Tuesday, 30 October 2012

My funny Halloween... Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

"I felt that he was not flesh and bones, that he was part of the steel of the camera…"

So said Fay Wray after being directed by Michael Curtiz in this strange film from one of cinema’s most prolific directors. If you don’t know Curtiz by name then you’ll certainly know him by his pictures which include everything from the rare silents such as  Red Heels, to massive blockbusters like The Adventures of Robin Hood and niche features like Angels with Dirty Faces and Mildred Pierce...Then there was a little something called Casablanca…and White Christmas!

 It’s hard to reconcile such a broad body of work and it’s difficult to say that there was anything like a “Curtiz style”, other than a high level of professionalism, working – hard - with the best people, as Wray’s quote testifies, and smoothly-efficient story-telling.

Mystery of the Wax Museum was still relatively early in the Hungarian-born director's career and it shows the influence of his time in Germany (where he made the aforementioned Red Heels (Das Spielzeug von Paris), Einspanner Nr 13 and dozens of other intriguing silents). There are certainly a lot of expressionist touches; dark shadows pervade the film and characters are framed at odd angles against the scenery.

One of the last films to be made using the two-strip colour, to emphasise the “horror” no doubt,  this does sound very much like a straight-ahead pre-code horror but it has more style than you might expect and is still a little chilling to this day…a little haunting or maybe just plain weird! Tod Browning eat your heart out!

It begins in London in the early 1920s where down a dark and dingy street, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is a sculptor of genius who, unaccountably, operates a wax museum. Art critics are wowed and want to exhibit his incredibly life-like sculptures at the Royal Academy.

However, Igor’s  beautiful creations – one of whom looks very much like a young Fay Wray… aren’t pulling in the crowds and the museum’s owner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell),  has a plan to balance his books by burning down the museum and cashing in the insurance money

Lionel Atwill and Allen Vincent
Igor tries to stop Worth but is knocked out as the fires leap all around him and his handiwork melts grotesquely before his eyes…

We shift forward a decade to New York City on New Year’s eve 1933…as New Yorkers celebrate a grimly-familiar face watches them with disdain… It’s Igor, who has somehow survived and is set to open a new wax museum in the city.

Glenda Farrell
But all is not quite right, Florence Dempsey (mouth almighty Glenda Farrell for whom playing a tough-fast-talking journo became a career) is sent out by her charmless editor, Jim (Frank McHugh) to try save her job by finding a story in the apparent the suicide of a model named Joan Gale (Monica Bannister).

The girl’s body is taken from the morgue and Florence starts to think that she might be onto something…

The model’s boyfriend, rich-kid George Winton (Gavin Gordon), is implicated but Florence thinks differently. Her nose for a story is so good you wonder how she struggles to find news!

Yep, "pre-code"... Fay in those shorts
We switch to Florence's apartment where roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray) is performing some gratuitous (very much “pre-code”) exercises in shorts… Charlotte’s fiancé Ralph (Allen Vincent) works at Igor's museum and takes the girls along to the opening. Here they encounter Igor who is wheelchair bound and crippled following the fire in London. His hands were severely damaged and he has to rely on the hands of Ralph and other less wholesome assistants.

He unveils a waxwork Joan of Arc who looks startlingly life-like… and frankly behaves like a man with something to hide!

More than this he is entranced by Charlotte seeing her as the exact likeness of his Marie Antoinette… one of those lost in the fire. Those familiar with Carry on Screaming might spot where this film is headed right about now. But there is still something genuinely creepy about proceedings and this formula was yet to become stale.

I won’t go any further with the plot suffice to say that there is genuine peril and Charlotte really shouldn’t be so trusting! The climax is well-handled and Curtiz builds the tension well – we were squirming in our seats right till the end.

Frying tonight?!
The sets are superb, all larger than life and owing something again to German expressionism (Curtiz was Hungarian but learned his craft in the Weimar). The cast is uneven, Lionel Atwill is a little wooden (or should that be waxen?) whilst Fay Wray was a little subdued – though her time was to come with something more sizably scary in her very next film.

Glenda Farrell takes the plaudits and marauds her way through proceedings firing off one-liners and casual comments with machine gun rapidity – she was reputably able to say 400 words in 40 seconds… She grounds the action in someone believable and even confounds expectations with her choice of romantic partner at the end. An interesting “broad”, she enjoyed a long career in film and television, including a series as a fearless investigative reporter.

Monica Bannister... still life
But, spare a though for Monica Bannister who had to play a waxwork dummy for long minutes on end…

Mystery of the Wax Museum is stylishly atmospheric and well worth a showing at your Halloween party. Don’t expect to be too frightened but you’ll certainly be amused and entertained. Available from Amazons.

"Mouth almighty!"

1 comment:

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