Mystery of the Wax Museum (2/17/33) Park avenue body snatchers. In Universal’s hands this tale would have been set in some quasi European olde worlde micronation, but dragged kicking and screaming into the two strip technicolor NY noir, it packs a terrific wallop. From the gruesome Grand Guignol fire bombing of the waxworks humans to its giant cauldron of waxy death climax, it’s a delicious shadowy nightmare.
Zanuck turns his mad script doctor Ben Hecht loose on Wax Museum horror story. If you doubt Hecht’s hands were around this story’s throat, just close your eyes, his NY-speed patter will make you reach for the subtitles which aren’t included, so don’t bother. It also shovels in all of the other Warner precode genetic material: tough gum-cracking reporters, city newsrooms, antagonism between the sexes, Irish cops, bootlegging, drug addiction, slum life and raucous off-color dialogue – “Hello Sweetheart, how’s your sex life?”
Despite the presences of …wait let me look them up…nevermind I forgot them already…the hero of this picture is the Glenda Farrell, who along with Frank McHugh take Hildy Johnson/Walter Burns out for a spin, treating us to some of the best Hechtian dialogue ever. Glenda’s Kolchakian bouncy girl reporter manages to knit together the threads between the horror story and the murder mystery: “I’d rather die with an athletic heart from shaking cocktails and bankers than expire in a pan of dirty dishwater.” Alas Fay Wray’s character exists solely to be menaced and scream and look swell against the set design. Atwill, whose name should always follow Karloff and Lugosi’s but somehow does not, turns in another great villain.
Curtiz’s known for his shadowplay, really twists the knife with soundwork here: the air escaping from a corpse, the labored breathing of the hatted and caped ‘monster’, the creak of the rope lowering the body out the window, Glenda getting spooked by hurdy gurdy wires, the squeaky gurney wheels, the creak of the wheelchair, the nails being pulled from a coffin, all ramp up the creepfactor.
But like all genre pictures, you really can’t dissect all the the textural effects: Why is there a fella standing around INSIDE the museum with a hood on? whose eyes are in that mask? is that the equivalent of a painting’s eyes following you for no reason. When did he have time to take Fay’s clothes off? How does this process actually work? Why don’t the bodies rot? What exactly paid for that two-story mad artists wax filled swimming pool set when he didn’t have two sous to rub together at his last museum? Did he go into business making those Mission Impossible quality face masks, cause THAT’s way better than his wax dipped dead folks. Park those questions at the door, buckle up and light a candle to Ben Hecht.