The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack were the perfect team to film Richard Connell’s chilling short story about a crazed Cossack aristocrat who pursues human game on a remote island. They were both well-traveled adventurers –Cooper a bomber pilot in World War I and, later, a Brigadier General, and Schoedsack a former combat cameraman and rescue mercenary. Both were visionary film-makers who collaborated on several successful and critically-accepted silents and talkies, including the seminal giant monster movie King Kong (RKO, 1933).  Their film adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game” (RKO, 1932) works for many reasons: Schoedsack timed the film at a frantic pace and short running time of 63 minutes (the film screens a bit like a serial). Leslie Banks is both terrific and menacing as Count Zaroff, and solid method acting is provided by likable and underrated 26-year old actor Joel McCrea, as Bob Rainsford, and Fay Wray, as Eve Trowbridge (she screams in this film too). Max Steiner’s effective score integrated the “Russian Waltz”, and a literate screenplay adaptation was developed by James Ashmore Creelman of Connell’s O’Henry prize-winning story.  

It’s curious that Connell himself wasn’t asked to adapt his story to film.  He was an accomplished screenwriter and penned several screenplays in the 1920’s through the 1940’s.  The Bogart and Edward G. Robinson film “Brother Orchid” (Warner Bros.,1940) was both written as a short-story in 1938, and later adapted by Connell.  In 1941, Connell was nominated for an  Academy Award for best original story with Robert Presnell, for the Frank Capra film “Meet John Doe” (Warner Bros., 1941), but lost the award to Harry Segall’s “Here Come Mr. Jordan” (Columbia, 1941).  In viewing “Brother Orchid” a comedy-crime drama and “Meet John Doe”, Capra slapstick, it’s virtually impossible to recognize that Connell was the same guy who penned a grisly story about a serial killer-hunter stalking shipwrecked desolates.  Dangerous Game is no doubt his most celebrated work and spawned at least eight film adaptations (20th Century Fox’s “Predators” made in 2010 is a loose re-working of the tale), a forgettable episode of Fantasy Island starring Hugh O’Brian as a hunter who is hunted, and a terrific radio broadcast starring Orson Welles as Zaroff and Keenan Wynn as Rainsford.

“The Most Dangerous Game” (also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff”) was published in Collier’s Weekly on January 19, 1924. Connell was successful both as a journalist and as a screenwriter.  He won the O’Henry Memorial Prize twice, for “A Friend of Napoleon” appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in 1923, and “The Most Dangerous Game” in 1924. During one 15 year span he published 4 novels and 4 collections of short stories. 

Dangerous Game is short at less than 8,500 words.  I first read the story in junior high school and loved it.  It is easy to read and pure escapist entertainment.  Pressed for categorizing the story, I’d lump it into the adventure genre.  It reads a bit like some of the pulp men’s adventure magazine stories popular in the 1940’s and 50’s (Weasels Ripped My Flesh).  Connell’s story no doubt inspired some of these tales of stranded men meeting doom by evisceration from rats, weasels, driver ants or, in the adventure spirit — “Marabunta”.  Connell may have taken inspiration from myriad Safari publications and films about the Dark Continent, prevalent in pop-culture in the 1920’s.  

Connell did his research on the Cape Buffalo, who big-game hunter Rainsford refers to as the most dangerous of all big game. 

“That Cape buffalo is the largest I ever saw.”

“Oh, that fellow. Yes, he was a monster.”

“Did he charge you?”

“Hurled me against a tree,” said the general. “Fractured my skull. But I got the brute.”

“I’ve always thought,” said Rainsford, “that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game.”

For a moment the general did not reply; he was smiling his curious red-lipped smile. Then he said slowly, “No. You are wrong, sir. The Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous big game.” He sipped his wine. “Here in my preserve on this island,” he said in the same slow tone, “I hunt more dangerous game.”

Indeed, the Cape Buffalo is widely considered the most dangerous undulate in the world and the most feared animal on the African Continent, allegedly being more dangerous than lion, leopard, elephant and rhinoceros. The Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is described by wild animal expert Roger Caras as “a particularly cunning ungulate, with great slashing horns, a penchant for lying in ambush, and a very short temper.” Apparently they are hard to kill as well, as Caras notes “it takes great skill to to get a bullet into a fatal spot when the head is down with its spread of heavy, deflecting horns meeting across the skull”. Caras goes on to describe sensationalized accounts of Cape Buffalo driving men into trees and holding them at bay and killing them in a most unorthodox way: “Parts of the body that were exposed to the buffalo were rasped clear of flesh by the animal’s file-like tongue.”  No wonder Zaroff started pursuing human game.

For my taste, Cooper and Schoedsack’s film version is the best. It was produced as a motion picture for RKO by David O. Selznick and Merian C. Cooper, directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel from a screenplay prepared by James Ashmore Creelman.  Many erroneous sources state the film was made at the same time as “King Kong”, but this is not true with Dangerous Game being released in 1932 and Kong in 1933. However, in many ways, Dangerous Game served as a clean inspirational canvas for Kong.  Glimpses ofKong abound in Dangerous Game, from Fay Wray’s signature scream, the Fog Hollow set, a soon-to-be legendary chasm marked and traversed by a fallen tree, rapid editing and pacing, and a mysterious island punctuated with danger. 

The film differs from the short story in several areas. In the film, Rainsford does not fall off the boat, but rather he is a victim of Zaroff’s trap where moved channel buoys result in a crashed boat.  The film introduces the ubiquitous and nefarious villains the shark and crocodile.  There is no girl in the story.  In the film, we have Fay Wray, as a brunette.  The addition of a woman to the film seems to result in Zaroff being more perverse.  He’s turned on by the hunt and the girl.  He doesn’t kill attractive Eve Trowbridge, but rather keeps her around.  Zaroff is a count in the film and a general in the story.  

The film adds additional characters and expands on the ending.  However, both story and film move at a rapid clip.  The story is a page-turner and the last 30 minutes of the film move. The second half of the film is a non-stop chase analogous to the Skull Island scenes in “King Kong”. The pacing is terrific.  Dangerous Game benefits from eerie cinematography by veteran DOP Henry Gerrard, ASC, known for “Of Human Bondage” (RKO, 1934) and second unit director Robert DeGrasse, ASC, who later worked on two well-made Val Lewton films “The Leopard Man” (RKO, 1943) and “The Body Snatcher” (RKO, 1945).  The point-of-view closeup shots of Zaroff and his fleeing prey remind me a lot of a few clips from Willis O’Brien footage from Creation (abandoned RKO project, 1931), where the story’s heros are pursued by prehistoric beasts. 

The jungles of Dangerous Game (moved from the Caribbean to the East Indies?) were conceptually rendered by artist Mario Larrinaga, who worked with Willis O’Brien in visualizing “King Kong”.  As with Kong, Larrinaga’s jungle has a distinct look of Gustave Doré, with  mossy trappings and decayed wood.  

I like the henchmen too.  Real-life Mexican-Yaqui knife thrower Steve Clemente is fun as Zarloff’s Tartar toadie.  A year later he would appear as the witchdoctor in “King Kong”.  Olympic gold medalist Byron “Buster” Crabbe received $5 a day for stunt work in the drowning scenes of the movie.

The film is gruesome and serves as a good example of pre-Hays Code (as amended in 1934) gratuity.  I love the scene with pickled human heads bobbing in glass cylinders, and mounted preserved human heads gracing Zaroff’s trophy room.  Director Schoedsack allegedly went to a morgue to learn how human heads could be pickled.  The film’s editor Archie Marshek claimed the pickled head scenes caused a lot of people to walk out of the theater during the premier.  Film Historian George E. Turner noted that approximately 12 minutes were cut from the film after the premier.  These scenes included additional footage of “emaciated figures” and morbid comments by Zaroff in the trophy room.  “Stupid sailors –a thoroughbred dog is worth the lot of them” and “This chap here –all skin and bones, isn’t he? We preserved him just as he died, as an object lesson, you might say.”  

Why were these scenes cut?  This is an interesting parallel to “The Lost Spider Pit” scenes removed from “King Kong”.  Numerous anecdotes have been written about this lost footage.  Most critics and film historians tend to agree that Cooper removed the footage from Kong as the grisly nature of giant articulated arthropods eating people changed the pacing of the film.  Maybe Cooper removed footage from Dangerous Game for the same reasons? 

George E. Turner noted that to reduce the $202,662 budget of the film, Schoedsack eliminated nine actors from the cast, including Creighton (Lon Jr.) Chaney and Ray Milland.  Shooting began May 16, 1932 and ended on June 17, 1932.  The film ran approximately $16,000 over-budget or roughly $250,000 dollars by today’s standards.  The film was quite successful, particularly in England, where it was titled “The Hounds of Zaroff”.

It’s not without flaws however.  Robert Armstrong is annoying as a socialite drunk (he’s supposed to be irritating).  It’s a relief but obvious when Zaroff kills him.  The final fight sequence is over-staged with athletic tumbles and flips.  Joel McCrea’s Rainsford comes across a bit too droll and calm. The film may have benefited by casting a stronger lead actor.  Compare the Rainsford character to Randolph Scott’s Dr. Jack Woodford in “Murders in the Zoo” (Paramount, 1932), which along with Cooper and Schoedsack’s “Chang” (1927) make perfect afternoon matinee viewing with Dangerous Game.  “Chang” no doubt visually inspired some of Rainsford’s jungle traps, including the “Malay Dead-Fall” and bamboo-spike pit traps.  Schoedsack commented that “the deadfall came from my experiences in Siam and Sumatra. We cheated –we had the tree up on chains…”  Years later, the “Malay Dead-Fall” trap is utilized by Arnold Schwarzenegger to defeat an alien hunter in “Predator” (FOX, 1987).

Other notable film versions include “A Game of Death” (RKO, 1945), which updated the villain to be a Nazi and was an early directional effort by Robert Wise, “The Dangerous Game” (1953), which starred Joseph Marzano as Count Zaroff, and “Run for the Sun” (United Artists, 1956), starring Richard Widmark and set in Central America with Nazi war criminals.  Cornell Wilde’s “The Naked Prey” (Paramount, 1966) is perhaps the best film to re-work Connell’s story.  In this film, big game hunter Cornel Wilde (cast as “The Man”) is stripped naked, sans weapons, and pursed and hunted across the African savannah by skilled tribal warriors. In that movie, white hunters are boiled alive in oil, hog-tied and repeatedly bitten by African ringals.  Cornel Wilde runs throughout most of the film, dodging articulate lances flung from pursuing natives.  He even climbs a tree.  Little did he know there might be a Cape Buffalo near by. 

George W. Turner, 1995.  “What is the Most Dangerous Game?” Laserdisc Essay Insert. Roan Group, Inc.  

Mark Cotta Vaz, 2005.  “Living Dangerously – The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong”.  Villard Books, pg. 211-224 (Chapter on “Dangerous Game”).

Jim Welsh, 1982.  “Hollywood Plays the Most Dangerous Game,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 134-136. 

Roger A. Caras, 1964.  Dangerous to Man – WIld Animals: A definitive study of their reputed dangers to man.  Chilton Books. pg. 107.

One Response to “The Most Dangerous Game (1932)”

  1. The Most Dangerous Game…

    […] Warner Bros.,1940) was both written as a short-story in 1938, and later adapted […]…

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