The Most Dangerous Game was a movie that kept cropping up as a mention in Famous Monsters of Filmland, not only for its horrific elements, but mainly due to its close kinship with King Kong. It was shot simultaneously with the giant ape epic, and shares sets, stars, sound effects, and to a degree (and to keep the ‘s’ motif going) a score.
Based on Richard Connell’s justly famous short story of the same name, Game is pretty much glorious pulp personified. In the story, big game hunter Sanger Rainsford falls off a yacht at night, but manages to swim to a nearby island, which turns out to be occupied by the suave Russian General Zaroff, who recognizes Rainsford immediately. An avid hunter himself, Zaroff has hunted every animal on Earth, until he felt there was nothing to challenge him anymore – until he hits upon the idea of hunting “the most dangerous game” – humans – on his deserted jungle island. When Rainsford refuses to join Zaroff in his hunt, he instead becomes the hunted – and Zaroff proclaims that he has, at last, found a worthy prey.
Connell’s story is lean and mean, and the movie version – even at an abbreviated 63 minutes – seems almost bloated in comparison. Joel McCrea, at the very beginning of his days as a leading man, plays the rechristened Bob Rainsford. Instead of his accidental fall overboard, the movie gives an overt demonstration of Zaroff’s villainy only referred to in the story: Light buoys marking a clear channel that instead lead to ship-killing reefs, providing Zaroff with castaways for his hunt. Bob is the only one to make it through the sharks to shore.
Bob discovers Zaroff’s castle, and it’s there we find the other characters: Zaroff himself (now promoted to a Count), played by Leslie Banks in his screen debut; two other castaways, Fay Wray as Eve (providing the female character every producer has insisted upon, in every story, forever) and Eve’s drunken brother Martin played by Robert Armstrong – both appearing during off days on King Kong, probably when effects shots were being arranged. And Zaroff’s chief henchman, an enormous Cossack named Ivan, whom I kept staring at, knowing I recognized him, but not quite placing him. Finally checked IMDb and holy crap, it’s Noble Johnson, also in King Kong and a whole slew of other movies – in whiteface.
It’s during this sort of cocktail party – although it’s Martin doing all the drinking – that all the backstory is taken care of. Another of the subtleties of Connell’s story made overt here is Zaroff telling of the time he was injured by a charging cape buffalo, a head wound that nearly killed him – a very visible scar on his forehead that Zaroff rubs when stressed. Shortly after the injury is when Zaroff formulates his sick plan, and the movie plainly picks that injury as the cause. Leslie Banks had himself received a head injury in World War I that paralyzed one side of his face. It’s not something that you notice, I’m sure that Banks worked for years to overcome and minimize it, but he and director Ernest B. Schoedsack make good use of it in fairly ingenious and subtle ways.
The presence of a woman in the story is not so tacked-on as one would first suspect. Eve proves herself to be a pretty savvy lady; all throughout the fake cocktail party she finds ways to warn Bob that things are not on the up-and-up. And since Zaroff is being very cagey about revealing his new, exciting sport, it’s enough for Bob and Eve to go prowling in the middle of the night and sneak into Zaroff’s trophy room, which is forbidden, unless you’re about to go hunting with him. That’s where the horrorshow comes in, as they find a human head stuffed and mounted on the wall, and another pickling in an enormous jar. This is, of course, when Zaroff returns from hunting Martin.
The Most Dangerous Game loses almost ten minutes of its running time here, apparently. Zaroff was to show off many of his more elaborate trophies, and relate how they died, which was a bit too much for the audiences of ’32. What is left is Zaroff assuring Bob and Eve that Martin was quite unintoxicated when the hunt began, as “Spending a couple of hours in this room has a most sobering effect.” Rainsford, naturally, wants nothing to do with this, and thus winds up the next quarry. Eve demands to go with him, and Bob, figuring she’ll likely be as safe with him as with this bunch of villains, agrees to take her along.
Once at this point, the movie hits the ground running, much like our two heroes, and rarely pauses. The hunt is a pretty carefully considered, exciting sequence, and it’s here that you’re going to see a lot of familiar scenery, particularly that huge fallen log bridging a ravine. RKO was in dire financial straits in ’32, and Game‘s budget was slashed. Schoedsack and Cooper’s solution was to recycle and redress the jungle sets of King Kong. It got the movie made, and the monkey movie would pull RKO’s fat from the fire. So many major movie studios owed their continued existence to to genre movies, it’s amazing they still didn’t get any respect until the late ’70s.
Eve’s demand to go with Bob and, in fact, her tagging along with him is an oh-come-on moment (especially since we’re not sure how she got out of her room), but an earlier exchange in the cocktail party, where the drunken Martin promises Zaroff a good time when they get home, wine women, and then some hunting, oh boy, provides a chilling undercurrent for the rest of the movie. Zaroff proclaims – and Bob agrees – that Martin has it backwards. First, the hunt, then, in the ecstasy of triumph, it is time for love. Given that Fay Wray – and she has rarely looked lovelier – is clad in the most diaphanous gowns Pre-Code would allow, there is a nasty sexual subtext to Zaroff’s stalking the pair. He’s made it pretty plain what will happen to her if he wins.
One of the major reasons Most Dangerous Game still feels exciting and almost modern is the Max Steiner score. A fully scored movie was pretty rare in those days – look at the previous year’s Dracula and you find a movie with music only at the beginning and the end. The rules of talkies were being created even as the movies were shot, and it was felt that music with no obvious onscreen source would only confuse the audience. I try to imagine Game without Steiner’s accompaniment and it is a much less exciting movie. Legend has it the original score for Kong was pulled and Steiner asked to create another quickly, so it’s possible to hear some of the DNA of the Kong score in the hunt music.
Anyway, The Most Dangerous Game is great pulp. With its beautiful and righteous Western protagonists, gang of sketchy Eastern types, and wonderful production values, it would make an excellent, if xenophobic, double feature with The Mask of Fu Manchu.
No trailer, but here’s a colorized clip, featuring Noble:
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