This review is actually for the B-Side of “House of Wax” that is a rare treat – the first film version of Charles Belden's “The Wax Works” story, made in 1933. Noted as the last feature-length film photographed in Technicolor's two-color system, “Mystery of the Wax Museum” reunited director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) with actors Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill, plus key technicians from the 1932 two-color horror flick, “Doctor X.”
A Pre-Code movie, “Mystery” is loaded with dialogue and images pretty much poo-pooed for decades by Hollywood's self-imposed Production Code, which bound participating studios and exhibitors into producing and releasing films that abided by moral guidelines, so even a child could attend a horror film or parlor drama without parental worry. Made before the implementation of the current classification system, it's easy to see why more conservative audiences in the 1930s – particularly small interest groups, and larger organizations such as the Catholic Legion of Decency – were angry with ‘wayward' studios, and wanted screen lasciviousness curtailed.
Wise-cracking reporter Glenda Farrell asks a cop “How's your sex life?”, and we get a quick peek at the ‘Naughty Stories' magazine he's been reading that New Year's Eve before she begins her search for a lurid story to avoid getting canned from the city paper. Prior to the tragic fire, Atwill's studio contains a male and female torso; the naughty regions are strategically obfuscated, but female breasts are a-okay for the camera lens; and though Wray gets top billing, Farrell enjoys far more attention, via her scissor-like gams.
TV prints of “Mystery” were either black & white, or seriously faded, with flutters of color blobs to indicate its original colour origins, but in the April 1990 issue of American Cinematographer, author Scott MacQueen showcased the film in great detail, noting the existence of a 35mm showprint then owned by MGM, and the original nitrate print preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archives. The DVD and case offer little background information on the film – a missed opportunity, since MacQueen's article blends production minutia from his own interviews, and Richard Koszarski's intro material from the University of Wisconsin's published screenplay – but the source print is surprisingly good, given its age and obvious wear & tear, with visible scratches and projection marks at a few reel changes. (In 1992, MGM released both “Mystery” and “Doctor X” on a double-bill laserdisc, with a trailer for the latter film.)
As explained by MacQueen in his companion piece on “Doctor X” in the June 1986 issue of American Cinematographer, two-colour Technicolor tended to have a problem with green, sometimes bleeding into the red and blue areas. Technicolor's consultants and certified cinematographers had imperial control over costume and set décor, selecting colors deemed appropriate for pseudo-realism, and to show off the range of the early colour system. “Mystery” offers a mix of pretty good flesh tones, but periodic shades of soft green, turquoise, or pinkish-red – likely a sign of the system's limitations – are prominent. The visually stylish sets and lighting, however, borrow a lot from German Expressionism, and add to the surreal look. Fans of the 1953 version will note some interesting variations in story, new characters, and specific shots and dialogue grafted into the remake.
The sound is standard for the period, and though dialogue is pretty clear, it's obvious from wider shots and off-camera conversations that miking and camera noise were still fighting for some kind of qualitative balance.
Fans of early colour films should seek out the cited MacQueen article on “Mystery,” which includes behind-the-scenes stills, a shot from a naughty deleted scene, plus the studio's risqué publicity campaign, with a bosomy statue, and a groping Atwill.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan