Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) were Warner Bros. answer to Universal's horror power house. Both films star Lionel Atwil and Fay Wray, both were directed by Michael Curtiz and both used the two-strip technicolor process. There is even a remarkable similarity in plot--an intrepid reporter investigating a series of murders, stumbles upon a bizarre series of suspects, solves the murder and winds up living happily ever after.Both films bolster the fairly weak horror plots with lots of humor and Warner's stable of snappy actors make these movies quite enjoyable. The desaturated technicolor provides an unusually moody atmosphere for horror, making morgues, foggy waterfronts and old dark houses that much creepier.
Doctor X stars Lee Tracy as the reporter. As always Tracy is really fun , zipping in snide one-liners and even doing a little slapstick now and again. Tracy is investigating a series of full moon murders where the victims were strangled and their bodies cannabalized. He is lead to Doctor Xavier's research institute, aka the Spooky Old House of Incredibly Suspicious Mad Scientist Murder Suspects. He also meets the Xavier's daughter, Joan (Fay Wray), who doesn't seem at all disturbed by the half dozen potential maniac cannibals roaming her house, but is totally spooked by her father staying up late in his library. Horror truly is a subjective thing I guess.
Doctor X has a fun twist on the whodunnit denoument in which all the suspects are gathered together. Xavier chains them all to their chairs and hooks them into a crazy 1930s "science" movie set. The killer is of course the one person not chained up, and he dons his artificial flesh made out of melted down corpse bits and sets to work attacking Joan who has been set up as bait for the killer. Good thinking doctor! This is actually a tense and horrifying scene, but Tracy saves the day and gets the girl in the end.
The Mystery of the Wax Museum begins with a sculptor Igor (Lionel Atwill) who is hard at work on his wax creations, which are for some reason confined only to this movie, considered high art. His business partner, fed up with loosing money on the museum, decides to burn the place down. He doesn't bother to wait till Igor's gone home to make with the matches and Igor barely survives the fire, trying desparately to save his creations. The melting of the wax statues is actually awesomely creepy and is one of the best things about this movie. Igor becomes obsessed with recreating them, but his hands are so badly damaged in the fire that he can no longer sculpt.
Meanwhile in New York City, we are introduced to Florence (Glenda Farrell), an intrepid reporter investigates the death of a fashion model. Like Lee Tracy, Farrell is an actor who livens up every scene and it's a joy to watch her in a lead rather than side-kick position. Florence finds out that the police suspect the model's boyfriend, George Winton and she interviews the fellow in jail. Florence flirts with him and later decides to date the millionaire playboy.
Her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) takes her to the opening of a wax museum and Florence becomes convinced that a statue of Joan of Arc is actually the dead fashion model whose body had recently disappeared from the morgue. Igor is struck by Charlotte's beauty and her resemblance to his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette. He traps her in the wax museum and tries to kill her. In the tense climactic scene Charlotte attacks his face and it crumbles away revealing his hideously burned visage beneath a wax mask. Florence arrives in the nick of time but discovers that her new boyfriend, the millionaire playboy is involved with bootlegging and is associated with Igor's match-happy former business parner. Luckily out of left field, her editor proposes to her and in annoying twist, Florence gives up her career as a reporter.
I think Doctor X is probablya tighter and more entertaining picture. At times Mystery of the Wax Museum looses focus, sending us down dark alleyways looking into bootlegging operations and the life of Igor's drug-addled assistant Mr. Darcy. As a Jane Austen fan I had a hard time with that character name, actually. Assistants are supposed to be called Igor, but I suppose since that was already taken by the main villain they needed to have some kind of name for his deranged helper.
The pre-code in both these films comes out in the treatment of Fay Wray as cheesecake. In Doctor X there is a completely out of place beach scene were Wray and Tracy lounge in skimpy costumes and in Mystery of the Wax Museum there is a gratuitous dressing before the camera. Apart from these surface ornaments, the movies feel much more like films that would be made later in the decade. With the emphasis on fast-talking humor, marrying off the working woman and other conventions of the late 30s, I half expected to see Howard Hawks' name above the title.
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