eddie Cantor musical Whoopee!, which was taken in by Goldwyn in their vaults. Correspondence indicates that in 1940 Goldwyn wanted to make two-color prints for Spain, and Technicolor was still able to service them. Warner Bros. kept the negatives for their two-color cartoons but not their live-action product. By the late 1950s, when the Warner library was being sold in a package for television to Associated Artists Productions,[9] Mystery of the Wax Museum was deemed lost. The title remained on the sales list, but the negative vaults held no preprint to service it.

William K. Everson reported that Warner's London exchange kept a 35 mm color print on hand and he saw the film there in 1947 in free screenings to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Sound. He reports that the print subsequently began to decay and was destroyed. A 35 mm nitrate copy of Reel 1, the "lab reference" reel (Reel 1 with the fire sequence), was still held by Technicolor-Hollywood in the 1960s and screened by historian Rudy Behlmer; today, that reel is not in the Technicolor Collection of the Academy Film Archive and is presumed to have decomposed decades ago.

In 1970 the Warner Bros. studio reference print was found by former studio head Jack Warner in his personal collection.[10] The AFI made a new negative, rather unsuccessfully (cameraman Ray Rennahan told historian Richard Koszarski that it looked so dismal that he walked out of the screening room). United Artists made their own low-contrast negative for TV prints, losing virtually all of the color. The nitrate print screened at Graumann's Chinese Theatre in the early summer, then again at Alice Tully Hall in the 8th New York Film Festival on September 26, 1970, at 4:00 pm, as part of a retrospective, Medium Rare 1927-1933, of films not seen since their first release. It was released in UA's Prime Time Showcase television package in August 1972, first broadcast on the BBC in London before playing sixteen domestic TV markets. In Washington D.C. Mystery of the Wax Museum played on WTOP's Saturday night classic film series "Cinema Club 9" in late 1972. In New York City, it had its first airing in 1973 on WPIX-TV in a Sunday morning slot, cut by 15 minutes for commercials. Later it became a staple on the station's Saturday night Chiller Theater.

In 1988 the new owner, Turner Entertainment, made yet another negative, this one more faithful to the color but hagridden with damage, splices, and missing footage. The Jack Warner nitrate print resides at UCLA, who also hold a French workprint in the PHI collection. The workprint, uncovered by a Los Angeles collector in the early 2000s, has indifferent, pallid plus-green color, French subtitles, an English track, with some reels mute. In 2019 the Film Foundation sponsored a digital 4K restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation. The Warner print, with superior color but still exhibiting pickups at reel ends culled from different prints, was the primary resource. Made from different matrixes, the French workprint was less pleasing but yielded shots and ends of reels that were tattered, broken or missing in the main print, along with some lost lines of audio. Other missing audio needed to be picked up from other Warner movies, including a line of Glenda Farrell's that was pulled in from Life Begins (1932). Following Rennahan's directives in his oral histories as to how he lit for two-color and what palette he aimed to achieve, the new restoration revealed subtle degrees of color that were latent in the nitrate print but obscured by cross-contamination of the color dyes.

The restored print received its television premiere on the MeTV show Svengoolie on March 13, 2021.[11]

Home mediaEdit

A mediocre color version of the film, woefully manipulated to look blue/pink, was released as an extra in standard definition on the Warner Bros DVD and Blu-ray for House of Wax. Warner Archive Collection released the film in 1080p HD as a stand-alone Blu-ray on May 12, 2020, utilizing a Rec. 709 submaster of the UCLA restoration. With correct color, restored sound and digital correction of picture wear and tear, the Blu-ray garnered universally rave reviews with many commenters noting that it was as if seeing the film for the first time. The Blu-ray contains two audio commentaries, one by Curtiz biographer Alan Rode, the other by UCLA preservationist Scott MacQueen. MacQueen's commentary shares excerpts from interviews he conducted with Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell. In addition to the Blu-ray release, the restoration was performed at 4K and theatrical DCPs are available for archival and theatrical screening.


The film was remade as House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price and directed by Andre De Toth. Whereas the original was more of a mystery film and set in a contemporary New York City, the remake focused more on the horror elements and took the story back to a gaslight, turn-of-the-century setting. However, both films did have one unusual tendency in common: they were vehicles for gimmicks. Mystery was filmed in the early two-color Technicolor process, and House of Wax showcased two other then-novel film technologies, 3-D and stereophonic sound. An unsold TV pilot officially based on the earlier films Chamber of Horrors (1966), was salvaged as a theatrical feature release and offered its own gimmick, a "horror horn" that would blare as the image flashed red prior to scenes of violence and murder. The horror film House of Wax (2005) was also credited as being based on the 1953 film and the same original play, though it owes nothing but a shared title with the Vincent Price movie.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Rigby 2007, p. 128.
  2. ^ Robertson 1993, pp. 180–181.
  3. ^ Koszarski 1979, p. 12.
  4. ^ a b c Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 13 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  5. ^ a b "Notes"
  6. ^ Koszarski, Richard (1979) Mystery of the Wax Museum University of Wisconsin Press p.12 ISBN 9780299076740
  7. ^ a b c d e f Steffen, James. "Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)"
  8. ^ "Cinema: The New Pictures: Feb. 27, 1933"Time
  9. ^ 1957 MOVIES FROM AAP Warner Bros Features & Cartoons SALES BOOK DIRECTED AT TV
  10. ^ "Jack Warner Uncovers Original 'Wax Museum' Print In His Collection". Variety. June 17, 1970. p. 3.
  11. ^


  • Koszarski, Richard (1979). Mystery of the Wax Museum. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-07674-0.
  • Rigby, Jonathan (2007). American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema. London: Reynolds & Heam. ISBN 978-1-905-28725-3.
  • Robertson, James C. (1993). The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-06804-8.

External linksEdit