The latest must-own Blu-ray release from Flicker Alley, distributors of home video dedicated to furthering public interest in cinema heritage, collects two pre-King Kong works of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Flicker Alley rightly positions The Most Dangerous Game (1932), starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray, as the centerpiece of this release, which also includes the feature-length documentary Gow, The Headhunter (a.k.a. Cannibal Island, 1931). Cooper and Schoedsack, although not directly responsible for Gow, worked as cameramen on the two-year expedition through the islands of the South Pacific that produced the footage for the film. The completion of this expedition predated their own feature-length jungle documentary, Chang (1927), by some five years. Cooper and Schoedsack would return the jungles once again in 1932 for The Most Dangerous Game, albeit studio jungles in this instance, with Schoedsack as director and Cooper producing.
This double feature demonstrates a clear stylistic progression for Cooper and Schoedsack from their early work on the documentaries of British adventurer Edward A. Salisbury that resulted in Gow to their unparalleled masterpiece, King Kong. This may not constitute an incredibly revelatory assertion since Kong’s live action jungle scenes were famously shot on The Most Dangerous Games’ jungle sets, but there is a distinctive visual thread that begins in the jungles of the South Pacific and culminates in Kong’s Skull Island. A clear connection too presents itself in the filmmaking pair’s depiction of native islanders for which they would later be criticized with regard to the Skull Island Natives in King Kong. However, watching Gow reveals that the pair indeed merely copied/expanded on the activities of the islanders they had encountered in their travels with Salisbury to create something of an islander type for their own use.
Richard Connell’s 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” has, of course, been realized in visual media countless times since it was first published, but Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game was the first (and perhaps the best). The bulk of the film plays out in the way that most early sounds do, with lengthy, theatrical conversations between characters set in a single location. However, once the proceedings move out into the jungle, the pace picks up considerably as the film builds toward a bloody, action-packed conclusion. The film boasts incredible sets and highly-stylized studio cinematography throughout. An incredibly young and inexperienced Joel McCrea plays the hunted Bob Rainsford to Leslie Banks’ eerie Count Zaroff, while Fay Wray appears as a sloppily shoehorned-in love interest. What really surprised me about the film was how Joel McCrea, who I know best from his work with Preston Sturges, is here almost unrecognizable to me, both performance-wise, due to an obvious lack of experience up to that point, and in appearance, as he only distinctly looks like the McCrea of later year when shot in profile.
In spite of a slightly rough performance from McCrea and the overall theatricality of the early portions of the film, The Most Dangerous Game is an absolute gem of a film, one that’s well worth the price of this double feature alone. Flicker Alley meticulously restored both the picture and sound for this release, and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Although some evidence of the damage sustained by the positive master prints over the last 80 years remains in Flicker Alley’s presentation of the film, the early scenes reveal the incredible extent to which they had enhanced the picture in their restoration, as these scenes appear so crisp and clear that they could easily be mistaken for footage shot today. That said, the optically-printed footage of titles and transitions maintains a considerable amount of debris and damage, but that, of course, is a by-product of the optical printing process, not a fault in the restoration.
As a film, Gow pales in comparison to The Most Dangerous Game, primarily because the film consists of four short, silent documentary pieces arbitrarily cobbled together and accompanied by an often offensive lecture by William Peck, who had been a member of Salisbury’s expedition to the South Pacific. The title of the film gives the impression that it will feature a narrative centered on a singular native islander, not unlike the films of Robert Flaherty. However, due to the aforementioned construction of the film out of other, smaller films, Gow barely achieves any coherence outside of Peck’s consistently arbitrary ramblings which position it as an obviously exploitative piece, one relying on the promise of real-life cannibals to draw in audiences. As such, the film represents a cinematic curiosity with its appeal firmly rooted in the camp value afforded by its exploitative presentation. Peck’s culturally-insensitive diatribe is nothing sort of pure idiocy, as he pokes fun at blacks for their hair, comments on the prevailing laziness of black men, and shockingly refers to one black child as a “pickaninny.” In spite of the narration, the film occasionally presents viewers with an unsullied glimpse into the customs of island civilizations that have been long-since lost to progress. And in this, the film actually does offer more than merely the delight one might find in the film’s ignorantly exploitative narration.
Gow further benefits from Flicker Alley’s inclusion of an alternate audio track, featuring a highly-informative audio essay by Professor of Archaeology, Matthew Spriggs, which serves as both commentary and a much-needed alternative to the often unbearable lecture from Peck. The Most Dangerous Game too includes a feature-length audio essay by Rick Jewel, author of RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born. The disc also includes excerpts from an audio interview with Merian C. Cooper by film historian Kevin Brownlow, which is visually accompanied by a slideshow. And finally, the release includes a booklet featuring a passage quoting Merian C. Cooper on The Most Dangerous Game, as well as an essay by Eric Schaefer, author of “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959.