Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is the most successful of the Sidney Toler films featuring Honolulu's most famous fictional detective. Although it's certainly not a big-budget extravaganza, the script, direction, and acting take good advantage of a constantly surprising location on a stormy night for murder.
Many will compare Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum to the Warner Oland film, Charlie Chan's Secret. Clearly, Wax Museum is an attempt at exploring the same formula in a different way. For my money, Wax Museum is the better film.
As the film opens, Steve McBirney is sentenced to prison in part on Charlie Chan's testimony. McBirney threatens Chan who shows no loss of composure. But as McBirney is being taken off to prison, he makes an escape and finds his way to the wax museum where the doctor and his assistant use plastic surgery to disguise fugitives.
To Charlie's surprise, the doctor makes a strong bid for Charlie to talk about an old case (Joe Rocke's conviction that Charlie thinks was a mistake) on the radio at the wax museum that night by approaching number two son, Jimmy. Charlie already suspects the doctor is helping criminals and agrees to go in order to see what he can observe.
McBirney has a dastardly plan in mind for Charlie. Will Charlie survive?
At the wax museum, things are seldom as they seem. The mix-ups add to the mystery and the humor with Charlie's law student son as the fall guy for many of the jokes. There's also an element of satire as the script puts in some pretty unexpected twists and turns (including a rare poison).
Before 64 suspenseful minutes end, you'll have a new respect for what can be done with a noir film to add humor and dark mysteries.