Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) - The Hunt for Human Prey Showing on 16mm Film with Movie Mike: Guest Post by Peter M. Parrella (aka "Skeleton Pete")

Following is a guest post by Peter M. Parrella (aka "Skeleton Pete") about The Most Dangerous Game, a delightfully shocking pre-code tale of sex, violence and exoticism shot on the same sets--and starring much of the cast, including Fay Wray--as King Kong

Movie Mike will be screening the film at The Morbid Anatomy Museum in real 16mm next Tuesday, September 1st; more and tickets can be found here. Hope very much to see you there!

The Most Dangerous Game
Peter M. Parrella

In November of 1932, RKO Pictures released The Most Dangerous Game (MDG) based on Richard Connell’s short story with its treacherous twist on hunter and quarry. On the surface the film appears to be a typical jungle-chase adventure of its time. In the early 1930s the “bring ‘em back alive” exploits of zoo animal collector Frank Buck spawned two bestselling books. At the same time the first of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series (Tarzan, The Ape Man,) the tropical island love story Bird of Paradise, and the most outre of “animal” films The Island of Lost Souls were released.

The Most Dangerous Game, with its great looking Hollywood leads, Fay Wray and Joel McCrea, lecherous villain broadly played by Leslie Nielsen, and “shocker” trophies of his “game losers”, would also fulfill the fancies of a depression era audience hungry for thrills both exotic and (pre-Hays Code) erotic. In a historical context, The Most Dangerous Game serves as a Rosetta Stone for unlocking obscure details of its surrounding productions. As an inheritor of the artistic DNA of an aborted prehistoric monster film, Creation, and mid-wife to King Kong (KK), a masterpiece of celluloid fantasy, it reveals the genesis of collaborative convergence between two real life adventurers, a cutting edge special effects artist, and an art department steeped in the engravings of a renowned 19th century illustrator.

By late 1931, the co-producer/director team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Beaumont Schoedsack had come to RKO Pictures under the auspices of new vice president for production David O. Selznick. “Coop” and “Monty” had an ace in the hole when it came to adventure, both had a long list of real exploits behind them that would have made great movies in and of themselves. They had since exchanged their weapons for cameras, capturing footage of animals and indigenous populations in their natural habitats. Taking the standard travelogue a step further to include sparse but real life narrative, those raw materials, became the well-reviewed and money earning proto-documentaries, or “dramas of the wilderness,” Grass (1925) and Chang (1927). They also supplied spectacular live action scenes for the team’s feature version of The Four Feathers (1929). What they would imbue in their wholly fantastic films was a sense of verité. Both The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong share a frenetic quality created by men who knew what it meant to run for their lives, escaping human captors during World War 1 and wild animals while on safari. In The Most Dangerous Game Schoedsack applied some of the same visual techniques from his expeditionary days filming Zaroff’s slavering hounds from a low angle, having them literally trod over the viewer, just as he had years earlier with a herd of stampeding elephants in Chang.

Part of Selznick’s mandate at the failing studio was to assess the earning potential of films currently in the works, and to that end he requested Cooper’s aid. One such project was Creation, a lost world dinosaur drama that Cooper found wanting for its tepid script and lack of centralized antagonist. Though his assessment of Creation led to its shutdown, Cooper saw a “one door closes, another door opens” scenario. He had long been brewing a story about a giant gorilla battling ancient lizards. It has been reported that in those days before “no animals have been harmed during the making of this film” consciousness, he considered using live animals. Fortunately he found a perfect solution in the stop motion animation techniques of Willis O’Brien. He quickly pitched the idea to Selznick who trusted Cooper’s instincts enough to give a tacit go ahead and some funding cribbed from other productions. Cooper still needed final approval from the RKO executive board in New York City and put the fallow Creation team to work creating a now legendary “test reel” to convince them to green-light “Kong,” then alternately called The Beast and The Eighth Wonder.

Though The Most Dangerous Game is often looked upon as the little sibling of King Kong, one can point to their co-production as a reason the latter film was made at all. A healthy portion of the cost of live jungle set construction was charged against MDG’s budget, while its yacht set became King Kong’s ship cabin. King Kong’s script clearly notes where MDG assets are used, often referring to the “fog hollow” and jungle “ledge” sets. In fact, “fog hollow” is the same swampy terrain through which Count Zaroff’s hounds and Kong’s apatosaurus chase their respective victims. The films also shared a screenwriter in part. James Ashmore Creelman penned MDG's taut 63 minutes and the main action of King Kong’s jungle scenes, but ultimately left the production when he felt the story had become too convoluted. Still, Creelman’s no-time-to-think pacing of MDG likely informed the final release edit of King Kong. Several planned scenes of dinosaurs were ultimately cut to focus the action back on main story of beauty and the beast.

In addition to their jungle adventure trope, Creation, The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong also share a visual vocabulary based firmly on the etchings of illustrator Gustave Doré (1832-1883). In 1930, Lewis W. Physioc, a founding father of cinematography, wrote an article for the Cinematographic Annual exhorting cameramen to go beyond “crank turning” and embrace more artistic methods in mounting and lighting scenes. Though Doré’s influence can be traced as far back as the films of effects pioneer George Méliés, it is Physioc who delineated in print the value of the artist’s style pointing out that “…if there is one man’s work that can be taken as a cinematographer’s text, it is that of Doré’s. His stories are told in our own language of “black and white,” are highly imaginative and dramatic and should stimulate anybody’s ideas.” (Physioc, Lewis W. “Cinematography an Art Form.” Cinematographic Annual, April 1930, p. 25.) 

Physioc’s assessment of Doré as a master of the escapist art form of his time was spot on. The French illustrator’s visions for dozens of written works including Paradise Lost, the fables of La Fontaine, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the Bible still inform our general view of how angels, devils and all things in between appear. I consider Orlando Furioso and The Rabelais milestones of pre-cinema fantasy.

Apparently embracing this entreaty, Chief Effects Technician and head animator Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, 1925) supplied copies of Doré prints to the production artists, matte painters and miniature set builders who dutifully emulated the engravings from the ancient gnarled roots of dark forests where the sky is rarely seen except through a dense canopy of leaves and vines to the striations of their craggy rocks and mountains. Many of Doré’s major plates exhibit an engraving method that gives the illusion of great depth even in their two dimensional medium. A dark surrounding area in the forefront, analogous to the proscenium arch of a theater stage, draws the viewer into the well lit mid-area where the action takes place, while less contrasty engraved lines in the background create the look of distance. RKO studio artists and technicians followed this guide, using severals layers of glass painted mattes, miniature foliage on multiple animation tables, and low contrast backgrounds painted on masonite flats all meticulously aligned to complete the effective vision.

One example of this method—possibly the most iconic of shared sets—features a jungle chasm spanned by a log bridge and was prominently used in the scenarios of all three films discussed here. It has its origins in a beautifully detailed Doré plate for François-René de Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801), that depicts several Native Americans crossing a log bridge in a primeval setting.

Had Creation been completed it would have been the scene of a giant dual horned prehistoric mammal, an arsinoitherium, attacking a group of sailors attempting to cross to safety. Though no remnants of it appear to exist it was apparently interpolated into the “Kong” test reel only to be excised for final release. Of course, Kong himself gets his own star turn on the other side of that log, shaking the sailors to their doom at the bottom of the chasm. The action was famously changed from their being devoured by giant spiders and insects to dying in the fall for the release print. The Most Dangerous Game actually affords us the loveliest view of the miniature log set

as Wray and McCrea traverse it to escape Zaroff’s dogs and henchmen, stopping just long enough to allow us to take in the grandeur of its scope.
By benefitting from several disparate serendipities The Most Dangerous Game stands above its pot-boiler trappings.

Though never completing another adventure of the caliber of King Kong, Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack and Willis O’Brien went on to create the totally engaging Mighty Joe Young in 1949. The art of Gustave Doré found later acolytes in O’Brien/Physioc protegé Ray Harryhausen (Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, 1957, Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and in the characters of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). 

  1. RKO-Radio Pictures' pre-Hays Code poster art for The Most Dangerous Game made no secret of the fate met by losers of Count Zaroff’s hunts.
  2. Atala, by Chateaubriand “In a valley to the north, at some distance from the grand village, was a wood of cypresses and deals, called the Wood of Blood; it was reached by the ruins of one of those monuments of which the origin is ignored, and which were the work of a people now unknown.” In the days before movies, Gustave Doré’s illustrations represented the pinnacle of popular art. His compositional nuances and handling of light and shade made his works a perfect guide for early cinematographers invested in elevating their own art a generation later. This magnificent plate for Chateaubriand’s “new world” romance, Atala, deeply influenced the look and action of The Most Dangerous Game, King Kong and their uncompleted forefather, Creation. Scanned from the author’s collection, original size 8 x 9.75 inches on 9.5 X 13 inch page.
  3. This collaborative pre-production art (circa 1930) by Byron Crabbe, Willis O’Brien, and Mario Larrinaga, for the unrealized Creation project, depicts a scene eventually brought to the screen in King Kong. The ancient ruins and rendering of that telltale log bridge clearly reveals the influence of Doré’s Atala illustration.
  4. Though King Kong employs the log bridge set to much more dramatic effect, this shot from The Most Dangerous Game, a mix of live action, multiple layers of glass painting, miniature and real foliage, and matte art, affords us the most artfully lit and Doré-esque glimpse of the tableaux. The two films share more than a similar cast. MDG’s budget defrayed the costs of many of Kong’s production assets.
  5. Clearly bearing the influence of Gustave Doré’s aesthetic, the action on the log bridge became a centralized motif, likely under Willis O’Brien’s urging. Between December 1931, when it was pitched, and March 1932, when it was green lighted, King Kong inherited most of the effects assets (including dinosaur animation models) as well as some of the scenarios of the cancelled film Creation. Top Left: Byron Crabbe and Willis O’Brien’s concept art for Creation depicts a prehistoric mammal, an arsinoitherium, attacking sailors crossing a log bridge. Top Right: The scene realized in miniature on an animation table and likely finalized for King Kong’s “proof of theory” test reel. Middle: A change of antagonist. King Kong shakes sailor’s to their death in later production art. Bottom: The live stage set in early production closely adheres to the chiaroscuro effects of the production artwork.

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