I could pretend I had this reason or that reason to bring 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum to your attention this day, such as the unique value that comparing it and its remake and its un-remake have in showcasing the changing preoccupations of the film cultures that produced them; or its particularly salty attitudes as a Pre-Code film with violence, sex, and profanity all sitting out there with no particular interest in pretending to be nice in any way; or how it's one of the most stylistically accomplished films that Michael Curtiz directed prior to his career-shaping collaborations with Errol Flynn. But as good as those reasons would have been, the actual one is much simpler. It's because Mystery of the Wax Museum is the final example in narrative fiction cinema of the largely forgotten red-green Technicolor Process 3, which we've never discussed here before, and by golly, I wanted to correct that.

Because they are just magically weird, these duochromatic Technicolor pictures. They look exactly like they sound they should: instead of the richer, more-alive-than-life depth and richness of 3-strip Technicolor, this process instead only really captures reds, greens, and the colors that exist in the combination of those two. The overall sensation one gets from the format is of a very reddish-brown world with individual objects that are a kind of fetid mint green (it occurs to me that I've never seen an African-American person in a red-green Technicolor film, and I find myself wondering if the process would end up making them look painfully sunburnt). An accurate reproduction of the colors of life, it sure ain't.

Different films make use of the fairly extreme limitations of the technology in different ways. The 1926 silent The Black Pirate, for example, creates a heightened sense of historical distance and fantastical abstraction through its use of color (it was actually shot in Technicolor's Process 2, but the effect as far as what the viewer sees is extremely similar). And of course, there are films that do absolutely nothing interesting with it at all, being shot in color solely because color was a new toy and the gimmick hadn't worn thin yet.

The applications for a horror film are, anyway, pretty obvious: I've already described the greens we see as "fetid", and "sickly" would do just as well. The color palette, in other words, can very easily be stressed to seem rotten and gross and disturbing. This makes it a natural fit for a movie that wants to shock and scare and offend its audience. In fact, Mystery of the Wax Museum (shot by Ray Rennahan) provides an object lesson in the relationship between genre and color style. Like a lot of other early sound horror films, the movie isn't entirely clear on what "horror" actually means, and so it presents what appears to the modern eye like a bafflingly unmotivated combination of what remains legitimately unnerving horror with the fast-talking take-no-prisoners energy and sexiness of a newspaper comedy. Which, if you watch enough '30s B-movies, you'll find that Hollywood filmmakers saw no end to the number of places they could put motormouthed, defiantly sassy lady reporters, their hard-living, cynically charismatic male counterparts, and harried, witheringly sarcastic editors that kept them in line. A weird and perhaps alienating convention: personally, I have nothing but enthusiasm for the dazzling verbal choreography of the newspaper comedies no matter where they show up, but by God, is it ever dated. Something about the weathered misery of the Depression made that character type possible, and the second that His Girl Friday landed in 1940, the whole thing just stopped, only to return in very deliberate genre pastiches thereafter.

The point being, it's a style of writing and acting that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that any culture has ever labeled "horror", and Mystery of the Wax Museum doesn't just have the usual reporter sidekick on hand to provide comic relief: it goes right on ahead and makes her the protagonist of the whole picture, so that the join between genre is prominent in a way it is nowhere else that I can immediately call to mind. Viewing the film from the 21st Century, this can make it feel like something of a train wreck: the movie oscillates between moments of crawling dread and fever-pitch chatter with heedless rhythm, prohibiting the film from ever building up momentum towards one kind of sustained tone. Scenes of disfigured killers silently gliding through the Paris morgue cut in the bluntest, most jarring way with scenes of Glenda Farrell tossing off withering zingers in a police office. Personally, I am very much in love with the film's absolute freedom from any kind of preconception: something about the sheer inappropriateness of moving from a poppy dialogue-driven comedy into what was, by '33 standards, extravagantly violent and disturbing horror actually makes both halves of that equation stand out more spectacularly. Particularly the horror, which feels even more perverse and disorienting when it's contrasted with the insouciance of a newspaper comedy.

Whatever is going on to make it happen, Mystery of the Wax Museum is a pretty great, discomfiting pre-Code horror film. It opens in Paris, 1921, where the genius wax sculptor Ivan Igor ('30s horror mainstay Lionel Atwill) - he's so good at capturing the essence of life in his work that his sculptures all look like living human beings in heavy pancake makeup trying really hard to stand still, and not blink or breathe or move - gets into a fight with his financial backer, Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), that ends with his wonderful but underperforming wax museum on fire. The action then skips ahead to the stroke of midnight at New Year's, as 1934 starts in New York, which presumably means that this 1933 production is thus a work of speculative fiction. Here, fearless reporter Florence Dempsey (Farrell) is getting in the latest fight with her editor, her threatening to quit and him threatening to fire her for what is presumably not anywhere near the first time. Her job hinges on getting a huge scoop, and she manages to find one: the recent high-profile suicide of a society girl may in fact have been nothing like suicide at all, but since her body has just gone missing, nobody can prove that. Florence tracks this story around for a while, and I find myself wondering: was it so easy to get out ahead of the story in 1933? It's called Mystery of the Wax Museum, and unless the mystery is why you'd title the film after a place that factors into the plot of the first half virtually not at all, it pretty instantly makes itself clear that the fake suicide and the missing body have to have something to do with Igor's touring wax museum show, currently set up in New York; and also with his crippled hands and urgent desire to replicate all his old statues at any cost. And once you've concluded that a spate of missing dead bodies is related to a wax museum, the precise nature of that relationship announces itself rather urgently. Were the film's first audiences supposed to notice that? Did they notice that? I absolutely cannot say. The point being, while Florence is mucking around wondering if maybe the wax sculptures… nah, that's crazy… but maaaaybe… Igor has taken a fancy to a certain young lady, Florence's roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), who looks exactly like the Marie Antoinette sculpture that used to be his masterpiece, and which is the only work he hasn't had his lackeys re-create yet.

Curtiz's style was brusque and efficient to the point that he was kind of an asshole about it, and his impulse towards making movies that strike fast and move away quickly resulted, in this case, in one hell of a good horror picture (to be strictly fair, it also resulted in one hell of a shabby horror picture the year before, Doctor X; you can't win 'em all). Compared to other horror movies of the same vintage, the thing one primarily notices about Mystery of the Wax Museum is that it doesn't spare anything: right from the images of wax models melting in a grotesque parody of human decay and rotten, near the very start of the film, the filmmakers pile on images that are more concerned with scoring fast knockouts than sidling around behind us to be creepy and subdued. Mystery of the Wax Museum has many wonderful characteristics, but not subtlety. The camerawork is often heavily artificial and exaggerated, a clear and rather exciting attempt to bring the discordant angles and geometry of Germany Expressionism into the by-necessity well-lit interiors and florid colors of red-green Technicolor. Farrell's performance, which I find absolutely captivating, has all the grace and insinuation of a machine gun nest. The explicit gestures of horror are positively barbarous for '30s standards - I don't offhand know the films re-release history, but I'd be amazed if you could cut it down enough for it to even have a comprehensible plot and still past muster by post-'34 standards.

Rampaging by in just 79 minutes, it's crammed with enough incident that it's pretty easy to overlook some of its most excessive shortcomings: the somewhat nonsensical, coincidence-driven plot (there's a whole thing about Igor trying to get revenge on Worth that doesn't play at all), and the final scene is one of the clunkiest, most false declarations of love in all of '30s cinema. But the look of it is terrific, the speed and spunk are bruisingly fast, and Anton Grot's set designs are wonderfully evocative pulp. It's definitely a programmer first, quality film second, and its remake is better in every respect, but Mystery of the Wax Museum is still one of the punchiest, most watchable '30s horror films made anywhere outside of Universal.