|Have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?
|Cataldo, "Wedding Cake"|
Does anyone know the earliest appearance of the trope of the mad artist whose sculptures contain the bodies of his murdered victims? The earliest example I've encountered personally is Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers," but 1928 seems a late start for such a visceral image of horror. An unliving appearance of life is uncanny enough; conjecturing further that it's a dead thing embodying such perfect mimicry is just nightmare fuel. Penny dreadfuls? Something in Poe I've forgotten? Something in Hawthorne I haven't read?
This question brought to you by belated meditation on Michael Curtiz's Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which I watched on TCM with derspatchel a week ago. It was a lost film for nearly forty years, eclipsed by its prestigious 3-D remake House of Wax (1953) starring Vincent Price; I have the impression the later film is a classic creepshow, but the original is, like so many other pre-Code movies, really odd in ways I didn't know I was waiting to see.
The story starts off in solid Gothic territory. In 1921 London, a struggling genius in wax sculpture receives a promise of patronage from the Royal Academy of Arts on the same night his unscrupulous partner decides their highbrow, neglected museum isn't worth more than the insurance money it would recoup if accidentally burned to the ground; horrified, the sculptor tries to stop him, but the fire starts anyway, the well-seasoned old building goes up like a torch, and the sculptor is trapped among his flaming, melting creations. Especially since the waxworks are all played by carefully made-up actors in tableaux vivant, the sudden switch to practical effects—watching their painted faces cave and liquefy, their wet wax limbs slough from their bodies—is like starting a movie with the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then we flash forward and across genres to New Year's 1933 in New York City, where plucky and also cheerfully drunk girl reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell, one of the fastest-talking human beings it has ever been my privilege to hear rattle off newsroom slang) is in the process of getting fired by her editor Jim (Frank McHugh, witheringly impatient and so young he doesn't even have a mustache) for not bringing enough real news in. He won't find out just how much until the last reel, but her latest story is a lulu—the body of beautiful Joan Gale, a high-profile suicide now being reconsidered as a murder, has gone missing from the morgue and Florence doesn't think the prime suspect, wealthy ex-boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon, whom I'd only known previously as Edward Everett Horton's partner), is either clever enough or perverted enough to have done it. Jim cynically retorts that proving a man's innocence doesn't sell newspapers, but the audience knows she's right; we've already seen a black-clad figure with a face like Freddy Krueger rise from underneath a morgue sheet, bundle the corpse like a burial at sea, and lever it out the window into the waiting arms of accomplices, including one who's—thank you, pre-Code—hurting for his fix pretty hard. Over on the other side of the plot, meanwhile, Florence's roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray, two weeks away from scream queen immortality in King Kong) is walking out with clean-cut Ralph (Allen Vincent), a young modernist sculptor currently apprenticed to the mysterious Mr. Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill, sonorously Euro-ambiguous), a wheelchair-bound genius who claims to be recreating his masterwork, a world-class collection of waxworks tragically lost through misadventure. His hands are too scarred to sculpt anymore, so instead he directs the work of Ralph and a jittery, cagey Englishman by the name of "Professor" Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe, all five o'clock shadow and hollow eyes and Dickensian woollen mufflers) with a massive deaf-mute named Hugo (Matthew Betz, I am afraid I have nothing to say about him) for muscle. Florence thinks there's something weird about this setup. The audience thinks there's something weird about this setup. Ralph and Charlotte are as oblivious as horny teenagers in a slasher flick.
I wouldn't call anything about Mystery of the Wax Museum restrained, but it's a delightfully sideways approach to a shudder-pulp premise. The plot proceeds like a crime thriller, with Florence putting together stray facts (eight bodies snatched in the last eighteen months) with eerie coincidences (Igor's Joan of Arc looks exactly like Joan Gale, so much so that Florence instantly concludes he must have worked from a cast of her stolen body) and good old-fashioned legwork while almost inadvertently romancing the bowled-over George, who has never met anyone like this wisecracking dynamo of a modern woman in his trust-fund baby's life. The audience has the advantage of the title, the prologue, and scenes like the theft from the morgue, so we can guess shiveringly at what the characters have yet to suspect, but we're not so far ahead that they look stupid for not connecting the dots sooner, and the film doesn't show so much of its hand that there's nowhere left to escalate. When the finale kicks into full-bore Grand Guignol, it's earned every mad-scientist, monster's-lair, tip-of-the-Phantom's-hat moment of it. But it's also a whirlwind through the gleefully seedier side of 1930's journalism, complete with literal ambulance-chasing, and the dialogue is trippingly, dizzily screwball. Florence and Jim practically have their own idiolect compounded of equal parts affection, exasperation, and oneupsmanship. "Hello, light of my life," she greets him with saccharine effusion; he responds with equal heartiness, "Well, well, Prussic acid!" He sketches her as Mickey Mouse tilting at windmills and she sails into his office with a plummy "As I live and breathe and wear spats, the prince!" When she blows him a raspberry over the phone, he retorts, "A cow does that and gives milk besides." There's nothing they can't turn into banter, from Florence sighing to a sympathetic cop, "I'm people which the old year saw out . . . I got to make news even if I have to bite a dog," to Jim answering the subject header's question with a deadpan "I used to be married to one" (and before that information can even sink in, Florence briskly tops it: "And it came to life and divorced you, I know all about that"). They're an inevitable couple possibly because neither of them will ever meet anyone else as reflexively sarcastic in their lives. George's million-dollar sincerity doesn't stand a chance.
And it's pre-Code horror, so it's anything goes where early gore effects are concerned. The unmasking moment doesn't quite unseat Lon Chaney, but it offers a commendable challenge, especially after an hour's build-up of half-seen shadow-shots. The gruesome secret of the waxworks is suggested rather than shown outright, but there's still only one ending available when a giant vat of wax is bubbling beneath expressionist catwalks and there's a madman on the loose. Elsewhere in the world that would vanish from the silver screen within the next year, "Professor" Darcy very obviously has a PhD in Dope and the cops rely on his addiction to break his story. George keeps a bootlegger on retainer. Florence asks a police sergeant, "How's your sex life?" and when she sees him reading Naughty Stories, makes a sympathetic tsk-tsk. To Jim, she fumes, "You may be the world to your mother, but you're a—" (Our tender sensibilities are saved by the ring of a telephone.) There's the simple fact that I can't remember the last time I saw a heroine like Farrell's Florence, the rakish reporter who lives off coffee and booze and never sleeps unless someone tells her to; she looks good even hungover and she has no scruples in pursuit of a story and it's a shame she and James Cagney never worked together, because you can tell she'd hit it off with Picture Snatcher's Danny Kean. I am afraid that Fay Wray's sweet-natured damsel in distress, despite garnering all sorts of accolades from reviewers over the decades, barely registered for me next to Farrell's fireworks.
I should mention lastly that the entire thing is filmed in two-strip Technicolor, which renders the primary palette of the film in blues, greens, and pinks; it looks hand-colored in an effectively unreal way. It was the last feature film made with the process before three-strip Technicolor came in. I never acclimated to it in the sense of finding it natural, but as an atmospheric choice it definitely heightens the lurid air of the piece. Its New York City seems poised to run like watercolors or dissolve into the pinkish vinegar of deteriorating silver nitrate film. Even realistic interiors like Jim's office seesaw between blue velvet shadows and peach-colored lighting spots. Florence's silky pistachio ice cream pajamas come off well, though.
I really like pre-Code movies. It took decades for American cinema to get this weird again.
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