The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Joel McCrea and Fay Wray run for their lives in this 1932 thriller about a maniacal Count who lives to hunt “the most dangerous game!” It’s an adaptation of one of the most anthologized short stories ever, Richard Connell’s 1924 tale “The Hounds of Zaroff.”
The Most Dangerous Game was made on the RKO-Pathe Stage 12 “jungle set” at the same time that King Kong (1933) was being filmed there, too. The movies share some of the same actors and crew, most notably the excellent screamer Fay Wray, the composer, Max Steiner, and the producer/director Merian C. Cooper. He directed Kong and produced this movie.
Even some of the same sound effects were used in both films: in Game during a shipwreck scene, drowning men shriek and scream–the same shrieks can be heard when King Kong shakes some sailors off of a log.
The Most Dangerous Game is a melodramatic thriller with heavy foreshadowing, heavier acting, and beautifully mannered cinematography. I usually go for the lighter 1930s fare, but I like this movie because of its star, Joel McCrea. He’s my favorite!
Anyway, I’ll try to keep my crush from completely overtaking this review. McCrea was a star-hunk in the early 1930s, and he’d just made a big hit in Bird of Paradise (1932), another pre-Production Code jungle adventure/romance that required him to run around an exotic paradise in tattered clothes. Later on, McCrea would move from these dramatic romances to screwball comedies, thrillers, and dramas before switching almost exclusively to westerns after 1946.
He became a real life cowboy, slowly but surely acquiring a three-thousand-acre ranch where he and his wife, actress Frances Dee, raised their three children. He and Frances were married for 57 years until Joel died in 1990. Fun fact: Their son, Jody McCrea, played Bonehead in the Beach Party movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.
But back to McCrea’s early life and career. The Most Dangerous Game came when McCrea was 28, before he married Frances, and before he became a comedic gem and authentic cowboy.
So, the movie. There’s a bunch of guys drinking on a yacht in the Caribbean. One of them, Doc, (standing in the black jacket) is worried because the captain acts worried, and they’re apparently sailing though some of the most shark-infested, coral-reef crowded waters in the world.
The other guys tell Doc to drink up and stop worrying, but he calls on Robert (Joel McCrea), to give his opinion. Robert is a famous big game hunter and author, so surely he will know what to do.
Robert comes bounding into the room with photographs of their latest adventures. He isn’t very concerned, but he’s very excited about the photographs. And very cute in his crisp white outfit.
The captain comes to tell them that the channel markers aren’t in the right place, at least according to every chart he’s ever seen. But the men decide to sail on, anyway. What does the ship’s captain know, after all?
Then we get into some clumsy foreshadowing that is nonetheless entertaining. (In fact, a lot of this movie seems heavy-handed and overly-dramatic, but that only adds to its charm.)
Doc is dealing with a philosophical crisis about their hunting hobby. He asks Robert:
Hmmm…never, Robert? Are you sure? Because the movie is called “the most dangerous game.”
But Doc digs deeper, and Robert replies with boyish confidence:
As soon as he says, “Nothing could ever change that!” the ship runs aground on a coral reef, drawn to disaster by those misplaced channel lights. The timing with Robert’s words is amusing, and it would be even funnier except the shipwreck is pretty chilling. It’s not Foreign Correspondent plane-crash-terrifying, but it’s close, and quite impressive for 1932.
The poor souls in the bowels of the ship perish quickly once water hits the boilers, then the whole ship explodes, throwing men and debris into the ocean.
Robert and a few others survive the explosion, but then this horrific shark swims into view, and pulls a sailor down, down, down:
Then it heads for Robert and his friend. Robert tries to save him, but he’s no match for a shark.
Just so we aren’t confused, blood pours from the shark’s jaws in a horrible cloud…
Don’t worry, the movie doesn’t end here with Joel McCrea losing to a shark. He swims away, barely reaching shore where he collapses in an exhausted, dramatic pile. When he wakes up, he stumbles through the jungle towards a massive stone fortress. I’m just glad he managed to keep his tie knotted throughout that ordeal.
He makes his way to the door with its grotesque knocker:
…and walks inside. He may not be the brightest bulb, because he isn’t at all worried about entering this castle on an apparently deserted island, with its horrible door knocker and massive door that swings silently open.
He steps inside, his white clothes literally glowing in the dimly lit hall.
He doesn’t notice this creeper closing the door behind him until it’s too late–he’s locked in! Fun fact: the actor playing Ivan, the mute servant, is Noble Johnson, an African-American actor and producer who was great friends with Lon Chaney. According to imdb, this is the earliest known instance of a black actor working in “whiteface.” Ivan is supposed to be a Russian exile from the Revolution.
Like Fay Wray, Johnson was also in King Kong; he played “Native Chief.
Then an impeccably dressed Russian with scars and scary eyes smoothly descends the stone stairs. It’s Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is strangely thrilled to hear about the shipwreck.
You can watch Robert’s pained arrival on the beach, his trek to the castle, and his encounter with Ivan and the Count here.
So now we have a dark castle, a very suspicious “Cossack” with evil written all over him, and a giant servant/henchman in 15th century serf’s garb. Oh, and Joel McCrea in a ripped shirt.
Robert explains the situation to the Count, who bemoans the dangerous waters and explains that shipwrecks are frightfully common around the island. He currently has two survivors from the last wreck still staying with him.
Robert is puzzled but not alarmed by his situation. In fact, he and the count have a pleasant chat full of witty remarks and smiles. Robert laughs about the state of his clothes, the Count mocks his servant, and you forget that Robert just survived a shipwreck that killed everyone else on board.
Robert says something along the lines of “I am rather shaken up,” before going gamely off to change his clothes. First things first, you know, old chap.
Robert does pause after seeing the grotesque tapestry on the wall with another beast/unconscious woman theme. He looks back at his host with something like confusion, but this feeling doesn’t linger once he’s in a fresh set of hunting whites (that fit perfectly, natch.)
He rejoins the Count and his guests, Eve (Fay Wray), and her drunken brother (Martin Trowbridge).
The brother is wasted, but Eve is perfectly alert and a little on edge. She explains that she and her brother, plus two sailors, were the only survivors of a shipwreck. They can’t leave the island because the Count’s only boat is damaged.
She’s not a dummy, though. She knows something is off. Later she gets Robert alone in a corner, and shows him the fierce dogs beneath the window. She also tells him that the two sailors haven’t been seen in three days, that the Count has a secret trophy room, and that the boat isn’t damaged at all…uh oh.
After their little tête-à-tête, the Count regales them all with the story of how he became obsessed with hunting, then bored with it when he realized he was better than any beast. Until, that is, he discovered a new animal to hunt, which he claims is “the most dangerous game!” Robert naively asks, “You mean, tigers?” You can watch the scene here. The Count promises to tell them more later, which does not bode well.
Robert and Eve retire, but Eve’s brother stays with the Count, getting drunker and drunker as the Count invites him to tour his trophy room…
Later that night, Robert is awakened by Eve at his door. Her brother never came upstairs, and she’s terribly worried. I’m more intrigued by the magical candles that are able to project an astonishing amount of light in very controlled directions.
The cinematography and lighting is beautiful, if not always perfectly motivated or realistic. But who wants realism in a movie like this? Give me atmosphere, like the shadows of the many-paned window cast on the stone wall behind Eve and Robert, and the gorgeous spotlight illuminating them in that blackness.
They make their way to the (unlocked!) trophy room and are astounded, shocked, disgusted! by what they find. Human heads mounted on the wall and suspended in glass jars!
People! People are the most dangerous game! Fun fact: the first version of this film had a much longer, more horrific trophy room scene with more bodies and greater detail about how they were killed. But preview audiences actually got up to leave when they saw it, so the filmmakers toned it down.
But before Eve and Robert can do more than register this, the Count and his servants enter the trophy room carrying a body on a litter. It’s Eve’s brother; the Count has hunted and killed him. So naturally Eve runs out of the shadows where she was successfully hiding, and begins beating on the Count’s chest with her tiny, dainty fists. She’s carried away by a servant, and Robert is restrained with a heavy-duty belt.
The Count and Robert have a heated conversation wherein the Count explains the rules of his game. He moved the channel markers so that ships would wreck and provide him with a constant supply of prey. He gives each person a knife and a head start, and if his prey can stay alive until dawn he lets them go free. Of course, no one ever has survived the night…
There is a lot of intense staring, beautifully shot by cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard to emphasize Robert’s young beauty and the Count’s monstrous visage/soul.
The left side of Leslie Banks’ face had been partially paralyzed after he was wounded in WWI, and Gerrard emphasizes this imbalance and his bulging eyes to make him look even more demented.
Dear Joel McCrea looks handsome even in this trying situation. Again, I’m glad he took the time to perfectly knot his tie when Eve woke him up.
So Robert is to the be Count’s prey! The Count is thrilled about this since Robert is a famous hunter and it will be a real test for the Count’s prodigious abilities.
Robert is about to be set loose upon the island when Fay Wray comes running into the scene.
The Count has already discussed how he likes to “love” after hunting: “The blood is quickened by the kill. One passion builds upon another. Kill, then love! When you have known that, you have known ecstasy!” So Eve is pretty freaked out.
Upstanding gentleman Robert can’t leave her behind knowing what fate awaits her, even though she’ll surely slow him down and probably get them both killed.
I’m mostly confused by her inability to find anything more suitable to wear. I know I’d try to find a jacket, at the very least.
But I suppose a sensibly clad heroine tramping through the jungle doesn’t have quite the same pizzazz as a stupidly clad heroine tripping through the jungle in a diaphanous evening gown (costumes for this film were designed by Walter Plunkett.
So off they go into the jungle. First, they try to escape, but they’re hemmed in by cliffs and ocean on all sides.
Robert never lets the pressure of the situation erode his chivalry or courtesy. He helps little Eve over tricky spots, pulls her up steep climbs, and never once uses her as a decoy so that he can escape. But surely he was tempted. She really isn’t much help at all, though she looks pretty as she clings to Robert.
Eve has a breakdown on a cliff when she sees how bad their plight really is, but Robert manfully comforts her and they stride off again.
Next they try a man trap with a tree and hidden vines, and they climb up and down the island and hide in caves, and cross over gullies, and try to outmaneuver the Count on his own island. Robert points at things, and Eve looks at them.
The set is quite amazing, isn’t it? It could all be re-arranged to create new vistas, and it’s very clever and thrifty of RKO to film this movie and King Kong on the same set at the same time.
A particularly thrilling moment comes when the Count corners his two victims in a cave.
Look at Fay Wray’s reaction to the arrow! You can watch the scene here.
Once Count Zaroff’s hunting dogs are loosed things really get wild. Eve and Robert are briefly treed, allowing Robert to muse on his hunting past:
Doc would have been so proud. Robert then announces to a bewildered Eve that he plans to become a vegan if they ever get out of this. Not really, but he does have a change of heart about his chosen career.
Originally the filmmakers wanted to use leopards instead of dogs, but they eventually decided on using hounds. Fun fact: the Great Danes used in this film belonged to comedian Harold Lloyd.
Some things happen and Eve is captured, allowing for these priceless close-ups of victim and villain. Amazing.
But never fear, you can’t keep Joel McCrea down for long. He’s too handsome. And he’d never let anything bad happen to Eve, especially not when her dress is all wet and torn.
I won’t spoil the ending–go watch it!