The directorial personality of Michael Curtiz remains elusive, but his visual talent is indisputable. Look closely at the lighting and composition of these images from Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). If Curtiz had directed no other films than Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X (1932) – both of which were photographed in the stunning two-strip (red and green) Technicolor process – he would still be cited alongside James Whale, Tod Browning, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Karl Freund as a master of pre-Code horror.
These images are not simply beautiful. They are expressive. They make us share the emotions of leading lady Fay Wray – attraction and repulsion, curiosity and fear – as she is irresistably drawn downward into the world of mad sculptor, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill).
What follows is like a suppressed memory of attempted rape, reexperienced as nightmare. But whose nightmare?
Is it the nightmare of the victim, envisioning her attacker as a hideous monster? Or is it the nightmare of the would-be rapist, a frustrated artist figure, seeing himself as an impossible-to-love monster hiding behind a mask of humanity? Such ambiguities are rampant in pre-Code horror.
The scene becomes increasingly sexual in its implications. The mad sculptor sets in motion an absurdly elaborate machine designed to cover the woman – impliedly stripped naked – with bubbling molten wax.
Consistent with the film’s proto-feminist aspects, it won’t be a man who is principally responsible for Wray’s rescue but rather the film’s other protagonist, a girl reporter played by Glenda Farrell, who defies the male establishment at every turn. Farrell’s unstoppable journalist not only preceded Lois Lane and His Girl Friday‘s Hildy Johnson – she probably helped inspire them.