Mystery of the Wax Museum: Once Lost, Now Found By Susan King
Baby boomer cinephiles fell in love with movies by watching them on television (remember Million Dollar Movie?) despite often bad, blurry prints that appeared edited by a chainsaw in order to fit into the time slot. But thanks to film preservation and restoration efforts, when these vintage films air on TCM or are released on Blu-ray and DVD, the result is revelatory. Films considered fun, albeit, minor works at the time of their release are often now viewed as classics.
Such is the case with MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (’33), the delicious Michael Curtiz horror film starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh. The Warner Bros. production was one of the last photographed in the atmospheric and surreal two-strip Technicolor format. (BECKY SHARP, the first shot in the more realistic three-strip Technicolor, was released two years later).
Shot by the legendary Technicolor cinematographer Ray Rennahan, the pre-Code MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM scared audiences out of their seats, or at least reviewers, with the New York Times critic proclaiming it “too ghastly for comfort” and even “unhealthy.” Long considered lost, a nitrate print was found in 1970 in Jack Warner’s personal vault on the Warner Bros. lot. And in 2019, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation used that print, as well as another nitrate print discovered this century by a private collection, to restore the film to its original, vibrant glory and gore.
In 1933, Wray was the object of the affection for both the tragic and mighty KING KONG (’33) and an insane, disfigured wax sculptor (Atwill) murdering people for his wax museum in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. The sculptor becomes so obsessed with her that he wants to add her to his collection. (WAX MUSEUM was remade in 1953 in 3-D as HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price).
Wray’s daughter, writer Victoria Riskin, who wrote the acclaimed biography of her mother and her Oscar-winning father screenwriter Robert Riskin (IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, 1934), Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, was gob smacked by the restoration. “The restoration looked wonderful,” she said in a recent interview. ‘‘Visually it’s very powerful and the colors that were introduced were exceptionally vivid. I’m so grateful to the restorers for all that hard work; it elevates the film in my mind.”
At that time, her mother was 26 and was being loaned out to various studios by her home base at Paramount. Unlike a lot of performers who balked at films they were cast in by their studios, Wray never fought the projects she was told to do. Wray knew poverty. She was born to a poor Mormon family in Salt Lake City in 1907 and was all of 14 when she came to Hollywood to seek her fame and fortune in Hollywood. And in 1933, said Riskin, Wray was still the breadwinner for her family including “her mother, her brothers, her husband and his family.”
She was happy to have the work that she got during the middle of the Depression. She was reliable and hard working. At the same time, director Michael Curtiz was not easy. MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM reunited Wray, Atwill and Curtiz, who had worked together in the two-strip Technicolor horror film DOCTOR X (’32). And Wray and Atwill also starred in 1933 in the horror film VAMPIRE BAT. “He was an unyielding character with an obsessive work ethic,” said Riskin of Curtiz. “From [Wray’s] point of view, as a lovely young woman, he was almost like a machine-detached, impersonal and not much fun. She was used to the kind of warmth and playfulness that can happen around the set. Certainly, that happened with [producer] Merian C. Cooper on KING KONG. But there was none of that with Michael Curtiz.”
Just as with KING KONG, Wray’s role in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was physically demanding. There’s one incredible scene in which Atwill shows how much his wax figure of Marie Antoinette resembles her. It was actually Wray wearing elaborate clothing and a heavy wig, who played the wax figure because the Technicolor cameras were so hot, the real wax figures in the movie began to melt. Not only doesn’t she move a muscle, Wray didn’t even blink.
One of the best sequences features a terrified Wray hitting the face of Atwill to reveal he’s wearing a mask over his horribly disfigured face. Wray had no idea what the disfigured make-up would look like because they wanted her scream to be spontaneous when she saw Atwill’s face. But instead of screaming, she gasped in horror. “Her reaction was actually more normal,” she said. But not to Curtiz. He wanted that scream. “So, they had another mask – just one more,” said Riskin. “He said you have to really hit him and scream, so she did it.”
Though Wray had problems with Curtiz, in the end, said Riskin, she appreciated him as a filmmaker. “She admired the results and that part was good. She brings a likeability to that part.” Ironically, Farrell, who plays Wray’s roomie—a fast-talking newspaper reporter looking for a rich husband—was seriously dating Robert Riskin at the time of the production. Wray and Riskin didn’t meet until several years later.
“That’s the fun part of the movie because my parents hadn’t yet met,” noted Riskin. “My dad’s first important romance in Hollywood was with Glenda Farrell. I could see why he liked her. She was smart and warm and generous. And in the movie, my mother and Glenda, the two most important women in my father’s life, are playing roommate. Isn’t it adorable?”
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