Silver Screen Standards: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932) has a lot in common with King Kong (1933): the same sets, the same producers, one of the same directors, and some of the same cast, but it’s a tighter, low-budget production without the supersized special effects. The great ape movie is the more famous of the two, but this tense jungle thriller is also a true classic; it’s short, lurid, and energetic, a wild ride through the jungle that takes just over an hour to enjoy. The film and its source material, a 1924 short story of the same title by Richard Connell, have inspired quite a few other “hunting people for sport” movies, including an upcoming 2022 adaptation, but it’s hard to beat this Pre-Code version from directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, especially with stars like Joel McCrea and Fay Wray as the elusive prey.
The action begins when big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) barely survives the wreck of a yacht on which he has been traveling with a group of well-heeled gentlemen; everyone else goes down with the ship or gets eaten by sharks. Bob makes it to the shore of a nearby island and there becomes a guest of the elegant but intense Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a fellow big game hunter who rejoices at Bob’s arrival. Zaroff has two other guests, the perpetually inebriated Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong) and his sister, Eve (Fay Wray), the survivors of a previous shipwreck. Eve tries to warn Bob that their host is not what he seems, and Bob soon learns that Zaroff has given up hunting animals and now lures ships to wreck near his island so that he can hunt human beings instead. Bob and Eve are forced to run while Zaroff pursues them around the island with the help of his brutal lackeys (Noble Johnson and Steve Clemente) and bloodthirsty dogs, but this time Zaroff has chosen a victim who knows how to fight back.
While the story could be filmed as an action adventure or thriller, this adaptation leans into the horror and the opportunity to pack the picture with plenty of Pre-Code sex and chills. Fay Wray’s particular peril as the lone Eve in this lethal garden is obvious; the Count and his henchmen leer at her constantly, and the Count repeatedly suggests that his lust will be aroused by his next successful hunt. It’s little wonder that Eve chooses to head into the jungle with Bob rather than stay behind in the fortress, and she keeps up remarkably well considering her completely impractical attire. Of course, Eve and Bob have less attire as the hunt progresses, with Eve’s gown in tatters after a few hours running through the jungle. The Count has declared that he has no intention of killing her, as female prey are off limits to hunters, but his trophy room is gruesome enough as it is, with severed heads from his previous victims on display. The trophy room scenes were originally more extensive and grotesque, but it turned out that even Pre-Code horror had its limits, and shots of Zaroff explaining the tableaux of his preserved human trophies ended up being cut.
The small cast gives the leads enough opportunity to deliver great performances in spite of the short run time, with Leslie Banks absolutely riveting as Count Zaroff. Although the scarred villain has long been a problematic trope, Banks brings an unusual level of realism to the role as a result of a World War I injury that damaged one side of his face. His performance launched the English stage actor into a second career in British films, including roles in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Jamaica Inn (1939), and Henry V (1944). Joel McCrea, tall, muscular, and very American, makes a perfect foil to Banks’ lean Continental Count; his character is not naturally introspective, as we learn in the opening scene, but his narrative arc provides a crash course that disabuses him of his notion that prey enjoy the hunt just as much as the predator. Wray, while the object of all those heated stares from menacing males, still gets to play a sharp observer who brings more than screams to the story, while her King Kong costar Robert Armstrong is perfectly irritating as the drunken brother. The two actors playing Zaroff’s henchmen also deserve attention; both Noble Johnson and Steve Clemente appear in King Kong as native characters but play Russians here. In reality, Johnson was African-American and Clemente Mexican-American, and both of them had long careers that started in the silent era, often in uncredited roles. Neither has any lines in The Most Dangerous Game, but as silent film veterans they don’t need any in order to convey their characters’ dangerous natures.
A double feature of King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game makes for a fascinating comparison of the overlapping sets and cast, but for more Pre-Code jungle horror you might try the silent West of Zanzibar (1928), its remake Kongo (1932), or Island of Lost Souls (1932). For more movies based on the short story, check out A Game of Death (1945), starring John Loder and directed by Robert Wise, or Run for the Sun (1956), starring Richard Widmark and Jane Greer.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.