The concept of the wise-cracking girl reporter out to solve a crime, or investigate stories of horror, became a cliche by the 1940s when variations on that type of character continued to appear in Poverty Row thrillers and horror films. After awhile, the appearance of such characters became tiresome as they often degenerated into being mere damsels-in-distress waiting to be rescued by the hero. Probably the best example of how such a character could be successfully integrated into a good horror film was Glenda Farrell's earthy, witty and likeable Florence Dempsey in Michael Curtiz's classic "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933). In this early, two-color Technicolor horror thriller, Lionel Atwill plays Mr. Igor, a committed artist who runs a beautifully detailed, but financially failing, wax museum in 1921 London. Mr. Igor's business partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) proposes setting fire to the museum for the insurance money, which Igor flatly rejects. The two men fight brutally when Worth sets fire to the museum against Igor's wishes. Igor is left unconscious by Worth as the fire envelops the entire museum.
Twelve years later, on New Year's Eve, Igor has relocated to New York City and about to open a new wax museum. Igor and his assistant Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), steal the corpse of heiress Joan Gale, who initially appears to have committed suicide, from the morgue. Meanwhile, ace reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) has been told by her editor Jim (Frank McHugh) that she's fired unless she can come up with a story for the next edition of the paper. Florence learns from her friends on the police force that Joan Gale's death is now being investigated as a homicide, since her live-in boyfriend, rich boy George Winton (Gavin Gordon), was seen in Joan's apartment just hours before her body was found. Florence rushes to the morgue to get a scoop on the autopsy, only to learn Joan Gale's body has been stolen. Florence interviews Winton while he is in jail, decides he is innocent and telling the truth, and sets out to prove his innocence. Florence learns that 8 bodies have been stolen from the morgue in the last 18 months and that somehow this must be connected with Joan Gale's death and disappearance.
Meanwhile, Florence's attractive roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray) is currently dating Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), an artist working for Mr. Igor who is innocently unaware of his boss' nocturnal activities. When Florence and Charlotte visit the wax museum with Ralph, both women meet Mr. Igor for the first time. Mr. Igor is struck by Charlotte's resemblance to his Marie Antoinette wax figure which was destroyed in the London fire 12 years earlier. Meanwhile, Florence notices that Mr. Igor's Joan of Arc wax statue bears a striking resemblance to Joan Gale. After Winton is released on bail, Florence asks him to help her tail Igor's assistant Darcy to a location that turns out to be the home of Winton's bootlegger, and Igor's former business partner who set fire to the original London wax museum 12 years earlier, Mr. Worth. Florence sneaks into the basement of Worth's residence and finds what she believes to be the coffin containing a dead body. Florence hides behind some barrels when she sees a badly disfigured man creeping through the basement. Florence escapes unnoticed and calls for Winton and the police to come investigate. As they approach Worth's house, they see Igor's assistant Darcy leaving the residence. The police give chase and arrest Darcy. Florence leads Winton and the police detectives to the basement. They open the coffin in the basement only to find a case full of whiskey. Florence starts gathering up a stash of whiskey to take home when she is startled by a panel opening up in the basement. She drops the bottles and runs for her life.
Florence and the police return to the station where Darcy is interrogated. They find a pocket watch on Darcy belonging to a Judge who went missing months earlier, and whose disappearance Florence had also been investigating. Darcy lies to the police that he found the watch in a taxi cab months earlier. Meanwhile, the next morning Charlotte arrives at the wax museum looking for her fiancee Ralph. She is greeted by Mr. Igor, who tells her that Ralph is down in the basement workroom. Igor traps Florence and reveals that, ever since his hands were badly burned in the fire and rendered useless, he has been murdering people who resembled his original wax creations and stealing their bodies from the morgue so that he could dip their bodies in wax and display them in his museum. He reveals that he plans to make Charlotte his Marie Antoinette. When Charlotte struggles against him, she punches him in the face and reveals that he has been wearing a face mask the entire time, which covers his badly burned and disfigured visage--the same frightening creature that Florence saw in Worth's basement the night before.
Igor also reveals to Charlotte that, with Darcy's help, they were able to track down Worth and, out of revenge for causing the fire 12 years earlier, Igor has also murdered him and dipped his body in wax. Igor straps Charlotte down on a gurney as he prepares her to be doused alive in wax. At that moment, Ralph, Florence and Winton arrive on the scene. Ralph fights with Igor, but is overpowered. Igor locks Florence and Winton out of his workroom as the two attempt to find a way to break in and save Charlotte and Ralph. The police soon show up after Darcy confesses to helping Igor murder and steal the bodies of people, including the Judge and Joan Gale, who resembled the wax creations destroyed in the fire. They break down the door and Igor fights them before he is shot and falls to his death in a boiling vat of wax. Ralph awakens in time to rescue Charlotte in the nick of time before she is covered in hot wax. Florence turns in her story, only to have her editor and sparring partner Jim finally admit that he loves her and asks her to marry him. Despite also fielding a marriage proposal from the wealthy Winton, Florence agrees to marry Jim.
"Mystery of the Wax Museum" holds a special place in my heart because it was a film that my father and I enjoyed watching together on TCM. Even though my father mentored and influenced my love of movies when I was young, later on, however, he became concerned that I would see life from a limited viewpoint if I didn't have other passions and interests. He came to regret encouraging my interest in movies and television until I moved East for law school and was able to demonstrate that I had other talents and skills to offer than just discussing movies. I now see that my father simply wanted me to continue developing into a multi-dimensional person, and not just another "movie geek," and I'm grateful that he continued to challenge and motivate me. Nevertheless, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" was the rare movie that I watched with my father when I was older which he allowed himself to enjoy with me. My father never liked horror films at all, but for some reason the plot of "Mystery of the Wax Museum" truly engaged him. I think he found the central premise that all the wax statues in Lionel Atwill's museum were actually people dipped in wax to be novel and suspenseful and that the movie had just enough elements of horror without inundating you with it. It didn't wallow in depravity in a manner that turned my father off to other horror films. I think one reason why it didn't become distasteful is because director Michael Curtiz created a strong central protagonist in Glenda Farrell's Florence Dempsey character. Florence is another in Curtiz's unheralded gallery of assertive women whose actions propel the story forward, including Ruth Chatterton in "Female" (1933); Bette Davis in "Front Page Woman" (1935), "Kid Galahad" (1937), and "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939); Miriam Hopkins in "Virginia City" (1940); Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and "Flamingo Road" (1949), and Tina Louise in "The Hangman" (1959), among many others. Even though Farrell is third billed in the credits behind horror icons Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, it's Farrell's movie all the way.
"Mystery of the Wax Museum" is also interesting because, in other horror thrillers, there is normally only one heroine who survives at the fade-out. In Curtiz's movie, we get two heroines for the price of one: Fay Wray, as the traditional damsel-in-distress, and Farrell, as the true heroine of the story who helps shed light on Igor's crimes and undermines his diabolical activities. Wray and Farrell's presence give us an interesting contrast in feminine cinematic traditions as their relationship on-screen has an interesting and novel candor. Even though they're roommates, and essentially friends, they don't exactly approve whole-heartedly with one another's choices in life. Florence thinks Charlotte could do better than become romantically involved with the bland and penniless Ralph. At one point, when Ralph compliments Charlotte on her dress and asks her if he's ever seen it before. Charlotte responds "Yes, I think so," whereupon Florence sarcastically comments, "Thank goodness that's settled." Charlotte resents Florence's disapproval of Ralph and, as a result, becomes unfairly judgmental of Florence's abrasiveness. Charlotte incorrectly surmises Florence by telling her "I don't think you could have a real affair. I don't think you could care for anyone." Florence, non-plussed by Charlotte's put-down, casually retorts, "I've been in love so many times, my heart's calloused...All right, you raise the kids, I'll raise the roof. I'd rather die from...shaking cocktails and bankers than expire in a pan of dirty dishwater."
Charlotte's romantic submissiveness reflects the traditional view of women as wives and homemakers, while Florence's devil-may-care assertiveness demonstrates the unconventional professional horizons that were beginning to open for women in the early 20th Century during the Depression. I like the fact that Curtiz doesn't just give us one principal female character, but two, in order to demonstrate the diversity of feminine personalities and perspectives. As such, it's not surprising that Charlotte ends up being Igor's helpless victim at the end, while Florence continues working hard to undermine his diabolical plot which, in-turn, helps contribute to Charlotte's rescue at the end. Charlotte was unfair about Florence because Florence has the capacity in her heart to care about others, reflected by how she works hard to uncover the truth about Mr. Igor. Florence just doesn't give her heart away easily to people who haven't earned it. At one point, Charlotte tells Florence, "I wish you wouldn't be so sarcastic about Ralph. He's the sweetest kid I know." Florence laughs at Charlotte's simple-minded sentiment and says "I just had a picture of you telling the landlady some day, you didn't have the rent but Ralph was awfully sweet." Charlotte is the type of person with low-standards who wants someone to simply love her unconditionally, whereas Florence wants something more for herself. In the end, we realize Florence was right about Charlotte and Ralph, because it was Ralph's low standards and inattentiveness with regards to his employment with Mr. Igor that ultimately put Charlotte in-jeopardy.
Charlotte thinks Florence is only interested in men with money, but we realize that that isn't true because Florence remains unimpressed when the wealthy Winton falls in love with her dynamic personality and asks her to marry him. The admiring Winton tells Florence as he is driving her to her office, "You like taking chances, don't you?...You go in for dangerous things," causing Florence to shrug, "Darned if I don't!" As Winton continues showering Florence with compliments while driving recklessly, "I never believed there were women like you in the world! You're game and decent!," Florence responds, "And so determined to live I'm gonna get out and take a taxi if you don't watch where you're going!" Winton continues fawning over Florence by telling her "I've only known you for 24 hours, but I'm in love with you." Florence remains unimpressed and cracks, "Doesn't usually take that long. I'll forgive you. You were in a tough spot when I met you." Unlike Charlotte, Florence is a woman who is not easily impressed with someone showering compliments and adoration upon her. She's only interested in a person if they come up to her standards and challenge her to be the best she can be and give as good as she can take.
That's why Florence chooses at the end of the film to marry her contentious newspaper editor Jim, rather than the adoring Winton. Because Jim is as tough and blunt as she is, he doesn't accept second-rate work from her. Jim continually challenges Florence in order to bring out the best in her. In fact, it was Jim's threat of firing Florence that motivated her to look for a juicy story to save her job, which led her to investigate Joan Gale's death and uncover Mr. Igor's nefarious plans for his wax museum. Florence could take the easy way out and marry Winton and live comfortably the rest of her life, but that would be too boring and unfulfilling for her. Even though Jim insists that Florence quit her job when he marries her, I have no doubt that Florence will continue working alongside Jim at the newspaper as they both work together to blow the lid off the seedy underbelly of their great city. Based on the way Florence continually defied Jim's orders throughout the movie, I am sure that Jim doesn't expect Florence to acquiesce and settle into the traditional role of homemaker after they're married. She's too unconventional for that. It's only in retrospect that we realize Mr. Igor never had a chance to succeed with his diabolical plot to populate his wax museum with corpses he has murdered because he was no match for Florence's energy and initiative. She was ultimately going to come out the winner. It's because director Michael Curtiz took the time to develop the nuances and relationships of characters such as Glenda Farrell's dynamic reporter Florence Dempsey in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" that the movie remains as fresh and contemporary as ever, 80 years after it was released.