Fay Wray’s scream! Fast-talking female reporters! Waxwork-related horror! I bet you’re thinking “I’d have to set up three screens and watch King Kong, His Girl Friday and House of Wax to experience all this at the same time,” right? I know you too well. But what if there was a movie that let you tick all of these boxes without having to reorganize your living room?
Well, Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum delivers on all three fronts. It’s probably best known these days as the inspiration for André De Toth’s remake House of Wax twenty years later, the movie that turned Vincent Price into a bona fide horror leading man, for which we shall forever be grateful. De Toth’s remake is fairly faithful, adding some 3D gimmickry and tweaking the story to make the twisted waxwork artist its central character. But what’s really interesting about the original film is the stuff that didn’t make it into the remake.
Most of all, Mystery is a full-on newspaper movie! The remake places the action in turn-of-the-century New York City, but the original has a contemporary setting. Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) is a wisecracking, plucky reporter whose job is on the line because she hasn’t turned up a good story in a while — something her (equally fast-talking) editor brings up at every opportunity. Luckily she strikes gold with a mysterious body-snatching case, which attracts suspicion to the newly-opened waxwork museum, where the exhibits seem just a little too realistic.
The museum belongs to Ivan Igor (definitely not a sinister name at all, not one bit), and in a brief prologue, we see his previous European venture foiled by a bitter and unscrupulous business partner who torches the museum to collect on the insurance — with Igor inside. By the time he resurfaces in New York, he’s in a wheelchair and reliant on hired help to complete his artworks. And maybe his experiences have driven him mad? I dunno, we’ll let Florence figure that out.
The remake definitely functions better as a horror film, although this one does have some nicely gruesome wax FX that probably wouldn’t have gotten past the censors a few years later. But the newspaper angle still makes this earlier version well worth a watch, with Farrell proving that she was as good as anyone at crackling, quick-fire dialogue. The scenes with her editor are probably the best — at one point she calls him a “soap bubble” — but she also has a ton of fun putting down her roommate’s extremely square boyfriend (the roommate is Fay Wray, who’s also good but can’t help being overshadowed by Farrell).
There’s a few hints of romance to add to the screwball energy of the dialogue: two different men fall for Florence over the course of this film’s hour and a quarter. One of them remarks that he’s known her for less than 24 hours, but is already falling in love; in most films, it’d be hard to suspend disbelief for a statement like that. But in this case, my only question is, What took him so long? De Toth, Price, and co.’s take on House of Wax probably deserves its status as the better-remembered film, but the unusual mix of horror and screwball make this a hidden gem, and Farrell’s lead performance is absolutely first-rate — I challenge anyone who watches this not to fall for her too.