“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
It’s doesn’t take a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient to figure out why the horror movie genre first flourished during the Great Depression. When the things that scare the hell out of the average person are life-changing events like losing one’s job or home or, in some extreme cases, life (due to starvation, illness, or suicide), it’s understandable why movie audiences would seek cathartic thrills in the frights provided by supernatural menaces they would never encounter in real life, such as vampires, werewolves, or man-made monsters.
It was Universal Pictures that virtually invented horror pictures with the one-two punch of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931). However, as film historian Carlos Clerens stated in his seminal 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, “Warner Brothers loomed large as Universal’s most serious rival, at least in the first years of the vogue.” Warners’ first two horror pictures (also both 1931) were starring vehicles for the great John Barrymore, Archie Mayo’s Svengali and Michael Curtiz’s The Mad Genius. (Svengali is an especially memorable film with one of Barrymore’s finest film performances.) Both of these pictures were definitely in the European Gothic mode established by Universal.
But for their next two horror movies, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, both directed by Curtiz), Warners decided to up the ante, photographing them in Technicolor, which then was still utilizing the original two-strip process (the first instances of using color cinematography for this genre). In addition, these next two efforts would be the first “modern” horror pictures, both set in contemporary New York City and, typical of Warners’ output of the period, reflecting the economic realities of the Depression. (The heroes in both movies, played by Lee Tracy in the former and Glenda Farrell in the latter, are newspaper reporters who are forced to risk their lives pursuing dangerous stories under threat of losing their jobs.)
The cynical wise-cracking newshound would eventually become one of the most oft-repeated clichés of the horror genre, but in these initial instances, the characters were unique and genuinely amusing, thanks mainly to the expert comedy chops of Tracy and Farrell, and the crackling dialogue provided by scenarists Earl Baldwin and Robert Tasker (Doctor X), and Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson (Wax Museum). Lee Tracy practically created the smart-ass reporter archetype when he played the role of Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway premiere of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s iconic newspaper comedy The Front Page. After that triumph, Tracy spent most of his career type-cast as reporters or publicity flacks or other similar fast-talking roles. A few months before Doctor X, Tracy had the best role of his Hollywood career as gossip columnist Alvin Roberts (the movies’ first, but by no means last, caricature of Walter Winchell) in Roy Del Ruth’s screamingly funny black comedy Blessed Event.
Before Wax Museum, Glenda Farrell’s most notable roles at Warners were in two dramatic classics directed by Mervyn LeRoy, in an atypical ingénue role in Little Caesar (1931) and in a much more typical role as the alcoholic floozy who blackmails Paul Muni into a loveless marriage in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Mystery of the Wax Museum was the first movie that revealed Farrell’s considerable gifts as a comedienne and had a major influence on her subsequent film career as well as leading to her own ‘B’ mystery franchise as reporter Torchy Blane. (Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went on record as saying that Farrell’s performances in the Torchy Blane films were their inspiration for the character of Lois Lane.) Almost forty years later, the smart-assed, monster-hunting reporter archetype would come full circle in the person of burned-out, middle-aged but indefatigable scandal monger Carl Kolchak, thanks to writer Richard Matheson and actor Darren McGavin, in the hit 1971 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, which spawned a sequel and its own weekly series.
In place of Barrymore, these next Warners horror flicks featured leading performances by two actors making their debuts in the genre they would be linked with for the rest of their lives, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Not surprisingly, Wray played the damsel-in-distress in both films, the type of role she would best remembered for, particularly in King Kong (1933). Atwill’s roles in the films under discussion were quite different. In Doctor X, he played the title part of Dr. Xavier, noted scientist and father of Wray’s character. Despite some sinister dialogue and camera angels, he was an obvious red herring designed to draw attention from the real villain of the piece. However, in Wax Museum, Atwill had the role of his career as the story’s demented fiend, wax sculptor Ivan Igor. As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, Ivan Igor was the type of villain role usually played by Boris Karloff, an initially completely sympathetic character “driven to madness and revenge by the greed and stupidity of others.”
Another notable contributor to both films was Anton Grot, the innovative set designer who was head of the Warner Brothers Studio Art Department from 1927 to 1948. Grot’s deliberately stylized sets influenced Warner’s visual style immensely. “I for one do not like extremely realistic sets,” Grot once said, “I am for simplicity and beauty and you can achieve that only be creating an impression.” This approach dovetailed perfectly with Curtiz’s distinctive visual style which was formed from his days in Vienna in the mid-1920s, making films in the German Expressionist tradition of the period. (Curtiz used Grot extensively while they were both at Warners.) Cinematographer Ray Rennehan’s color photography in these two films also enhanced the surrealism of the visuals.
Just as Roland West’s 1930 thriller The Bat Whispers was filmed in two versions, widescreen and normal Academy ratio, Doctor X was likewise filmed twice, in Technicolor and black-and-white. The color version was shown only during opening engagements in major cities, whereas the black-and-white version was the one that most of the country saw. The suits at the Technicolor company weren’t happy with this approach, however, so Mystery of the Wax Museum was only filmed and released in Technicolor. (The use of color was so integral to the film that shooting an alternate version in black-and-white would’ve been pointless anyway.) Eventually, both films were forgotten by the general moviegoing public, replaced in popular memory by the slicker, more elaborate horror pictures that came later. (Wax Museum, of course, became completely overshadowed by its more profitable but inferior 3-D 1953 remake, Andre De Toth’s House of Wax, which became a cult favorite due mainly to Vincent Price’s performance in Atwill’s role.)
For decades, Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Technicolor version of Doctor X were considered irretrievably lost, with just the black-and-white version of Doctor X surviving. But, in 1970, a 35mm nitrate Technicolor print of Mystery of the Wax Museum was discovered in Jack Warner’s personal vault at Warner’s Burbank lot. As well documented by Everson, Wax Museum unfortunately received a rushed restoration job that botched the Technicolor hues and failed to retain the original vibrancy of the colors. (The result looked like a badly colorized version of a black-and-white movie.) After Warner’s death in 1978, a Technicolor print of Doctor X was found in his personal collection and received a far superior restoration job in 1986 by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, providing modern audiences with a better idea of what the movie originally looked like.
In Doctor X, a serial killer, who strangles his victims, then cannibalizes their bodies, is stalking New York, but only during a full moon. (The recurring shots of a full moon glowing through the clouds against the background of an emerald green sky are among the film’s most memorable use of Technicolor.) In the opening scene, reporter Lee Taylor (Tracy) is prowling the city wharfs looking for news—any news—when he stumbles onto a possible scoop. He spots a couple of police officials escorting a renowned scientist into a waterfront morgue. He tries to get past the plainclothesman (Tom Dugan) guarding the door, but with little success.
Cop: “Only stiffs go in there tonight.”
Lee: “No kidding?”
Cop: “No kidding.”
Lee: “What’s keepin’ you out?”
Lee then heads for the nearest pay phone, which, this definitely being a pre-Code picture, is located in a nearby cathouse. After trading some banter with the resident madam (played by none other than Mae Busch, best remembered by Laurel & Hardy fans as various villainesses or the shrewish Mrs. Hardy), Lee calls into his paper’s night editor (Selmer Jackson).
Lee: “Give me the night desk, please… Yeah. Willard Keefe… Yeah, this is Lee Taylor. I’m down at the Mott Street Morgue. Just now they bring in the body of an old scrubwoman murdered under very peculiar circumstances… No, they won’t let me see it. I can’t get any dope. Police—” (ogling an attractive prostitute walking by) “Very good.” (back into phone) “I say very—what? I say I can’t get any dope on it. Police orders. Just now, Stevens, O’Halloran, and a guy named Dr. Xavier arrived. Something’s doing.”
Keefe: “Yeah, I’ve heard that one, too.”
Lee: “Listen, you lunkhead, I’m not clowning. Look out the window, will you?”
Keefe: “What do you mean, the moon?”
Lee: “Certainly, I mean the moon. I’m laying 10 bucks to a dime it’s another Moon Killer murder.”
Keefe: “Well, that’s different. Now, listen, Lee, stick right on it.”
By impersonating a corpse under a sheet, Lee’s able to learn that the evidence points to the killer being someone associated with Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research, the prime suspects being one of four scientists: Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), an expert on cannibalism whose lower left arm has been replaced by a cosmetic prosthetic; Dr. Haines (John Wray, no relation to Fay), who was once suspected of cannibalism when he and two other scientists were cast adrift for several weeks in a lifeboat and one of the men disappeared before their rescue; Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), an expect on lunar studies researching the effects of moonlight on peoples’ psychology; and Dr. Duke (Harry Baresford), a paraplegic dependent on wheelchair and crutches who was the other surviving scientist in the lifeboat incident. (Even from just these brief descriptions, any dedicated fans of mystery fiction should’ve already figured out who the guilty party is!)
Xavier is granted 48 hours by the police to conduct his own investigation before they give the story to the newspapers, a promise that becomes moot after Lee exposes the deal. Then Lee scams his way past the maid into Xavier’s home where he “meets cute” with Joanne Xavier (Wray) when she catches him red-handed swiping photos of her and her father. Needless to say, Lee’s immediately smitten and makes some clumsy attempts at flirting with Joanne. For the rest of the picture, they carry on the type of light semi-affectionate sparring that would become so prevalent in the screwball comedy genre established just a couple of years later.
Lee: “Are you going swimming with me in the morning?”
Joanne: “No, thanks. Good night.”
Lee: “What will you do if I start to sink and yell for help?”
Joanne: “Throw you an anvil. Good night.”
Running at just 76 minutes, Doctor X is divided into a traditional three-act structure. Act One, the first half-hour, takes place entirely in New York City. Act Two, the second half-hour, moves the action to a remote mansion located at Long Island’s Blackstone Shoals, where Xavier hopes to continue his personal investigation. (In what would become another oft-repeated horror film cliché, this sinister old mansion resides on a cliff overlooking the ocean.) Per theatrical tradition, Act Two concludes with another murder. Finally, in Act Three, the last two-reels, the movie kicks into high gear, particularly when, in the picture’s most justly celebrated sequence, the villain transforms himself into a monster with the aid of electricity and a creepily ghoulish invention he calls “synthetic flesh.”
Providing a plot synopsis for Mystery of the Wax Museum is practically superfluous since most film enthusiasts have already seen House of Wax. Indeed, several scenes from the original were faithfully duplicated in the remake, including the opening scene (the sculptor’s museum being destroyed in a fire started by his corrupt business partner to cash in on the insurance ); the theft of a young woman’s corpse from the city morgue (both versions featuring the morgue attendant’s sexist wisecrack about a dead female body moving and moaning under the influence of embalming fluid, “Ain’t that just like a woman, always has to have the last word?”); the grand reopening of the wax museum in New York; the female ingénue beating on the sculptor’s face in self-defense, revealing a horribly mutilated face hiding underneath a wax mask; the cops grilling a suspect who’s a strung-out addict (heroin in pre-Code Wax Museum, alcohol in post-Code House of Wax) until he cracks and reveals that the sculptor, whose hands were injured in the fire, has been repopulating his museum with corpses encased in wax; and the grand finale in which the sculptor tries to turn the ingénue into a recreation of his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette, by strapping her to a gurney and showering her with molten wax. (House of Wax’s sole improvement over the original was David Buttolph’s effectively frightening background music.)
There are some major differences between the two versions, however. The original had a contemporary setting, while the remake was done as a period piece in the 1890s (in keeping with Hollywood’s tiresomely obsessive nostalgia for “the Gay Nineties” that began during World War II). The prologue takes place in London in the earlier version, and is set in Baltimore in the later one. But the biggest difference between the two is the emphasis on humor in Wax Museum, provided mostly by Glenda Farrell’s reporter Florence (no surname) and her cynical editor Jim (Frank McHugh). (There are no characters equivalent to Florence and Jim in House of Wax and the only thing resembling humor in the film is the guy with the paddleballs.) Many of the dialogue exchanges between Farrell and McHugh anticipate the similar verbal skirmishes between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), such as this one after Florence notices that the new wax museum’s Joan of Arc statue looks suspiciously like the suicidal young socialite whose body was stolen from the morgue.
Florence: “I am right! I know I’m right!”
Jim: “Well, no one would ever suspect it. You don’t sound right.”
Florence: “Listen, Jim—and if you wisecrack while I’m talking, I’ll crown you with the inkwell.”
Jim: ”All right, wise guy. Go ahead. Spill it.”
Florence: “Jim, there’s a little hokey-pokey wax museum opening up down on 14th Street.”
Jim: (sarcastically) “Now don’t that call for an extra?”
Florence: “I asked you to keep your trap shut!”
Jim: “Well, you can’t blame a guy for getting a little breathless with a scoop like that.”
Florence: “All right, you poor baboon, you can guess the rest of it!”
Jim: “No kiddin’? What’s your idea?”
Florence: “Just this, I got a look at that dump a little while ago and if they haven’t got a wax figure of Joan Gale in that line-up, then I’m crazy.”
Jim: “We’ll grant that.”
Jim: “About the Gale girl, I mean. Where do we go from there? What of it?”
Florence: “Listen, Jo-Jo, does this mean anything to you? Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Did you ever hear of such a thing as a death mask?”
Jim: “I used to be married to one.”
Florence: “And it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that. Now my idea is this, somebody swipes the girl’s body, takes an impression, makes a mold, produces a wax figure, and—bingo—peddles it to this old skate down there!”
Jim: “Work that up into a comic strip and we’ll syndicate it.”
Florence: “You go to hel—“
Florence: “Let it go.”
Jim: “Come down to earth. Do you think they would dare do anything like that? Don’t you think they’d know that figure would be recognized? Shake your head real hard, you’ll be all right.”
Florence: “All right, master mind, but there’s something cockeyed about that joint and I’m going to find out what it is.”
Mystery of the Wax Museum was arguably the first feminist horror picture. Long before Joss Whedon created that vampire-slaying blonde Buffy, Florence proved to be tougher and superior to any of her male counterparts, completely outwitting the police, exposing the villain’s plot, and rescuing her friend Charlotte Duncan (Wray) from a fate worse than death. (In the remake, the savior was more traditionally a man, a police inspector played by Frank Lovejoy, although, in both versions, it was a male cop’s haymaker that sends the villain plunging into his own vat of bubbling wax.) Florence’s toughness and independence is beautifully accented by Farrell’s comic timing and caustic delivery. (When the playboy Florence is dating wants to chicken out of assisting with her investigation, she responds with, “All right, brother, then you can go to some nice warm place and I don’t mean California!”)
The story was remade yet again under the title House of Wax in 2005 (with a dimbulb cast that included Paris Hilton). This time around it was a trashy piece of teenage torture porn so ineptly made that it single-handedly killed off the Dark Castle Productions series that had proven to be a successful annual Halloween attraction for Warner Brothers in the previous four years. Far more enjoyable than either remake was Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors (1966), an intended television pilot that was released theatrically instead, in which the House of Wax was reimagined as the headquarters for a trio of amateur criminologists (Cesare Danova, Wilfred Hyde-White, and Tun Tun) in turn of the century Baltimore. The villain in this picture was a demented blueblood (Patrick O’Neal in a creepy, underplayed performance) whose severed right hand had been replaced by an all-purpose prosthetic equipped for such instruments of torture as a hook, scalpel, and meat cleaver. Interestingly, Doctor X was never remade. And, no, despite its title, Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Doctor X (1939) is in no way, shape, or form a sequel. That movie’s sole claim to fame was Humphrey Bogart’s only performance in a horror movie as a resurrected scientist who requires the blood of others to sustain his undead existence. (Bogart, who hated the picture, later quipped that, if only he’d been draining Jack Warner’s blood, he would’ve found the experience more rewarding.)
Mystery of the Wax Museum is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray as an extra for the 1953 version of House of Wax. Doctor X has been released only on DVD as a double-feature with The Return of Doctor X in Warner Home Video’s Legends of Horror set. And both films often turn up on Turner Classic Movies, especially around Halloween.
 It’s not inconceivable that the thought of becoming Warners’ answer to Lugosi and Karloff played a major role in John Barrymore’s decision to take his brother Lionel’s advice and jump ship for MGM.
 Introduction to Film Studies, Jill Nelmes, editor, Routledge, 2012.
 In the remake, the partner was rather blandly played by Roy Roberts, while, in the original, the role was played by one of Hollywood’s most wonderfully malignant heavies, Edwin Maxwell. Significantly, Roberts got killed off early in the proceedings, whereas Maxwell remained a major supporting character throughout the rest of the picture.
 For years now, way too many film historians who should know better have repeated the IMDB’s mistake of listing Dempsey as Florence’s last name, a characteristic IMDB gaffe obviously posted by some humor-impaired film nerd unable to grasp the concept of sarcasm when a cop responds to Florence deliberately slapping him hard on the back by calling her “Mrs. Dempsey” (you know, referring to the boxing champ), even though it’s well-established that Florence is single and is roommates with Charlotte.