Saturday, December 1, 2012

Wine gets better, cheese goes bad:
The Most Dangerous Game 1932

I picked up four DVDs from the Oakland Public Library last week and every one disappointed.

I tried Evil Under the Sun with David Suchet as Poirot. He is physically much more like the Belgian than Peter Ustinov, but the rest of the cast isn't up to the task. No Maggie Smith, no Diana Rigg, no Roddy McDowell, no James Mason!

No sale.

I tried a remake of Mister Roberts. Robert Hays instead of Henry Fonda. Howard Hesseman instead of William Powell. Kevin Bacon instead of Jack Lemmon.

Need I go on?

I rented a Miss Marple film with Margaret Rutherford from the 1960's Murder Most Foul.  A little out of date.

But all of these are towering classics compared to the 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game. The four score years between this film and now have not been kind. The camera is clumsy, but the technology forced it to be. The real problem is the acting, the dialog and the plot. As I said in the title, wine can get better with age but cheese just goes bad.  This is serious cheese.

Writing from a former era doesn't have to be this bad. No work of art has to have a shelf life, even though styles may change. Thinking about music from this era, I inevitably come to my hero Fats Waller. The recording technology of his day worked against him in every way, but through the static and poor fidelity it's obvious to anyone he was a genius, and more obvious still if you have ever played piano. He's a fat guy with thick fingers, but his touch can be as light as a souffle, the speed of his right hand and the strength of his left are beyond belief. He's not just brilliant, he's having fun being brilliant and being brilliant at having fun. He put Art Tatum on a pedestal, much faster than he was and a stunning virtuoso, but listening to Tatum, I am constantly gobsmacked, I can't believe that's just one guy. Listening to Waller, I'm smiling even before I realize it.

The Most Dangerous Game comes out a year before King Kong, also from RKO with several people in the cast and crew in common. The plot is pretty well known, so I don't think it's that much a spoiler that the most dangerous game is man. A hunter stuck on a remote island has put up two buoys to lure ships to crash, and those that survive the shark-invested waters to get to his island are then hunted by him at night after he has taken them in and nursed them to something close to health. Joel McCrea stars as a famous hunter who is shipwrecked and Count Zaroff is honored to finally have an equal to hunt, a game he calls "outdoor chess". The problem with the writing is that McCrea isn't clever enough to play "outdoor rock-scissors-paper".

Every trap he sets doesn't take into account how familiar Zaroff is with the terrain. McCrea takes the girl with him, played by the always over-acting Fay Wray, a very bad idea but central to the plot. After setting the first clumsy trap, they get to the top of a hard climb thinking they will have room to find a place to hide, but then they see how small the crest of the hill is and despair.

Idiots!  You have the high ground. Check for all the possible ways up and set up rockslides.

Game over.

The End.

Roll credits.

Oh, no. That makes too much sense.

It really is remarkable to see how much film acting improves from the early thirties to the early forties.  The facial acting of the late silent films is way over the top, but by the time Bogart hits his stride, things become much more subtle. Think about him sitting alone in his room drinking in Casablanca, waiting for Ingrid Bergman to arrive.

No subtlety in The Most Dangerous Game, no concept that McCrea is the smartest guy in the room. He sets two stupid traps, Zaroff easily escapes both, McCrea escapes only because Zaroff shoots the dog instead of him and McCrea lives through a very long fall.

Compare this to Wesley and Buttercup running for their lives in The Princess Bride and you will see this deserves to be a classic the way Bulldog Drummond deserves to be counted among the great detectives.

Criterion Collection has preserved this film and loads it down with film school commentary. Bite me. I've seen better films on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I won't say it's as bad as "Manos": The Hands of Fate, but it don't think it compares well shot for shot with the best of the Gamera films.


Gamera is really neat,
He is made of turtle meat,
We'll be eating Gamera!

Seriously, avoid The Most Dangerous Game. Anyone who tells you it is a classic should be kidnapped and forced to watch it.

And now that there is some blood on The Big Ugly Stick, I will clean it carefully and put it back under its velvet cover, waiting for the moment it must come out again.


Michael Strickland said...

Well, you should have asked me instead of Film Historians, because I saw the movie at the Castro Theatre about 30 years ago and walked out after the first half hour. And I LOVE Joel McCrea.

Early American 30s movies are mostly unsuccessful. They hadn't figured out how to transition into sound quite yet, though once they did in the mid-to-late-1930s, did they ever.

Matthew Hubbard said...

I agree with your assessment of the general quality of American films prior to 1934 or so, and by 1938 or 1939 the problem seems completely solved. King Kong in 1933 still suffers from the same kind of overacting that plagues The Most Dangerous Game, but the story is supposed to be about hammy showmen so it almost fits.