(Blu-Ray) (A quick caveat: skip over any public domain copies of this film.)
THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is notable for several reasons: Michael Curtiz (GONE WITH THE WIND) directed it; it features Fay Wray’s scream just a bit before she’d appear in KING KONG; it was one of the rare Warner Bros. horror films of the 30s (including DOCTOR X, which Curtiz also directed, and also starred Wray); it influenced a number of films (obviously it was remade into HOUSE OF WAX, but I speculate it also trickled down to DARKMAN); it was also the last Technicolor two-color process film, and it looks -gorgeous-.
What’s interesting about color and film is that, while we have THE JAZZ SINGER as (unfortunately) the bellringer for talkies, films have been projected in color practically since their inception, either through reel-tinting or even hand-tinting, or early Technicolor processes.* THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM’s use of the two-color Technicolor process** is an astounding marvel, leaning into the gauzy, muted nature of the development procedure, utilizing it to create a far more expressionistic film that it’d be without color. The closing scene in the basement is especially striking, not just because of the set design and acute angles, but the use of light and shadow and command of tint.
Again, there are a lot of reasons to watch this — it’s a fun popcorn film, Wray is fantastic in it, although she’s supporting character and not the lead, and Glenda Farrell makes a meal out of her screwball crime reporter character — but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you watch an older or public domain print. It was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in 2019, then released commercially in 2020, and that’s what you want to see.***
“Images of wax that throbbed with human passion! Almost woman! What did they lack?!”
- David Bordwell’s academic film blog has a terrific recent guest post about the history of color processes in Hollywood
** For more on early Technicolor processes, which are all distinctly fascinating, check out: http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/technicolor3.htm
*** See https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archive-blog/2020/04/21/mystery-wax-museum-restored-qa-scott-macqueen for more information on the restoration process. Also, here’s a before/after video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVrriovENz0