Warner Brothers Horror, In Living (Two) Color:
Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum
As part of their career retrospective Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, the UCLA Film and Television Archive recently screened a superb pre-Code triple feature: Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and The Kennel Murder Case (1933). If playing “which of these two is not like the other?” the last title would be the odd ball out, as Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum share so many similarities that I almost thought I was watching two adaptations in a row.
These posters are too great, making it impossible to choose just one.
Well, I kind of was. According to Scott MacQueen’s April 1990 American Cinematographer article on Mystery of the Wax Museum, that picture was indeed intended as a follow-up to Doctor X upon the latter’s lucrative debut in August 1932. In the early 1930s, Warner Brothers hopped on the horror train when musicals began to wane in popularity, and the results in these two cases were rather curious entries combining the now-faded tinges of early two-color Technicolor, gruesome thrills, wild stories, and… wisecracking reporters?! Doctor X features a suspicious research scientist and his equally dubious team, all being investigated in connection with mysterious killings. Naturally, the reveal occurs during a murder re-enactment gone horribly wrong – and, spoiler alert – fake skin is involved. In Mystery of the Wax Museum, the madman is a wheelchair-bound sculptor who turns to a sinister solution to recreate his masterpieces after his wax gallery is torched and his hands are burned: stealing corpses and targeting people whose appearance match his vision to enshrine in wax. Yes, both stories are that bizarre.
All that said, below are select parallels Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum share – and how they differ in the details.
No, this isn’t the movie in which Fay Wray plays Lionel Atwill’s daughter – that would be creepy. But that’s really Wray, posing as a Marie Antoinette wax figure in Mystery of the Wax Museum.
Twinkle Twinkle Frequent Co-Stars
Besides Curtiz, many of the same names pop up in Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, including cinematographer Ray Rennahan, art director Anton Grot, and leads Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, playing slightly sketchy scientist father and daughter in the former and deranged artist and almost-victim in the latter. Atwill characterized men of varying degrees of insanity in each movie, a type of dark role he excelled at during this period, while Wray perfected her shrieking damsel in distress just before the public witnessed her most famous screaming lass in 1933’s King Kong. Fun fact: Atwill and Wray appeared together in another film cut from a similar horror cloth, 1933’s The Vampire Bat, released in between Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum.
“All in Technicolor!”
Two-color Technicolor produced an array of faded pistachios, dull peaches, and murky tans in both films, a palette that pairs well with the grim plots, though we do occasionally witness some more vibrant tones, which help inject life into the pictures. In my opinion, the color was most effective during Mystery of the Wax Museum’s early wax fire scene, in which the camera remained trained upon various figures slowly singeing, their peculiar likeness and hues melting away into pallid, viscous liquid during what felt like a purposefully protracted sequence. As Technicolor’s tepid tints amplified the wax figures’ realistic features (some were indeed living, breathing actors – not the burning ones, though!), the two-tone process also created a heightened sense of discomfort as the figures burned.
There’s something slightly foreboding about this otherwise romantic shot of Lee Tracy and Wray, but I can’t put my finger on it…
Reporters Save the Day!
Because both films were produced by Warner Brothers, you can count on the studio incorporating their standard gritty, urban house style somewhere. Enter: wisecracking reporters. Warners cast two sharp-witted contract players for both roles: Lee Tracy in Doctor X and Glenda Farrell, who would go on to play Torchy Blane in the late 1930s, in Mystery of the Wax Museum. As much as I enjoy Tracy’s mile-a-minute quips, I prefer Farrell’s unruffled ingenuity and slick witticisms.
WTF Special Effects
Watching Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) apply synthetic flesh in Doctor X is akin to Fredric March’s transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) but somehow more menacing CAUSE THIS GUY JUST CREATED A NEW, WORKING HAND FOR HIMSELF.
In a similar vein, Ivan’s (Lionel Atwill) 3rd act scorched face reveal in Mystery of the Wax Museum, which apparently horrified Fay Wray in real life, could have served as a precursor to Freddy Krueger’s hideous scalded mug.
Arson and Dope and Dead Bodies, Oh My!
As far as pre-Code moments go, it’s hard to beat Farrell’s casual aside, “How’s your sex life?” to a cop taking peeks at a dirty magazine in Mystery of the Wax Museum. While the crowd in the theater expected some lascivious pre-Code quips, this one elicited audible gasps. Other honorable mentions in this picture include: Farrell jacking bottles from a coffin full of booze as the police turn a blind eye and Sparrow (Arthur Edmund Carewe), clearly addicted to some kind of substance, crumbling under police interrogation. Besides Tracy’s frisky flirtations in Doctor X, one line in particular, “Were the murdered women… attacked?” is strongly suggestive, so you can bet it met the wrath of several censor boards. Speaking of…
Warners vs. the Production Code Administration (PCA)
With comparable plot lines featuring murder, shocking effects, and immorality, it would be reasonable to expect the industry and state censors to react similarly to both pictures, right? Sure, and they did – for a while. (Just a head’s up, I’m going to start with Mystery of the Wax Museum below, which was released after Doctor X, and the dates will bounce around a bit, so bear with me.)
I don’t recall actually seeing any of the corpses’ faces in Mystery of the Wax Museum, but sliding a body out the window was a sore spot for some censor boards.
Mystery of the Wax Museum’s gruesomeness initially concerned the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), but they ultimately found the movie “very acceptable entertainment… and pretty well devoid of censorship difficulties” in December 1932. Tell that to B.O. Skinner, Ohio’s Director of Education, who wrote Warners a perturbed note upon his review in February 1933:
We are, as you know, approving this film with eliminations. I wish, however, to register a formal protest against the film. It contains so many elements we find objectionable, as setting fire to the museum to obtain insurance, naming a poison and telling how it could be taken to produce death, using of dope and also the general theme of horror. I feel it would be much better for all of us if the production of this type of film would be discontinued.
New York, Quebec, and British Columbia cut scenes largely in tune with Ohio’s complaints, but all in all, the edits weren’t staggering, and the picture passed without eliminations in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Chicago (given an “Adult Permit” in the latter). Despite Ohio’s opposition, the PCA approved Mystery of the Wax Museum in 1936 when Warners requested a Code certificate for re-release.
One year later, the studio inquired about a reissue for Doctor X, but this time Warners was flat out denied. Looking back during the movie’s pre-production in March 1932, the SRC’s Jason Joy remarked that Doctor X’s script, handled more as a murder mystery, would be satisfactory “in ordinary circumstances,” but recently boards were excising scenes involving operations, morgues, and other frightening imagery. Despite the disclaimer, Joy felt “there is little cause for concern on our part that we will have another Frankenstein on our hands.”
The SRC offered no suggestions on the horror front after reviewing the finished picture in May 1932, and Doctor X was approved without eliminations in Ohio, New York, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Quebec, while recording only minor changes in Chicago, Australia, and Ontario; on the whole, the picture notched fewer concerns than Mystery of the Wax Museum would about six months later.
With this in mind, it’s quite curious that in 1937 the PCA’s Vincent Hart deemed Doctor X “un-Codeable” due to its “gruesome theme,” and thus requested that Warners withdraw their request as the film wouldn’t be approved for re-release. So what made Mystery of the Wax Museum, originally more harshly judged by state boards, satisfactory to the PCA in 1936 and the similarly themed Doctor X, which more easily passed censor entities, unacceptable just one year later? We’re talking the PCA here, so your guess is as good as mine; I got relatively equal cases of the creeps watching both.
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.