Murder in the Museum
(1934) defines "museum" as a stationary carnival sideshow of circus freaks &
Such arcades were once encountered in skid row neighborhoods of many major
cities, sometimes run year round, sometimes operated seasonally to employ
carnies indoors during the winter season when travelling shows had to fold up
their tents for a few months.
By summer such "museum" carnies would be on the road again, especially when the
enclosed arcades were in climates where pre-air-conditioning temperatures left
the buildings massively overheated.
Even the burlesque houses had to close or cook the patrons, & it was typical
right up to the 1940s for burlesque theaters to have a "roadshow" that
accompanied travellilng carnivals during the summer. The Murder in the Museum
accurately reflects this interwoven nature of burlesque shows & carnival
So the film incidentally
commemorates a type of business that vanished from the entertainment scene even
before travelling sideshows vanished.
It's too bad the producers couldn't afford a set designer to trick out the
Sphere Museum with taxidermed animals including a Fiji Mermaid, & automata
inviting further coins from patrons to see them operate, & strange objects
generally, as these sideshow museums always displayed a bilzarre collection
We do see a "mustoscope" in the museum, which in such venues generally showed a
sexy dancing girl when you deposited your coin & looked through the little
The assumptions once held about such businesses is that the participants were
all criminal, whether regarded as carnies, gypsies, or museum oddities. This was
partly prejudice & more greatly the reality of fringe societies, & the film is
not far off the mark linking the carnies' museum to a drug dealer.
The film was made due to the success & notoriety of Tod Browning's Freaks
(1932), but unlike Freaks, Murder in the Museum
does not so clearly see the humanity of its "exhibits."
The story is unrelated to
Browning's source, but is instead derived from a pulp novella by E. B.
Crosswhite in Five-Novels Monthly, August 1929.
The short story that inspired Freaks was "Spurs" by Tod Robbins, from a
rather more upscale magazine, Munsey's, February 1923, & among collectors
of supernatural literature, Robbins' short stories have a legendary status.
By contrast, Crosswhite remailns practically unknown even among pulp magazine
collectors, & his novella "The Murder in the Museum" forgotten. Sometimes
posterity chooses correctly!
Since Browning used some real sideshow performers in his film, Melville Shyer
wanted to do likewise, but went about it in the most token manner.
Thus the film features an armless guy who creates paintings with his feet to
sell to gawpers for a quarter. Such "armless painters" or "foot artists" were
regularly featured in carnivals, & Lon Chaney plays such a character in The
Unknown (1927). Unfortunately there is no credit identifying the foot-artist of
Murder in the Museum.
That's to it for "real" freaks, the rest being character actors. Symona Bonifice
as Katara the Seeress. Symona was the recipient of many a pie in the face
working with the Three Stooges. "Elvo the Sheep-headed Cannibal" lives in a box
& growls; we don't get to see him, but we do see Bozo who is not a clown but
another cannibal act.
So too we have the "Living Head in a Box" simple mirror trick which is a good
example of fake sideshow freaks. Other easily tricked out fake freaks that were
standards of the trade, but not chosen for this film, were "the four-legged
lady," "the lady in the fish bowl," & "the headless lady."
Steve Clemente plays "The Great Darro," a knife-tossing Mexican. Clemente
generally played nameless exotic thugs in Z pictures, & frequently made specific
use of his very real knife-throwing skills, including in The Sideshow
(1928), Tex Takes a Holiday (1932), Mask of Fu Manchu (1932),
The Gallant Fool (1933), Fighting Through (1934), It Happened Out
West (1937), Under Two Flags (1936), Mad Youth (1940),
Sunday Round-up (1936), Sing Your Worries Away (1942), Valley of
the Sun (1942), Rookies in Burma (1943), & Murder on the
Waterfront (1943). He's featured as himself in the short subject Unusual
Occupations (1938) about specialists in the film industry, & he was the
witch-king in King Kong (1933).
One realistic sequence is the peepshow with three girls, Fatima, Carmelita, &
Little Egypt, these names being typical for carnival shimmy dancers of the era,
taking their names from much more famous exotic dancers. Original
hoochie-coochie performers for whom the museum girls are named can be seen in
the kinetoscope films Fatima (1897), & Little Egypt
Supposedly, when the film was
re-released later in the 1930s as The Five Deadly Sins, new footage was
added to extend the "sexploitation" sequence. Some of the additional material
can be found recycled in Confessions of a Vice Baron (1943).
The character actors playing the full array of carnies are somewhat captivating
but don't get enough screen time.
Instead we're given a fairly standard who-dunnit. Professor Mysto (Henry B.
Walthall) tries to hold his second-rate troupe together while it is being
investigated for the murder of a politician (Sam Flint). The would-be reformer
was slain while investigating the sideshow's involvement in drug-running.
A reporter (John Harron) falls for the daughter (Phyllis Barrington) of the
police commissioner (Joseph W. Girard). The reporter pursues his own
investigation into the murder.
Old Dark House type shinannigans progress, with standard poverty row thriller
elements including rival gangster shoot-out, heroine threatened, reporter
rushing forth to save her from a lusty villain whose old girlfriend (the gypsy
fortune teller) gets all femme fatal furious.
The carnies aren't well enough utilized as outside characters dominate the
story, but the solution to the crime at least requires a magician's knowledge, &
the film is overall busy enough to hold one's attention, but has to be enjoyed
for what it is, a relic.
As a very primitive precursor to film noir,
The Murder in the Museum has historical consequence merely for
Review by Paghat the Rat Girl