THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME—-1932, a watershed year for pushing movie boundaries, includes in its roll call the first of many adaptations of Richard Connell’s classic, influential 1924 thriller, one of the most-read short stories ever written. If you are a fan of The Hunger Games, you owe some of your Katniss fealty to this musty, creepy grandpa.*
It takes but three minutes longer than an hour to relate what follows when a shipwreck puts adventurous hunter Joel McCrea on a small island with a frightened damsel (Fay Wray), a noisy drunk (Robert Armstrong), mute servants, a dozen Great Danes and a certifiable lunatic, the exiled Cossack ‘Count Zaroff’, played by Leslie Banks like Exaggerated Theatrical Mannerism and Florid Enunciated Diction were endangered species with one wacky chance to plead their case.
Directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack spent $219,000 of producer Merian C. Coopers (and David O. Selznick’s) money that wasn’t going into the simultaneously shot King Kong, using not just actors Wray and Armstrong from the ape epic but some of its sets and art direction backdrops as well (cue the foul swamp and that chasm-crossing tree trunk). Between Kong’s persistence and the Count’s insistence, conjoined screaming fits must have left 24-year old Fay hoarse. Handsome and personable, young McCrea makes a viable hero. Scars and partial facial paralysis added a sinister aspect to 42-year-old Englishman Leslie Banks face, but what explains his bonkers over-the-top performance? Acting later, he’d tone things down, but his Count Zaroff is straight from Camp Loonytoons.**
With Noble Johnson and Steve Clemente as the unquestioning servants to Zaroff’s twisted wishes. Remade and ripped off numerous times, it is archaic fun. Things to consider before the handshake and welcome cocktail, right after the 12-foot iron door is closed and locked behind you: host has (1) impeccable manners (2) puts a delirious spin on every syllable (3) is ‘European’, of the had-to-flee variety (4) has a large floor-standing globe and plays classical piano (4), is a bachelor, wears a tuxedo when there are only three guests and owns–not dogs, but hounds (6) does all this in a castle. Applaud the trophy room, and that truly warped mural on the stairway (following stone stairway to bedroom should be clue). What is it with remote Malay islands? (try smuggling and find out)
*A chunk of this films more gruesome footage was excised and lost, yet enough fright remained for the shivering crowds and quivering censors in 1932, when they were not already torqued by these morsels: Bird Of Paradise (also with the 28-year old McCrea), Scarface, Freaks, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Island Of Lost Souls, Murders In The Rue Morgue, Red Dust, Tarzan The Ape Man, White Zombie and The Sign Of The Cross.
** Banks joined Britain’s famous Essex Regiment in WW1, and had the bad luck to go ‘over the top’ with them on July 1, 1916, the tragic bungle otherwise known to history as First Day On The Somme.