In 1921, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is an exceptionally gifted wax sculptor living in London. He runs his own wax museum, but it isn’t particularly successful. The public wants to see figures of people like Jack the Ripper, not Marie Antoinette, which he considers to be his masterpiece. Eventually, Ivan’s business partner Joe (Edwin Maxwell) gets fed up with losing money on the museum and burns it down for the insurance money, with Ivan inside at the time.
Ivan survives the fire and twelve years later, he sets up shop in New York to open a new wax museum. The fire left his hands and legs badly damaged and Ivan has to direct others on how to make the figures. Just before the museum’s grand opening, all of New York is abuzz with news of the suicide of model Joan Gale. At first it looks like a pretty cut and dry suicide case, but when newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) starts doing a little investigating, she discovers that there’s more to the story.
When Joan’s body disappears from the morgue, officials begin to suspect foul play and the top suspect is George Winton (Gavin Gordon), Joan’s ex-boyfriend. Florence quickly realizes that George is innocent and is determined to find the truth. Florence’s roommate is Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), who is engaged to Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), one of Ivan’s employees. While meeting Charlotte for lunch one day in front of the new wax museum, Florence sneaks inside and notices the new Joan of Arc sculpture bears an uncanny resemblance to Joan Gale. At the same time, Ivan meets Charlotte and is taken by just how much she looks like his beloved Marie Antoinette sculpture. He asks her to pose for him and she agrees.
Florence continues her investigation, and eventually she discovers there is a badly disfigured person working for the museum stealing bodies to be covered with wax and placed in the museum. Of course, the police write her off, but she keeps looking. Meanwhile, Charlotte arrives at the wax museum to meet with Ivan, and things immediately start getting scary. Ivan has no intention of having Charlotte simply pose for him; he plans to kill her and dip her in wax, just like the others. Luckily, Florence shows up just in time to save her friend.
For a long time, Mystery of the Wax Museum was thought to be a lost film. It finally resurfaced in the late 1960s and it’s a good thing it was found because it’s a darn good movie. It’s an excellent blend of horror and mystery with lots of witty lines. I have so much love for Glenda Farrell in it, but Fay Wray felt a little underutilized. And I’ve really got to acknowledge Ray Romero and Perc Westwood who did some really amazing make-up work here and they weren’t even given on-screen credit for it. All in all, a pretty great movie.