Film Review: The Most Dangerous Game (dir by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack

On a jungle island Count Zaroff awaits.

Zaroff is a Russian nobleman and a hunting enthusiast.  However, he’s grown bored with hunting the usual big game trophies.  Those don’t provide enough of a challenge for him.  Instead, he prefers to hunt humans because humans are the most dangerous game.  Humans can think.  Humans are clever.  Humans are deadly.  When big game hunter Bob Rainsford washes up on the island after a shipwreck, he is discovered by Zaroff’s men.  Rainsford discovers that Zaroff is a fan of his work.  Rainsford also learns that Zaroff is planning to hunt him next.

It’s a tale that we’ve all heard, in one form or another.  Ever since Richard Connell’s original short story was published in 1924, The Most Dangerous Game has inspired a countless number of adaptations.  Some of those have been direct adaptations while others have merely been inspired by Connell’s plot but, in the end, they all have the same thing in common.  No animal is more dangerous than man.

As far as my research has revealed, the very first cinematic adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game came out in 1932.  It was produced by Ernest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, the same team that would later be responsible for the original King Kong.  Joel McCrea played Rainsford while Zaroff is played by Leslie Banks.  In order to provide some romance and perhaps to pad out the film to over an hour, a few extra shipwreck survivors are added.  There’s two sailors who don’t last long.  There’s also Eve Trowbridge and her brother, Martin.  Eve and Martin are played by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, both of whom would star in King Kong.  Zaroff’s imposing servant, Ivan, is played by Noble Johnson who also appeared in King Kong.  Are you picking up on a theme here?’

Other than the addition of the extra characters, this film version is pretty faithful to its source material.  Again, we have Zaroff “rescuing” Rainsford and then having a long philosophical discussion with him before announcing that it is Rainsford who will be hunted.  Unsurprisingly, the film’s Rainsford is a bit more heroic than the one who appears in the short story.  The literary Rainsford looks forward to defeating Zaroff at his own game while the film’s Rainsford is more concerned with getting off the island and protecting Eve.

All in all, it’s an entertaining film.  Of course, by today’s standards, it’s a bit creaky.  I mean, the film is 88 year old.  Still, Joel McCrea remains a convincing and compelling hero while Leslie Banks is enjoyably hammy in the role of Zaroff.  Zaroff is a role that calls for an actor who is willing to give into his most theatrical impulses and Banks doesn’t let the film down.  The jungle scenery is properly shadowy and even the miniatures used during the shipwreck sequence have a charm all their own.

Unfortunately, The Most Dangerous Game is one of those films that has slipped into the public domain.  As a result, there’s a lot of less-than perfect versions floating around.  (The version that I recently watched on YouTube was so grainy that it was nearly unwatchable.)  Fortunately, this film is a part of the Criterion Collection.  That’s the one to add to your collection.

Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

cracked rear viewer

The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.

In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only…

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6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Picture: The 1930s

1937 Oscar Banquet

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1930s.

Frankenstein (1931, dir by James Whale)

Henry Frankenstein may have created life and revolutionized the horror genre but his creation got absolutely no love from the Academy.  Starting a very long history of snubbing successful horror films, the Academy failed to nominate Frankenstein for Best Picture.  Not even Boris Karloff got a nomination!  Fortunately, the public recognized what the Academy failed to see and Frankenstein remains a classic film.

Scarface (1932, dir by Howard Hawks)

Gangster films may have been all the rage with the public in the 1930s but the Academy felt different.  Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface may have excited audiences but none of them received much love from the Academy.  It was hard to decide which gangster film to specifically use for this post.  In the end, I went with Scarface because of George Raft and his sexy way with a coin.

King Kong (1933, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong thrilled audiences, impressed critics, made a ton of money, and has gone on to influence just about every monster film made since.  It received zero Oscar nominations.

My Man Godfrey (1936, dir by Gregory La Cava)

My Man Godfrey, one of the best of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, received a total of 6 Oscar nominations.  It was nominated in all four of the acting categories.  It was nominated for best screenplay.  It was nominated for best director.  However, it was not nominated for Best Picture.  (My Man Godfrey is the first and, as of this writing, only film to receive four acting nominations without also receiving a nomination for best picture.)  Best Picture that year would go to The Great Ziegfield, which, like My Man Godfrey, starred William Powell.

Bringing Up Baby (1938, dir by Howard Hawks)

My Man Godfrey was not the only screwball comedy to be ignored by the Academy.  Bringing Up Baby features Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn at their best.  It also features an absolutely adorable leopard.  Somehow, it was not nominated for best picture.

The Women (1939, dir by George Cukor)

The competition was fierce in 1939.  If you want to know why 1939 is considered to be one of the best years in Academy History, just consider the ten films that actually were nominated for best picture: Dark Victory, Gone With The Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights.  Amazingly, even with that list of nominees, some equally good film went unnominated.  One of those films was The Women.

Based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play, The Women features a witty script, assured direction from George Cukor, and an amazing talented, all-female ensemble cast.  Though the competition was undeniably fierce in 1939, it’s still a shock that this film received not a single nomination.

Up next, in about an hour or so, the 1940s!

Scarface (1932)

Film Review: The Last Days of Pompeii (dir by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper)

The summer after I graduated high school, I took a trip to Italy.

I absolutely loved it.  There’s nothing more wonderful than being 18 and irresponsible in one of the most beautiful and romantic countries in Europe.  I also loved it because everywhere I looked in Italy, I saw the remains of history.  When I was in Rome, I visited the Colosseum.  When I was in Southern Italy, I visited Comune di Melissa, the village where some of my ancestors once lived.  When I visited Florence, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all that I nearly fainted.

And then there was Pompeii.  I spent a day visiting the ruins of Pompeii and it was an amazing experience.  The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD may have been horrific for the Romans but it’s also gave history nerds like me a chance to step right into the past.  Beyond just the thrill of seeing how the world once was, I have two main memories of Pompeii:

First, there was the visit to Pompeii’s brothel.  An Australian tourist lay down on one of the stone slabs so that his family could take pictures of him.

Secondly, there was the fact that I wore a really pretty red dress for my visit but I failed to take into account that 1) the area around Pompeii is very hilly and 2) it was a very windy day.  So, I can say that I’ve not only visited but I’ve flashed Pompeii as well.

The destruction of Pompeii has inspired several books and more than a few films, as well.  One of the earliest was the 1935 film, The Last Days of Pompeii.

The Last Days of Pompeii opens with Marcus (Preston Foster), an extremely bitter blacksmith who lives in the bustling city of Pompeii.  Marcus is bitter because he’s not rich and his family has been just been run down by some jackass in a chariot.  Marcus does find brief fame as a gladiator but he’s stricken with guilt after he kills a man and then discovers that he’s made an orphan out of the man’s son.  Marcus adopts young Flavius, just to then discover that the boy is seriously ill.  A fortune teller informs Marcus that Flavius will be healed by “the greatest man in Judea.”  Marcus naturally assumes that this is a reference to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone).  However, upon traveling to Judea, Marcus meets a different great man and then watches as his adopted son is healed.

Jump forward about two decades.  Marcus is now a rich man and is in charge of Pompeii’s gladiatorial games.  Flavius (now played by John Wood) has grown up to be an idealistic young man who barely remembers the day that he was healed. What Marcus doesn’t know is that Flavius has been helping slaves escape from Pompeii.  When Flavius is arrested, it appears that Marcus is doomed to watch his own son be killed in the arena.

But wait a minute — what’s that coming down the mountain?  It’s kinda smoky and red and it looks like it might be really hot and …. oh damn.

Now, there’s two problems here.  First off, from a historical point of view, the film’s timeline doesn’t work out.  Jesus was crucified in 33 AD.  Pompeii was destroyed 46 yeas later, in 79 AD.  Therefore, there’s no way that Flavius should only be in his early 20s.  Secondly, just the fact that the film takes place in Pompeii pretty much gives away the ending before the story even begins.  Since you know that the volcano is eventually going to kill everyone, it’s hard to get too caught up in any of the drama.  You just find yourself sitting there and going, “When isssssssssss the volcano going to eeeeeeeeeeeeerupt!?”

On the plus side, Preston Foster is one of the more underrated of the Golden Age stars and he does a pretty good job here.  Plus, you have to love any film that features Basil Rathbone as a semi-decadent Roman.  Rathbone plays Pilate as both a bored libertine and a guilt-stricken convert and, both times, he’s impressive.

Despite being directed by the team behind the original King Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii is a bit slow but, if you’re specifically a fan of old sword-and-sandal epics, it’s entertaining enough.  See it for Foster, Rathbone, and the ghosts of old Pompeii.

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #25: Chang (dir by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack)

(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June.  She’s trying to get it all done by July 11th!  Will she make it!?  Keep visiting the site to find out!)


Before I talk about the 1927 oddity Chang (which also happened to be the 25th film on DVR), here’s a little Oscar history.  If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because I already talked about all this in my review of Sunrise but there’s nothing wrong with repeating a history lesson, right?

At the first Oscar ceremony, two awards were given for Best Picture of the year.  The first award — for Outstanding Production — went to Wingsa big budget action spectacular about World War I.  The other award — for Unique And Artistic Presentation — went to Sunrise.  I’ve read a lot of speculation about which film the Academy meant to name the best of the year but, to me, it’s fairly obvious that the Academy meant for Outstanding Production to honor the year’s big blockbusters while Unique and Artistic Presentation would honor the “art” films.

And, to be honest, I think that, way back in 1928, the Academy had the right idea.  Why should they only give out one award for best picture, as if all films can be judged by only one standard?  Why not give out separate awards for the best comedy or the best thriller or the best film made for a certain amount of money?  Why not bring back the Oscar for Unique and Artistic Presentation?

For whatever reason, the Academy discontinued the Unique and Artistic Presentation Award after the 1st ceremony and, in the future, only one film would be named best of the year.  Since Outstanding Production eventually become known as Best Picture, Wings has been immortalized as the first film to win best picture.

One of the films that Sunrise defeated was Chang.  If, like me, you accept the idea that the Unique and Artistic Presentation Award was meant to be a second award for best picture, then that means that Chang might possibly be the only documentary ever nominated for the top prize.  I say possibly because 1) some people would probably argue that Hollywood Revue should be considered a documentary as well and 2) it’s debatable whether or not Chang actually qualifies as a documentary.

Clocking in at only 67 minutes, Chang is a nearly plotless look at the life of a farmer in what is now Thailand and what was then called Siam.  Kru the farmer plays himself and the film follows him as he takes care of his family, builds a house, and deals with the constant threat of wild animals.  The animals are really the main stars of Chang and, all these years later, some of the footage is still impressive.  (There’s a scene in which a tiger literally bumps his nose against the camera lens, which I imagine was a huge deal for audiences in the pre-YouTube, pre-television days of 1927.)  However, despite the use of real wild animals and all the villagers playing themselves, it’s also obvious that several of the scenes have been staged.   Chang itself never claims to be a documentary and, in fact, one of the title cards even announces that Chang is “a drama of the wilderness.”

Yes, there are title cards.  Chang is a silent film and, to really appreciate it, modern viewers have to be willing to adjust.  That said, I actually enjoyed the fact that it was silent.  The title cards were all either endearingly portentous or surprisingly witty.  I especially enjoyed the “ROAR!” title card that popped up whenever a tiger appeared.

In many ways, Chang serves as a precursor for the original King Kong, which was directed by the same team behind Chang, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack.  If it can be argued that King Kong forever changed the course of American filmmaking, it can also be argued that, without the success of Chang, there would have been no King Kong.

(Another interesting bit of trivia: Chang reportedly only cost $60 to shoot.  Apparently, neither Kru nor any of the other villagers were paid for starring in a movie.)

Chang is something of an oddity but I’d still recommend seeing it.  It is a piece of history after all!