Review of “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933)

from YouTube

This was this week’s Saturday pizza and bad movie offering, an odd, gruesome little flick from 1933 with Fay Wray screaming without a giant ape around. Pinot noir helped—me, that is. I don’t think it did Ms. Wray or Lionel Atwill much good.


In London, 1921, sculptor Ivan Igor (Ee-VAN I-gor) (Lionel Atwill) owns a wax museum featuring life-size historical figures such as Voltaire and Marie Antoinette. One authority has offered to recommend him to the Royal Society once he returns from Egypt. Igor is overjoyed.

Raining on his parade is his partner, Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell). He’s looked at the books. The only way to save the place is to burn it to the ground for insurance money. Igor is appalled. That would mean burning his artwork, his “children.” Worth lights a piece of paper with his cigar, which catches a wax figure’s clothing. The two men fight while the building burns. Worth escapes, leaving Igor for dead.

It’s New Year’s 1933 in New York City. Amid the revelers with funny hats shouting in the streets, an ambulance arrives outside an apartment building. The viewer sees Igor looking out one of the windows. He’s survived! The police confirm to the waiting press: it was suicide. A newspaper headline names the unfortunate as Joan Gale (Monica Bannister).

The viewer sees a body being wheeled into the morgue. After all have gone, it pulls the sheet off itself. A hideous, misshapen creature skulks around the room, inspecting the bodies. When he finds the one he wants, he wraps it up and lowers it out a window to a waiting accomplice.

In the meantime, wise-cracking reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell) is having trouble with her boss, (fictional) New York Express editor Jim (Frank McHugh). Jim threatens to fire her unless she brings back a story, “Even if it’s only a new recipe for spaghetti!”

She goes to the police station to see if she can find something interesting. She teases the cops. The big story is the suicide of beautiful model Joan Gale, but the captain (DeWitt Jennings) says maybe her death wasn’t a suicide after all. They have the dead model’s boyfriend, George Winton (Gavin Gordon), down in lockup. Of course, Florence interviews him.

Ivan Igor is about to open another wax museum. Now in a wheelchair with scarred and damaged hands, Igor employs people to create his wax figures. One of his employees, Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), is engaged to the lovely Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray). Unfortunately for him, boss Igor is underwhelmed with his work, questioning his understanding of anatomy. Igor bemoans the fact that those with working hands have no soul.

Ralph takes this all in stride and calls Charlotte to meet for lunch, using a payphone.* In one of those Hollywood coincidences, Charlotte and Florence happen to be roommates. Even though she wasn’t invited, Florence joins Charlotte, meeting Ralph outside the wax museum for their date. Here Ralph tells her he won’t be able to make it. The “old man” is anxious about the opening that night.

Florence sneaks into the exhibit, where she notices that the Joan of Arc piece bears a striking resemblance to Joan Gale, whose body is missing. At the same time, Igor sees Charlotte. He envisions her as Marie Antoinette, a masterpiece lost in the fire he has yet to replace. He asks her to model for him. She’s only too happy to oblige.


While there might not be much of mystery as to the gruesome goings-on here, this is an interesting movie on several fronts. First, it was considered lost until a reference print was found in the personal library of former studio head Jack Warner. Originally filmed in two-tone (red and green) Technicolor, this is an early use of color, yielding neither a black and white nor a particularly life-like color film. In 2019, it was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. While the colors are odd—full of bright Christmas greens, for instance—the print is clearer than one would expect for such an old film.

Many of the sets, especially those that deal with the horror aspects of the film, have an art deco/science fiction feel to them. The morgue is located on a top floor with large windows, as was the practice. In the movie, the half dozen or so bodies are laid out on various gurneys arranged in a semicircle.

This was also a pre-Hays code film. That is, it included some elements regarding sexuality, nudity, and drug use that ceased to exist once the Code was enforced.

Just the same, all these aspects are very tame. For example, when Florence teases the cops while she’s looking for a story to wow her boss, she asks the captain, “How’s your sex life?”

He’s reading a magazine titled Naughty Stories. On its front is a woman showing skin above her stockings.

When Florence mistakenly draws the police to a cache of booze (Prohibition…), she starts grabbing several bottles, telling the cops she’s taking her cut. They’ll get theirs later. My, my. Such disrespect.

One of the characters is a drug addict. When the film was remade in 1953 as House of Wax, a similar character was an alcoholic. Have to protect the kiddies, doncha know.

It is a movie of its time. That is, casual racism and misogyny find their way in.

Even with its flaws, I enjoyed this film. It was fun. There was little “mystery” to the whole business, and the happy ending for Florence was not credible. Having said all this, it made for an entertaining Saturday night bad movie with pizza and pinot noir.

Unfortunately, I could find this only available for pay, probably because it was so recently restored.

*Kids, ask your parents what a payphone was.

Title: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Lionel Atwill…Ivan Igor
Fay Wray…Charlotte Duncan
Glenda Farrell…Florence
Frank McHugh…Jim
Allen Vincent…Ralph Burton

Released: February 18, 1933
Length:  1 hour, 17 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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