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March 24, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #116 - The Most Dangerous Game

I'm willing to bet you had to read this story when you were in school.  And, if you were like me, you probably thought it was pretty awesome.  I mean, when you're 15, who doesn't think having a private island where you can hunt your enemies and have servants is an awesome idea?  I know I did.
Even better, the "Language Arts" textbook had pictures along with the story, which I later found came from a 1932 film adaptation of the story.  Produced by the mega-duo of Cooper & Schoedesack - the same dudes who were behind a little flick called King Kong a year later - this brief vision of Richard Connell's fantastic story is one of the most perfect examples of early Hollywood adventure done right.
Tall and heroic leading man Joel McCrea takes the lead as a famed big game hunter who is shipwrecked off of a secluded island.  Once he arrives on that island, he meets an eccentric fellow with wacky hair and a piercing stare, who goes by the name of General Zaroff.  During conversation with Zaroff and his other shipwrecked house guests - a brother and sister played by future Kong co-stars Robert Montgomery and Fay Wray - Zaroff hints about the "Most Dangerous Game" that has fulfilled his thrill-seeking ways.  Soon enough the reveal comes - Zaroff has set traps for ships so he can hunt men on his own private island.
Hunting people has become a common topic in fiction over the years - usually sensationalized with a social message by things like The Running Man or Battle Royale or that Hunger Games thing that's so hot right now - but it's worth noting that The Most Dangerous Game speaks more about human nature than it does about society.  General Zaroff is what we would call a madman, but there's no society to be found at his private resort, unless you count his impressively hairy staff of servants.  When Montgomery's alcohol-enhanced character asks the count to play the piano, he requests that the count doesn't "do one of those highbrow numbers" - and it's as if the character is speaking about the film/story itself.
While future tales about killing as a sport point a finger at cultures, The Most Dangerous Game is more than content to let us know that the man on our screen is quite simply mad.  As Zaroff, Leslie Banks is deliciously sinister, giving the kind of performance that seems like a template for cartoon villains that would come later. (I can't be the only one to think there's a common thread between Zaroff and Dick Dastardly, can I?)  There's a wonderful parallel drawn between Zaroff and McCrea's character - whose motivation for hunting must have simply been that he was a big manly man - because the General seems to hunt for intellectual reasons.
In the meantime, The Most Dangerous Game is also notable because it gives my favorite scream queen, the unforgettable Fay Wray, a chance to do her thing while running around elaborate sets island terrain with McCrea while trying to evade Zaroff, his servants, and their packs of hunting dogs.  There's not a lot of great material for Wray here - she's far more memorable in Kong or Doctor X - but it's pretty easy to see just why she was considered for her most famous role after the producers saw her in action here.  The connections it made a year before Kong was born might be the film's longest lasting legacy, though I don't think it's fair to dismiss this as just a set up for the producer's biggest success.
The film version of The Most Dangerous Game will turn 80 years old this September, but it's still an easy viewing that keeps me smiling and involved.  The action is brisk (for the era), particularly in the second half of the film, and the discussion of morals and battle of wits between Banks and McCrea still works.  It's not one of those highbrow things, but it's still worth my time from an entertainment standpoint.  It's also an interesting picture on many historical levels due to its connections with the story and King Kong, and all these factors work together to keep me coming back to The Most Dangerous Game often.


Hey! Look Behind You! said...

I too loved the short story of this and I completely forgot it was made into a movie.
I need to check this out!

Jose Cruz said...

Very nice, The Mike! I dug this movie from the minute I saw it, and I LOVE Leslie Banks as Zaroff. The "cartoon villain" connection is an apt one... I always thought of Banks going hand-in-hand with Tod Slaughter who, as you might remember, is definitely another cackling ne'er-do-well.

Fun fact: Zaroff's servant Ivan is actually famous African-American actor Noble Johnson (who was also in KONG) in white-face.