Short of the month: The Wizard’s Apprentice (dir. Sidney Levee, 1930)

During the early sound period, producer Joseph Schenck commissioned a series of live-action shorts set to classical music. The series was short-lived, but it did produce one minor classic in the form of The Wizard’s Apprentice.

Ten years before Paul Dukas’ musical interpretation of Goethe’s famous poem became forever linked with Mickey Mouse, pioneering art director William Cameron Menzies and his collaborators created a low-tech fantasy with more charm in its ten minutes than a great many features with slicker effects and bigger budgets. Menzies is arguably the best known production designer of early Hollywood. He was a major asset on the films which employed his skills, from the Arabian Nights fantasy of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad to the HG Wells-helmed science-fiction epic Things to Come. Here, he meshes a medieval storybook world with gothic touches common to many horror films of the time.

Though this short was produced in the early talkie period, the influence of the late silent era still lingers in every aspect of the production. The atmosphere is right out of the German expressionist classics of the 1920s. The performers’ emoting and full body gestures would be right at home in films from the earlier part of the silent era. They’re operatic and grand, which suit this fairytale narrative perfectly. In fact, the wizard was played by silent film veteran Joseph Swickard, best known as Valentino’s guilt-stricken father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The other two major performers—Fritz Feld as the apprentice and Greta Granstedt as the diminutive love interest—would go on to have long Hollywood careers in supporting and bit parts for decades to come.

While the film’s special effects are simple, they are effective, especially the brooms. Little more than painted matchsticks with legs, the brooms are surprisingly creepy, perhaps due to how jerky their movements are. The eeriness is a side effect of the primitive technique, a quality which evades the smoother animation of Disney’s broomsticks.

One weird touch I never see mentioned in other reviews of this movie: the funky editing trick that occurs whenever the wizard enters or leaves his study. The shape of the doorway rapidly shifts between high and longways, adding a bizarre dreamlike vibe to the proceedings.

An absolutely classic short—it makes great viewing with Disney’s more iconic take on the poem.

Sources:

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis

Short of the Month: Snow-White (dir. Dave Fleischer, 1933)

As always, I recommend watching Snow-White before continuing on to the article:

While pre-code cartoons tended to be a wild bunch in general both due to the permissiveness of the era and the exhilaration that came with new sound technologies, few were stranger than what came out of Fleischer Studios. Disney’s biggest competitor at the time, the typical Fleischer Studios product tended to be more hard-edged, provocative, and unapologetically strange than anything from the House of Mouse. Case in point: their Betty Boop series.

Betty Boop is about as pure a pre-code creation as they come. She was a bonafide cartoon sex symbol, and her design’s juxtaposition of the cute and the alluring contributed to her popularity. The cartoons in which she appeared certainly catered more to the grown-ups than the kiddies. Snow-White is a great example, with its jazzy music, non-sequitur comedy, and macabre imagery.

As in the original fairy tale, Betty is the fairest in the land and therefore targeted for death by a jealous step-mother. Koko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog weep as they prepare to dispatch her, but they take pity instead and Betty manages to escape, only to fall into an icy river. She re-emerges in an ice block (a stand-in for the glass coffin), which is taken by seven dwarfs into a “Mystery Cave.” And that’s about all there is of the original story, unless I forgot about a random musical number or the queen transforming into a dragon.

Snow-White is less of a conventional story than it is a bizarre dream. Every frame boasts some kind of gag or surreal flourish as characters morph into new forms. The whimsically ghoulish backgrounds in the “Mystery Cave” alone are something to examine on repeat viewings, from skeletons playing poker to monsters grinning from framed photos on the wall.

The early Fleischer cartoons were notable for featuring some of the top jazz talent of the 1930s. Snow-White boasts the legendary Cab Calloway performing the “St. James Infirmary Blues” through Koko the Clown. Calloway not only provided Koko’s singing voice, but also his smooth dance moves via rotoscoping technology. The result is the highlight of the short, an eerie mini-music video in which Koko morphs into a crooning, moonwalking ghost as he tails Betty’s impromptu funeral procession.

Intriguingly, the number is not a 100% non-sequitur when you consider the lyrics of “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Koko is following Betty in her frozen coffin, while “St. James Infirmary Blues” starts with the singer visiting the corpse of his lover in a hospital before musing on his own eventual death.

Somehow, this somber song suits this otherwise high-spirited short perfectly. Between the winter time setting, monochrome visuals, and the continued presence of death (threatened, assumed, or otherwise) throughout the seven-minute runtime, I even dare to say Snow-White is borderline cartoon noir, only it’s so playful that it keeps any true moodiness at bay. Even among the strange Fleischer canon, Snow-White stands out and deserves its place as a classic of animation.

Sources:

Animation Anecdotes #150″ – Cartoon Research

BFI Film Classics: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Eric Smoodin

St. James Infirmary (1928)”

Favorite posts of 2021

It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.

In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.

The greatest hits of 1921

For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.

Favorite film discoveries of 2015

Umm, where did we put that microphone again?

What fun I had with movies in 2015– save for the nightmares that were the Robert Altman Popeye and Jupiter Ascending, most of it was good stuff. Here are my favorite discoveries of the previous year:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (dir. Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, 1943)

I prefer The Red Shoes, but only by a hair, because this war time film is Powell and Pressburer’s masterpiece, full of warm humor and elegiac yearning in addition to satire. It’s also cemented my love for Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr.

Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 1996)

To date, the definitive version, despite some over the top silly moments. As someone who does not care for the Oedipal readings of the original play, this version is further made my favorite of all the movie adaptations I have perused.

Greed (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

A masterpiece that more than lives up to its reputation, Greed is a must-see, even in its truncated form. Von Stroheim may have been over-indulgent, but he was a genius oif the medium. Also Zasu Pitts is damned fine in a dramatic role, as is Gibson Gowland, who should procured had more great roles after his turn as McTeague. Having read the original novel from which it is based in a college class, I am of the opinion that the movie is actually superior to the book.

Scarlet Street (dir. Fritz Lang, 1945)

To date, my favorite Lang picture. Perfectly cast and about as bleak as noir gets while still possessing a wicked sense of humor to go with the tragic story of the pathetic would-be painter Christopher Cross and his unrequited love for a sadomasochistic prostitute.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (dir. Clyde Bruckman, 1933)

Hands down, best thing W.C. Fields ever did in the short format. I have rarely ever laughed so hard when watching a comedy alone. It’s also insanely quotable: “I’ll go milk the elk.” “Ain’t a fit night out— for man NOR BEAST!”

The Vikings (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1958)

Schlock, glorious schlock! Tony Curtis in Ugg boots and tiny shorts! Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine chewing the sets and crying “ODIN!!!” And yet, there are moments of surprising beauty amidst the campy fun, like Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking color cinematography or the climactic sword fight.

The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis, 1980)

How have I been alive for 22 years and not seen this movie? It’s hilarious and has tons of great music, plus one of the finest car chases ever filmed.

Pickup on South Street (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Aside from its great characters, intense score, political subtext, and being a rare example of noir that is (sort of) optimistic, this gave me a crush on Richard Widmark. Total landmark in my life, guys.

The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Aside from minor elements, it’s not really like Star Wars at all. With that obligatory mention out of the way, this may not be as “masterful” as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, or Ikiru, but The Hidden Fortress is a great blend of humor and humane drama. I love Mifune and the bandits, but for me, Misa Uehara steals the spotlight as the tough yet compassionate princess.

Blast of Silence (dir. Allen Baron, 1961)

Made after the noir cycle was pretty much dead in Hollywood, this is a brutal, bleak film. Everything feels rough and unpolished, but that’s what gives the film its power even after all this time. Its plot about a hitman doing a job during Christmas inspired my Nanowrimo novel this year too (I won for the first time!), so it has a personal significance for me too. Can I call it one of my new favorite Christmas films? I mean, it is set during Christmas!

Michael Strogoff (dir. Viktor Tourjansky, 1926)

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A silent film epic you’ve likely not heard of. Romance! Adventure! Political intrigue! Historical setting! Humor! Everything you could ever want in a three hour movie.

Hedgehog in the Fog (dir. Yuri Norsteyn, 1975)

A lovely fable about the mysteries and beauty of the world. I don’t know why, but it arouses all kinds of emotions in me, mainly nostalgia, melancholy, and a sense of wonder.

Marie Antoinette (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006)

A lot of people hate this movie, but I just think it’s the bee’s knees. In addition to the sheer eye candy of the 18th century costumes and goodies, it’s a fine exploration of the doomed queen’s isolation in a foreign court as well as the destructive decadence within Versailles itself. It’s also made me rethink my opinion of Kirsten Dunst as an actress, as she’s just fabulous in the lead.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy, 1964)

Jacques Demy is now officially one of my favorite filmmakers. This gentle musical rightfully earns its stellar reputation. The candy colors and fairy tale elements would lead one to think this is cinematic cotton candy, but I found its themes of youth, romance, and the uncertainty of the future to be poignant and true to life. Make sure you have handkerchiefs ready.

Grand Slam Opera (dir. Charles Lamont, 1936)

Hands down Buster Keaton’s best 1930s effort. The dance sequence is just too funny, Keaton’s energetic body perfectly contrasted with his face’s subtle expressiveness. Yeah, he’s named Elmer Butts again, but his character has a decent amount of competence and few are the gags that don’t hit the mark. To me, it proves that his style could have survived into the sound era, had he remained in control of his own studio, but I’m content that we have this brilliant gem and his other Educational shorts that really aren’t as horrible as reputation has implied.

The Evil Dead trilogy (dir. Sam Raimi, 1981, 1987, 1992)

Another set of movies that I’m surprised I have not seen in all my years on this planet. Army of Darkness in particular is insanely quotable. Bruce Campbell is excellent in all three of these films, showing a good amount of range and comedic power too.

The Toll Gate (dir. Lambert Hillyer, 1920)

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My long-overdue introduction to Bill Hart. His westerns were gritty and morally grey long before the days of Sergio Leone. The Toll Gate in particular centers around a fugitive bandit leader who’s a far cry from Gene Autry, only just barely redeemed by a good woman, played by the lovely and shamefully overlooked Anna Q. Nilsson.

Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1940)

A gentle, funny, and even melancholic look at the early career of Abraham Lincoln with Henry Fonda in the lead role– probably my favorite Ford picture, closely followed by How Green Was My Valley.

Love Me or Leave Me (dir. Charles Vidor, 1955)

Don’t let the Technicolor and presence of Doris Day mislead you, this musical “biopic” is a cynical and occasionally sinister melodrama of great power. Day and James Cagney have great chemistry as the ruthless singer (a character who’s really not much like the real Ruth Etting, from what I have read) and the gangster who wants to possess her body and soul. Even if you don’t like musicals, I would recommend this one.

Time Bandits (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981)

Wouldn’t it be great if most family entertainment had such imagination, brains, and heart behind it? At once possessing satire, slapstick, adventure, and a surprising amount of spiritual/philosophical questions, it’s a good one whether you’re 3 or 300.

Blind Husbands (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1919)

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A mature look at marriage and infidelity, this is about the only von Stroheim film in which he doesn’t indulge his bizarre tastes, so I imagine non-fans of his work will enjoy it too.

Charade (dir. Stanley Donen, 1963)

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn should have had more team-ups, because they are just excellent together in this famously Hitchcockian thriller/romantic comedy. Gosh, it just makes me realize how much I adore genre mash-ups!

Le Roi de Champs-Elysses (dir. Maz Nossek, 1934)

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I finally got to watch this rare movie, a French movie Keaton made during the nadir of his alcoholic period, right after he’d been fired from MGM in 1933. It’s not perfect and has some clunky moments (Keaton himself did not think much of it in later years), but it’s more Keatonesque than most of his slicker work at MGM had been, plus we get to see Keaton’s woefully underused versatility as an actor, with him playing both the hapless hero and the ruthless gangster villain.

The Great Locomotive Chase (dir. Francis Lyon, 1956)

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Though most people dismiss this film and compare it to Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General, I enjoyed it very much. I would even say it is an underrated gem. It’s a tense film with solid performances, taking the same historical situation Keaton used but examining it from the Union’s perspective. Yeah, not as fun or compelling as Keaton at the peak of his powers, but few movies are to be fair.

Dragnet Girl (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

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This silent gangster drama from the early days of Yasujiro Ozu’s career may not be on par with something like Tokyo Story, but it is a very good picture with great compositions (though what Ozu film doesn’t have these?) and performances. The leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka possesses both talent and beauty as the gangster’s moll desperate not to lose him to a younger, more virtuous woman.

His Birthright (dir. William Worthington, 1918)

Sessue Hayakawa shows off his comedic talents in an otherwise average film about a biracial dude who wants to get vengeance upon his white father for abandoning his Japanese mother. Still, it’s Hayakawa. The man could make even the worst script worth the time.

Shanghai Express (dir. Josef von Sternburg, 1932)

Paramount’s much-superior answer to MGM’s Grand Hotel, complete with Marlene Dietrich in extravagant outfits, gorgeous black and white cinematography, and Anna May Wong stealing the show.

The Portrait of Lady Anne (1912)

Florence La Badie died much too early. I sampled many of her films last fall and was impressed with the charm and emotion she exuded. While I like her Cinderella best, this ghostly little melodrama is a close second.

Bubba Ho-Tep (dir. Don Coscarelli, 2002)

Elvis isn’t really dead; he’s just stuck in a nursing home with a black man who thinks he’s JFK and a soul-sucking mummy. From this synopsis you’d expect an out and out comedy, but Bubba Ho-Tep is surprisingly sad in addition to being funny, often touching on the troubles of being an elderly person in a society which holds up youth above everything. The ending actually made me weep. Go figure.

The Monster Squad (dir. Fred Dekker, 1987)

This weird, weird curio from the 1980s has lines like, “Wolfman’s got NARDS!” It has a scene where Dracula picks up a five year old girl and screams, “Give me the amulet, you BITCH!” It’s so bizarre, it has to be seen to be believed.

Descendants (dir. Kenny Ortega, 2015)

Guess who’s got a new guilty pleasure? This movie features the Disney villains living together in an apartment, eating junk food, and yelling at the television all day. Not to mention some of the songs are catchy (save for the rap version of “Be Our Guest,” which makes Kidz Bop sound like an angelic chorus). What’s not to love, huh?

The Wild One (dir. Laslo Benedek, 1953)

I expected unbridled camp, so imagine my surprise when I found this movie kind of compelling. Yes, its “dangerous bikers” come across like goofy frat boys nowadays, but the alienation and frustration of the Brando character stood out big time. I imagine most of that came from Brando and not the lackluster script.

A Lady of Chance (dir. Ribert Z. Leonard, 1928)

A pretty cute romantic comedy about a lady thief and a gullible Southern guy. I could have done without some of the racist stereotyping in a few scenes, but Norma Shearer is in fine comedic form.

Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2011)

I didn’t like this one’s interpretation of Emily Bronte’s novel that much and found most of the actors terrible, but it hasn’t left me since I’ve seen it. The bleakness and obsession within the story are captured well, and I’ll give it this, it’s unlike any other WH adaptation which came before it, so I’ll likely revisit it.

What were your favorite film discoveries this year?

They Remade What?! Blogathon: The Most Dangerous Game, A Game of Death, and Run for the Sun

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This is a submission for the “They Remade What?!” blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Check out her blog for more remake related posts!

Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” concerns a hunter named Rainsford who finds himself on the other end of the chase when he is marooned on the island fortress of General Zaroff, a madman who hunts humans for sport. Of course, the piece piqued Hollywood interest early on, leading to the famous 1932 Cooper and Schoedsack adaptation of the same name starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks, and Fay Wray. This film is the most well-known cinematic adaptation of the story, but Hollywood did not visit the well only once: there were two remakes produced in 1945 and 1956, A Game of Death starring John Loder, Edgar Barrier, and Audrey Long, and Run for the Sun starring Richard Widmark, Trevor Howard, and Jane Greer. Made in three very different decades of Hollywood moviemaking, how does each differ from the one before it? Let’s dive right in and find out!

Before we start, I will share the version I saw first. I found The Most Dangerous Game on YouTube about two years ago and just fell in love with it, snapping up the Criterion Collection DVD immediately. Now onto the review!

The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Irving Pichel & Ernest Schoedsack, 1932)

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While some viewers perceive The Most Dangerous Game as a sort of trial-run for the more-famous King Kong due to the two films sharing a jungle set and actors, it is a fine piece of entertainment in its own right, one of the greatest productions in the early 1930s cycle of Hollywood horror and a marvelous example of economical storytelling in any medium.

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The film begins the same way as the story: world-famous big game hunter Rainsford asserts that he is a hunter and that “nothing on earth can change that” right as his ship sinks. After surviving the fakest shark attack in the history of cinema (in one of the film’s most deliciously over-the-top moments, one of the crew is snatched by a shark and shrieks “Ohh— they got me!!” before finally being dragged under to his doom), he washes up on an island and wanders off to an ominous castle populated by Count Zaroff, a refugee of the Russian Revolution and hunting enthusiast, and his handful of servants, the most memorable being played by African-American film pioneer and character actor Noble Johnson. There he meets fellow castaways, the drunken Robert and the reserved Eve. Over coffee and cigars, Zaroff boasts of having found “the most dangerous game,” which he hunts on the island. Though Rainsford urges him for an answer, Zaroff won’t tell and sends everyone off to bed—everyone but the annoying Robert anyway, whom he wants to show his trophy room…

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That night, Eve awakes Rainsford, worried for her brother’s sake and suspicious of Zaroff’s intentions. Wandering down into the trophy room and finding decayed human heads mounted upon the wall, they manage to cross paths with Zaroff, who has Robert’s body in tow. Turns out that “most dangerous game” he hunts are human beings. And unless Rainsford plans on joining Zaroff, he and Eve are going to be finding themselves in the jungle and on the opposite end of the count’s rifle.

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Though some purists take issue with the embellishments of the 1932 screenplay, particularly the addition of a love interest, I rather like the way the filmmakers fleshed out Connell’s story. While I do miss the original story’s haunting and ambiguous ending, this is still an effective piece of writing and I think the changes make the 1932 an interesting variation on some of the original’s ideas. For one thing, Rainsford’s rather cold and worldly character is transformed into a genial if naïve young man, played to perfection by a young (and sexy!) Joel McCrea, whose ideas about the hunter/hunted relationship seem more a product of his youth than genuine hardness or lack of empathy. Fay Wray is ravishingly gorgeous and her character does display a little more intelligence than your garden variety damsel early on, but unfortunately once the chase gets underway, all she really has to do is scream and gasp whenever Zaroff’s around.

tmdg8Leslie Banks’s Count Zaroff dominates the film. Simultaneously urbane and savage, genuinely menacing and campy as hell, he ranks among my favorite screen villains. Sure his Russian accent is as phony as that shark attack, but just listen to the way he delivers his lines with such relish (apparently they had two Russian language consultants on the set to make sure Banks pronounced things correctly, but his accent is pretty comical nonetheless). I cannot help but say them along with him with every re-viewing. “Hunting was beg-in-ing to BORE me!” “When I lost my love of hunting, I lost my love of life! Of love!” “Im-POSS-ible!” “Kill, then love! When you have known THAT, you have known ec-stasy!”

That last quote reveals one aspect of the character invented by the screenwriters: Fay Wray isn’t just there to scream and look jaw-dropping. Zaroff pretty much states outright  he cannot indulge in the pleasures of the flesh without killing something first (“One passion builds upon another…”), that he, as Bruce Eder puts it in his excellent commentary for the Criterion Collection, “links killing and hunting with sex.” With his hungry gazing and excited reaction at the sight of Eve in that tattered dress, it does not take much speculation to surmise what Zaroff plans on doing to her after the hunt. And that’s not even mentioning the almost orgasmic delight on his face which comes about after he believes he has killed Rainsford (notice how he lights up a cigarette afterward too).

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Though this film is often sold as an adventure flick a la King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game fits neatly into the early 1930s cycle of Hollywood horror. Zaroff’s castle is a gothic hunting lodge in which Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula would be right at home. The parlor where Zaroff and his guests indulge in coffee and conversation is dominated by a large staircase and tapestry depicting a vicious-looking centaur with a half-nude woman swooning in his arms. And then there’s the infamous trophy room, where human heads are either hanging mummified upon the wall or pickling in a jar. Apparently more of the trophy room was supposed to be shown, with a proud Zaroff showing Rainsford the maimed bodies of his most noteworthy victims stuffed and on display, but the disgusted reaction of the preview audiences had the studio reaching for the scissors right away.

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The famous jungle set is no doubt artificial, but that enhances the sense of claustrophobia. The lighting therein is evocative of a Gustave Dore illustration. While its use in Kong has made it so iconic, I always felt it was never more foreboding than in this film.

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The Most Dangerous Game’s finest moments are in the last half-hour of its runtime, when the hunt begins and Rainsford and Eve must fight to survive the jungle terrain, Zaroff’s bow and rifle, and finally a bloodthirsty pack of hounds (which were on loan from Harold Lloyd!). These scenes are tense and well-edited, perfectly complimented by Max Steiner’s heart-pounding score. Contrary to popular belief about the cinematography of the early sound period, the camera is quite fluid as it follows McCrea and Wray through the dense jungle foliage. I really dig that one close-up of Zaroff’s face as he’s in pursuit of his prey, an expression that’s both hilariously over-the-top yet perfect in showing how focused he is on coming for the kill.

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Overall, The Most Dangerous Game is essential for pre-code lovers and highly recommended for everyone else. Unpretentious, entertaining, and well-crafted, it stills stands as grand fun after eighty-plus years. And being a well-made Hollywood flick, is it any surprise it was remade more than once?

A Game of Death (dir. Robert Wise, 1945)

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After the moral guardians of the nation cracked down on Hollywood in 1934, RKO was unable to re-release The Most Dangerous Game due to the much stricter enforcement of the Hayes Code, which took issue with the film’s less than subdued content. Thus in 1945, a remake under the direction of Robert Wise was put into production and released in the fall of that year.

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The plot clings close to the 1932 adaptation with some differences: the Russian Count Zaroff is now the German Erich Kreiger, no doubt due to the film’s production coinciding with the end of World War II. Rainsford is still a big game hunter who maroons on Kreiger’s island lair, makes friends with a sibling duo, Robert and Ellen, and then finds himself and Ellen hunted by Kreiger and his hounds. Noble Johnson reprises his role as the mute manservant, only this time he looks like a cast member from Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Robert Clarke is an additional servant who is perhaps the least threatening henchman in film history, coming off as mildly disgruntled and praying his eccentric boss will give him a raise.

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This version is the least regarded of the three adaptations, most likely due to its being an uninspired and almost shot-for-shot redo of the 1932 production. I would love to offer a revisionist opinion, but in this case, the popular consensus is right: A Game of Death is inferior to The Most Dangerous Game in just about every area, coming off as bloodless and dull. For one thing, the look of the film is pedestrian (save for the footage borrowed from the 1932 original). Zaroff lived in a gothic castle repurposed as a hunting lodge, complete with atmospheric lighting emphasizing greys and shadows. The mise-en-scene made the place feel huge. In comparison, Kreiger’s island abode is cramped, small, and overlit, not nearly as foreboding.

Being a Hayes Code era picture, A Game of Death also does away with the more objectionable elements of the original, so don’t expect to see Rainsford breaking someone’s back or partaking in any other sort of enthusiastic violence. As for the sexual aspects, Kreiger does exhibit an unhealthy interest in Ellen, reusing Zaroff’s “ecstasy” spiel and giving her longing glances every now and then; however, as with the violent stuff, don’t expect Kreiger to have the same hungrily deranged look in his eye that Zaroff gives Eve once he thinks the game is won or for him to ask his servants to bring her down from her prison for a post-victory “celebration.”

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To call the performances second-rate would be too cruel, but not a one of them is particularly strong. John Loder’s Rainsford is much less interesting than McCrea’s for a variety of reasons. While McCrea came off as a callow young man with a character arc, one who will bear scars from his encounter with Zaroff even if he did win the day and get the girl in the end, Loder is a mature adult, a white-hatted hero if there ever was one and just as boring as you’d expect him to be from that description. Nothing really flaps him. When McCrea discovered what “the most dangerous game” was, he became indignant and horrified at the “logical conclusions” of his own ideas about life and death. Loder is mildly shocked, but otherwise unruffled. Audrey Long’s Ellen, while strikingly pretty, is completely wooden, lacking the likeability Wray brought to the already threadbare Eve.

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Edgar Barrier gives the best performance in the film as Kreiger. He’s not nearly as charismatic or fun as Banks’s Zaroff, but he does give Kreiger a low-key sense of menace and culture. His best moment comes when he believes Rainsford sees eye-to-eye with him on the natural order of things; the ecstatic expression on his face as he speaks of murdering other people is chilling. Still, even he has a lot of moments where he’s just phoning it in and when he flatly says lines from the original production, you cannot help but hear Banks’s enthusiastic delivery in the back of your mind. In fact, when he gives the whole “hunting was beginning to bore me” speech, his delivery is so uninteresting that only the background music is able to liven the leaden exposition up. (Speaking of music, I’m really missing Max Steiner; A Game of Death’s soundtrack is so stock, I couldn’t even hum it even five minutes after I finished the movie!)

The biggest changes in this version are Robert’s characterization and an added middle sequence preluding to the big chase. Armstrong’s Robert is an irritating drunk who slurs his words and gets in everyone’s personal space. When he’s killed by Zaroff, we aren’t too sorry for him, but his death does establish our villain as a monster and build up sympathy for Eve. While Russell Wade is inoffensive as Robert, he isn’t nearly as memorable and overstays his welcome, leading us to the flabby middle section of the movie. Instead of killing Rob and getting us to the chase, A Game of Death decides to have the heroes discover what Kreiger’s “game” is ahead of time and then plot an unsuccessful escape mission. It’s such a waste of time and kills the pacing.

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That’s not to say this film is a total clunker: Wise’s direction is capable (though his talents were put to much better use in The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff, also released in 1945), Barrier is an entertaining enough villain, and on its own merits, it is a passable if poorly paced thriller. But whether judged on its own or in relation to The Most Dangerous Game, the big issue with A Game of Death is that it just isn’t that impressive. Not a single shot or performance haunts you the way the earlier film did. Its finest moments are taken straight from the 1932 picture and none of its own offerings enhance the story in any way. This one is at best a competent programmer.

Run for the Sun (1956)

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Run for the Sun’s behind the scenes stories are more discussed than the film itself, particularly the one about Jane Greer contracting a tropical disease that nearly killed her. Not being a fan of 1950s Hollywood cinema, I confess I was not looking forward to this version. Reviews of the movie did little to comfort me, with many a critic and viewer finding the film mediocre, though it does have a small group of fans. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the film, though it does share a great deal of flaws with A Game of Death, flaws which keep Run for the Sun from being as effective as it could have been. Unlike A Game of Death, Run for the Sun stands on its own two feet apart from The Most Dangerous Game. It owes much more to the 1932 movie than it does Connell’s story, thus justifying its position as a remake, but it fleshes out the story to an even greater degree than the earlier film, giving the romantic subplot a good deal of screen time.

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The movie starts off with journalist Katherine “Katie” Connors landing in Central America. Her mission: get the scoop on the long-lost adventure novelist Mike Latimer, who she’s tracked to a remote Mexican fishing village. Finding him there and striking up a friendship with her target, the two get more than they bargained for when they fall in love, though Mike is unaware of Katie’s true motivation for seeking him out. Once Katie learns that the reason for Mike’s reclusiveness was being betrayed by the woman he loved, she finds herself unable to use his misery for an editorial and attempts to return to New York; however, Mike says he wants to fly her to Mexico City in his plane first, an offer which she reluctantly accepts.

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The trip goes about as well as can be expected when one is living in a movie based off “The Most Dangerous Game”: the plane runs out of fuel, causing them to crash land in the middle of a jungle. The injured travelers soon find themselves in the care of Run’s two versions of Zaroff: the English Browne and the Dutch Anders, who live in a hacienda nearby. While the house is cozy and the food is great, Katie does find it rather odd that attack dogs prowl the estate every night and Mike is shocked to find their plane has gone missing. More complications ensue when Mike discovers Katie’s true identity, though once he realizes their hosts are escaped war criminals, he’ll have to learn to trust her again as they flee for their lives in the jungle beyond.

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Ironically, the most effective aspect of Run is the love story between Mike and Katie. Understated and mature, the romance feels integral to the characters and not like an afterthought. Continuing on that note, Widmark’s Mike is the best character in the movie. He was certainly given a more developed character to play than either McCrea or Loder and Widmark plays him with enthusiasm and depth of feeling. Greer is game as the reporter who gets in over her head, though sadly she becomes little more than window dressing once she and Widmark crash land on their way to Mexico City. I will say that I felt the first thirty minutes of the film were more interesting than anything in the jungle: perhaps Run might have been better had it been a character study of this reclusive and creatively dried-out Hemingway-ish author than a redo of “The Most Dangerous Game.”

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And that’s the weird thing about Run: what should have been given the most attention turns out to be the least interesting aspects of the production: the villains and suspense. Unlike Zaroff and Kreiger, Browne and Anders are not enthusiastic big game hunters chasing the hero and heroine for the thrill of the chase. They want Mike and Katie dead solely because they know they are Nazi war criminals. That’s not nearly as chilling as a privileged nutcase who views other people as prey and expects the hero to share his pathology. Even more unfortunate is that neither Howard nor van Eyck do much to make their characters interesting nor do they ever come across as especially threatening.

While the earlier versions had a nightmarish atmosphere, Run never reaches the same levels of excitement. The action sequences are few and not edited that well. We see the obligatory bloodthirsty hounds, but they never feel like that much of a threat. The villains are so overconfident and incompetent that they aren’t that scary either, and you never feel Mike and Katie are in danger for even a moment. While it’s nice that the filmmakers went on-location to shoot the jungle sequences, we never get that same sense of claustrophobia found in The Most Dangerous Game or even the watered down rendition of that in A Game of Death. Thus the final third of the movie, what should be the highlight of the film, turns out to be a major anti-climax.

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While I think Run for the Sun isn’t as bad as some have claimed and would even argue it is in some respects underrated, it is uneven. The screenplay should have either focused on the character elements or the suspense-filled “Most Dangerous Game” plot, because when trying to juggle the two, nothing gels. Widmark’s performance and the romance with Greer do make it worth a gander though.

Conclusion

These three films are only the most well-known adaptations. There have been countless others which operate more on the plane of Run for the Sun, using Connell’s outline. Bloodlust!, Surviving the Game, and The Pest are only a few of the latter day adaptations which use the idea of people hunting people for their basic plot. The influence of the story also lives on in novels like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.

Throughout this post, I think it’s pretty clear I feel that in the case of The Most Dangerous Game movie adaptations, you just can’t top the original. While I’ve heard some people decry the 1932 The Most Dangerous Game as melodramatic or silly in comparison to, say, Run for the Sun, I have to just say that’s part of what makes it so much fun. And while it embellished upon the original short story, it still manages to keep its storytelling economical and its pacing pitch-perfect. Combine all that with striking visuals, breathless action, a great villain, and pure 1930s gothic horror atmosphere, and you have a magnificent piece of entertainment which has weathered the better part of a century quite well.

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Shorts blogathon: Oh, What a Knight (1928) and Ye Olden Days (1933)

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This post is part of the Shorts Blogathon, hosted by the queen of all things silent film related, Fritzi Kramer. Check out her Movies Silently website to dig into other bite-sized goodness!

Ever since Disney reacquired the rights to the character back in 2006, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has made a quasi-comeback, at least in the world of video games and critical limelight. When most think Disney history, they begin their examination with Mickey Mouse’s debut in the late 1920s, but by the time Walt Disney and his collaborator Ub Iwerks came up with the character, they had already had years of experience in animation behind them, dating back to the early 1920s with the  Laugh-O-Gram series. The two found moderate success with their Alice Comedies, which featured a cute live-action girl in an animated world; however, it wasn’t until the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit that Disney would taste major success. I won’t go into how the character was taken from Disney or how he lost every animator on his team save for Iwerks to their producer, Charles Mintz; God knows, other folks online and off have explained it better.

One thing which fascinates me about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is how distinct he is from his successor, Mickey Mouse. While there are obvious design similarities, the characters are quite different. Examining these contrasts is especially delicious when you take into account how many of the early Mickey Mouse shorts are just remakes of Oswald’s Disney material, some more obviously than others. Plane Crazy shares the premise of The Ocean Hop; the same applies to All Wet and Wild Waves. The Oscar-winning Building a Building is a close remake of Sky Scrappers. I could go on all day about the differences in characterization and gags in all of them, but for now, let’s focus on one rich example: the difference between Oswald’s Oh, What a Knight and its remake, Ye Olden Days.

[Quick note: Oswald’s feline love interest never had a stable name; back in the 1920s/1930s, it was usually given as Sadie or Kitty, but ever since the Epic Mickey video game series, she has been rechristened Ortensia. I will refer to her by her modern name just for simplicity’s sake.]

Both shorts share the same general plot: Oswald/Mickey is a wandering minstrel who falls in love with fair damsel Ortensia/Minnie, who is being held prisoner by her father. The story ends with a gag-filled sword fight and the young lovers living happily ever after. Aside from one or two shared gags, this is where the comparisons end.

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As mentioned previously, Oswald and Mickey are distinct characters, though both have a touch of the silent cinema swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks in them. The most oft-mentioned difference is their approaches to romance. Oswald is a rather amorous character, having two love interests in Ortensia and the rabbit Fanny during his Disney run; the Epic Mickey games subtly highlight this trait with the existence of Oswald and Ortensia’s 400 plus bunny children. Oh, What a Knight makes this quality a huge source for gags. Oswald and Ortensia are unable to keep their lips off of one another, with steam emitting from every kiss and Oswald returning to get more sugar in mid-sword fight. In contrast, Mickey is much more boyish in his romantic interactions with Minnie (save for his infamous behavior in Plane Crazy), saving the smooches for the end of the short, in this case, discreetly behind a fan.

Eat your heart out Valentino!

Eat your heart out Valentino!

The way the romantic scenes play out in general are quite different; both shorts share a piece of business, but pull it off with different tones. The basic business is that the girl blows a kiss from the balcony, the boy reacts, and then defies physics to reach the balcony. In Oh, What a Knight, this romantic gesture is a gag: Ortensia kisses the air, puts the kiss in her fist, and winds her arm like a pitcher on the field before throwing the kiss to Oswald, where it smacks him on the lips and sends him reeling. This amuses Oswald’s donkey; Oswald tells him to shut it, then ties a rope to the donkey’s tail and somehow throws it to the balcony edge. The donkey wags his tail and Oswald rides up the rope as though it were an escalator.

Less steamy, to be sure...

Less steamy, to be sure…

Ye Olden Days paints this moment with a sense of whimsy and emotional sincerity. Minnie kisses a flower and tosses it down the Mickey, who’s standing on a tree branch. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he leaps from the branch and practically glides up to the window. Less funny and certainly less complicated than the aforementioned business of the Oswald short, but better in keeping with the tone Ye Olden Days is going for: it wants to be more than just eight minutes of laughs by incorporating more feeling and drama into the mix. Not that Oh, What a Knight’s lack of ambition makes it inferior; remember, these are two shorts that, while sharing the same theme and general story framework, want to achieve wildly different ends.

On another note, Oswald is also much more confrontational than Mickey. He’s perfectly content to settle things with his fists, whereas the more good-natured Mickey is more laidback and usually tries to solve issues with his wits. This is displayed in the climactic scenes of both cartoons: while Oswald has a few tricks up his furry sleeves, it’s Mickey who predominantly makes use of ways to outwit his enemy without engaging him head on with a weapon.

The Oswald cartoon is above all else concerned with stringing one gag after another than story or character, and it packs all of this comic business within a tight structure. In the essential book on silent era animation, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928, Donald Crafton breaks down the “classical” structure of the Disney Oswald cartoon: the introduction, a comic episode, a romantic interlude, the confrontation with the villain, and then the climax and conclusion (294). Knight follows this structure exactly.

Introduction: Oswald established as wandering minstrel with donkey sidekick

Introduction: Oswald established as wandering minstrel with donkey sidekick

Comic episode: The donkey and the alligator; Oswald’s attempts to serenade Ortensia

Comic episode: The donkey and the alligator; Oswald’s attempts to serenade Ortensia

Romantic interlude: Oswald and Ortensia flirting and kissing on the balcony

Romantic interlude: Oswald and Ortensia flirting and kissing on the balcony

Confrontation: Pete appears and initiates at swordfight

Confrontation: Pete appears and initiates at sword fight

Climax/conclusion: Oswald defeats Pete, frees Ortensia, and then the two of them jump out of the tower after being menaced by a lion, luckily floating down to safety thanks to Ortensia’s parachute-like skirt

Climax/conclusion: Oswald defeats Pete, frees Ortensia, and then the two of them jump out of the tower after being menaced by a lion, luckily floating down to safety thanks to Ortensia’s parachute-like skirt

This is all there is to the plot. The majority of the run time focuses on all the silly things Oswald does while dueling Pete in the tower. Aside from Oswald, none of the other characters are given much personality at all.

An unlikely villain

An unlikely villain

By 1933, the Disney studio’s ambitions had extended beyond the realm of gags; there was more of an effort to tell stories and focus on character. Ye Olden Days is essentially a mini-musical with a plot that’s a little more intricate than just “good guy beats bad guy and saves the girl.” For one thing, there’s a larger cast: we have Mickey as the underdog hero, Minnie as the damsel in distress, Pete as the king, Clarabelle as Minnie’s handmaiden, and Goofy as the villainous suitor for Minnie’s hand (in 1933, he was christened “Dippy Dawg,” but I’ll keep things simple and just call him Goofy). Though it’s surreal to see Goofy as an antagonist, and even more so as a romantic rival for Minnie of all people (or… mice, I guess), all of these cartoon stars are ‘cast’ perfectly in their roles.

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The Mickey version takes the bare-bones narrative of the original cartoon and amps up the stakes by fleshing out the story. The father-king doesn’t just stand in the way of the central romance; he’s both comic and threatening, almost having poor Mickey guillotined before Minnie begs for his life (let’s just ignore the fact that the guillotine wasn’t even invented until the eighteenth century). The drama is much higher; by introducing a princely rival and putting his life at stake, Mickey is more of an underdog than Oswald was in his short. This aspect of the character is what made him so appealing to the Depression era audience; it’s also what makes the Mickey cartoons of the early 1930s so much more interesting than the majority of the character’s later ventures, where his good nature was not paired with suitable scenarios which brought out this underdog quality.

One other obvious difference between the two shorts is the musical aspect of the Mickey cartoon, pretty obvious given this is a sound film and musicals were popular in the early 1930s. While not as catchy as the numbers in Building a Building, which is the best Mickey “musical” short in my opinion, the songs are nice and move the plot along swiftly.

But lest we forget, there is one thing that those Disney folks never lost sight of in the transition from silence to sound, from rabbit to mouse: butt-related humor forever.

But seriously.....

But seriously…..

... you could make a drinking game based off of butt-focused humor in Disney films circa 1927-1953.

… you could make a drinking game based off of butt-focused humor in Disney films circa 1927-1953.

For all their differences in characterization and storytelling concerns, the Oswald and Mickey series are great fun and feature a good deal of the Disney staff experimenting with the medium. It’s easy to just view all of it as a playground for ideas and concepts to be put to “better” use in the studio’s famous feature films, but that’s ignoring the art of the short film, of the freewheeling animated short films of Hollywood’s classical period. So, if you haven’t already, sit back and enjoy some classic Disney goodness courtesy of YouTube.

The Klondike Kid (dir. Wilfred Jackson, 1932)

Yes folks, it’s true: there was a time when Mickey Mouse was actually an interesting cartoon character and not a corporate icon.

The Klondike Kid has long been a favorite of mine, a delicious blend of comedy and pathos in the classic Disney mold, back when Disney was a studio hungry for to pioneer the art form and try new things. It owes a lot to Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, from its Yukon setting to the general atmosphere and tone.

Though Mickey Mouse cartoons of the pre-code period were never as naughty as say a contemporary Betty Boop or Flip the Frog, The Klondike Kid has a bit of grit to it which gives it a distinct pre-code flavor, especially in comparison to the later, more sanitized Mickey Mouse outings. The bar where Mickey works is populated with provocatively dressed sows dancing on tables and drunken revelers singing along to a jazzed up cover of the classic ballad of murder and infidelity, “Frankie and Johnny.” This creates a great contrast with the innocent Mickey and Minnie, everyman outsiders trying to find happiness in this dog-eat-dog setting.

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Of course, Pete shows up to do our heroes wrong in one of his most sinister incarnations to date. It’s strange to compare the old-school Pete with his modern incarnation in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or even the Kingdom Hearts games. One of my favorite moments in the entire short is when he first struts into the bar and starts raising hell. After harassing Mickey and Minnie, Pete whips out two guns and shoots out the lights. Everything goes black, save for Pete’s successive shots, which briefly illuminate the bar and give off a strobe effect.

The ending confrontation between Mickey and Pete features the heaviest Chaplin influence of all. Their battle causes the log cabin they’re in to slide down a steep mountain, echoing the plight of the Little Tramp and Big Jim in The Gold Rush‘s climax.

The Klondike Kid is not as celebrated as the likes of Steamboat Willie or The Band Concert, but I still love it best of all of them. It showcases what made Mickey Mouse so popular in the early 1930s, how his own comic struggles mirrored the plight of the Depression-era audience in a way, the little guy trying his best to make it in a tough world.