Tag Archives: RKO Pictures

Pre-Code Hollywood #8 – The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Most_Dangerous_Game_posterThe Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Directed by: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by: James Ashmore Creelman (based on The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell)
Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong

The production of The Most Dangerous Game is almost as interesting as the film itself, based on Richard Connell’s famous 1924 short story of the same name. The film was shot at night on RKO Studio sets built for the following year’s King Kong. The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong would share various cast and crew, most notably stars Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, composer Max Steiner, and director Ernest B. Schoedsack. Merian C. Cooper, producer of The Most Dangerous Game, would also go on to co-direct King Kong. Anybody who has seen the incredible Kong film might be familiar with many of the sets featured in the last half of The Most Dangerous Game, giving the whole project an odd, but comfortable, sense of familiarity. While this film was not nearly as financially successful as King Kong, it is regarded by many as the strongest adaptation of Connell’s story, and one of the very best pre-code examples of a tight, effective thriller.

The Most Dangerous Game sees famous hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) become shipwrecked on an island owned by a Russian Count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks). There he is joined by siblings Eve (Fay Wray) and Martin (Robert Armstrong) Trowbridge, who were also shipwrecked on the island in a completely unrelated accident. Things start off innocently enough, but soon it is clear to Rainsford that something about Zaroff is amiss. The Count’s leading hobby is that of hunting, but not in the same way that Bob is accustomed to. Zaroff speaks of the hunt satisfying the primal, savage urges of man, and it’s clear that he has continuously tried to raise the stakes of his big game expeditions. In other words, hunting makes Zaroff horny…really, really disturbingly horny. No longer satisfied with buffalo or tigers, Zaroff has decided on a new prey…man.
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At just slightly over an hour long, The Most Dangerous Game runs at one hell of a fast clip. Its short run time doesn’t afford it the detailed world-building that longer films feature, but it isn’t really a movie that needs it to be memorable. We are immediately thrown into the film by briefly meeting Bob Rainsford, establishing that he is a famed hunter and our protagonist. From there, The Most Dangerous Game hardly ever lets up – we experience the yacht’s crash, which leaves Bob alone and in a desperate situation, and then quickly move on to Zaroff’s chateau. Once there, the sinister atmosphere begins to build, thanks in part to some excellent set designs, and an efficient screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman. The dialogue is quick, unsubtle, and concise, which makes the film feel pulpy, but the result is something thrilling, fun, and efficient. Zaroff’s introduction can be likened to the introduction of some of the famous Universal horror movie monsters from the same time period – the character is immediately established as being intimidating, mysterious, and deeply compelling in his worldview. Once he begins conversing with Bob about hunting, he can’t help but say a little too much – he’s far more interested in the thrill of the hunt than anybody else in the chateau, even the world renowned hunter. His festishizing of hunting makes Zaroff even more disturbing to viewers, especially when he begins to give Fay Wray’s Eve some mean side eye. The concise nature of the screenplay is one of the best things about The Most Dangerous Game – it’s clear from just ten minutes into the film that the gang are in for one hell of a night.

The performances in The Most Dangerous Game are all around solid, with the standout being Leslie Banks’ Zaroff. While he doesn’t exactly pass for a Russian Count, his presence is nonetheless sinister. He puts on a gentlemanly facade on the outside, but it’s clear by the film’s ending that he’s anything but. Zaroff sets strict rules for his (literal) manhunts, and yet takes every measure to ensure that the odds are always in his favour – not exactly sportsmanlike in my opinion. Banks’ over-the-top performance makes Zaroff an unlikable, but compelling and very fun villain. The film’s direction is another highlight, especially in its action set-pieces late in the film. Bob and Eve are forced to play to Zaroff’s disturbing fantasies, running through detailed jungle sets in almost complete darkness. These scenes are thrilling and incredibly well-paced, never allowing Bob and Eve to rest for more than a moment before they catch a glimpse of their hunter. The two climactic action scenes feel modern in their blocking and choreography, and are helped by some foggy, shadow-heavy cinematography by Henry W. Gerrard. These scenes also feature much of the film’s pre-code elements, with Bob being forced to kill several of Zaroff’s hunting dogs, and later killing more than one of his assailants. The most egregious example of The Most Dangerous Game’s pre-code content lays in Zaroff’s sexualization of the thrill of the hunt – while he never outright says that hunting gets his rocks off, it’s made pretty obvious that something about it is satisfying him on a deeper level.
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The Most Dangerous Game is one hell of a thrill ride – it’s fast-paced thanks to a tight screenplay, features a great hammy villainous performance from Leslie Banks, and has some tremendous early action set-pieces. It’s not exactly a piece of highbrow drama, but it’s earned its place in cinematic history by being a balls to the wall adaptation of a memorable story. If you’re interested in seeing this terrific film, you’re in luck. The Most Dangerous Game has fallen into public domain, meaning that there are no longer any legitimate rights holders. It can be viewed legally and for free here on YouTubeThe Most Dangerous Game is highly recommended

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Classic Musicals #1 – Top Hat (1935)

TopHatORGITop Hat (1935)
Directed by: Mark Sandrich
Written by: Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, Ralph Spence, Karoly Noti (based on Scandal in Budapest by Sandor Farago, A Girl Who Dares by Aladar Laszlo)|
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are perhaps the most famous early Hollywood on-screen duo, charming American audiences with their unique song and dance productions.  The two Hollywood stars made ten famous musicals together in the period of about a decade, starring in multiple Oscar-nominated pictures, setting box-office records, and creating an untouchable legacy in the process.  1935’s Top Hat is the pair’s fourth, and arguably most successful, collaboration.  Musical numbers like “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”, “Cheek to Cheek”, and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” have made Top Hat the most iconic and memorable Astaire and Rogers film, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of 1935, and even earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.  Director Mark Sandrich had previously worked with Astaire and Rogers in their highly successful 1934 film The Gay Divorcee.  Sandrich would continue working with the two throughout his stay at RKO Pictures, directing films like Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance, and Carefree.  Sandrich’s most iconic picture would come after his departure from RKO, in the form of Holiday Inn, starring Astaire and Bing Crosby, and introducing “White Christmas” to the world.  Top Hat has also been praised for its elaborate and marvelously choreographed tap dancing sequences, elegant set design, and its lighthearted screwball nature.  While many cite Top Hat as the most successful pairing of Astaire and Rogers, historians and critics have noted the superior choreography of the dance numbers in the slightly less appreciated Swing Time (released a year later in 1936).  Top Hat remains beloved by fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and studied for its impeccable choreography and musical numbers.  It currently resides in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, where it will continue to charm audiences for generations to come.

The story of Top Hat is a relatively simple one: We follow the famous American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) in London for latest new show.  The new musical hit is being produced by the esteemed, but bumbling, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton).  While in his London hotel room, Jerry meets a young woman named Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who has become annoyed at the sounds of Jerry’s late-night tap dancing on the floor above her.  The American dancer falls in love with Dale at first sight, and immediately sets his sights on charming the young woman, pursuing her all around the city.  He eventually follows her all the way to Venice after his show premieres to rave reviews.  Dale is in Venice visiting her friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), and modelling the fashions of renowned designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes).  After a series of mix ups and a bad case of mistaken identity, Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace Hardwick, who just happens to be married to her friend Madge.  After being outraged by Jerry’s marriage proposal (and still believing him to be the husband of her dear friend), Dale instead agrees to marry the Italian designer Alberto Beddini.  Can Jerry and Horace clear things up with the women who have won their hearts, or will this case of mistaken identity prove too much to handle? Find out the answer to that question – and see some wonderful musical numbers in the process – in Mark Sandrich’s 1935 film Top Hat!

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Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire doing what they do best in 1935’s Top Hat.

I’ll start with a major confession right off the bat: It took more than three viewings of Astaire and Rogers’ Top Hat for me to fully appreciate and understand the praise leveled at the film.  On my initial viewings I was charmed by the opening act of the film, but ultimately lost interest in the messy story of mistaken identity and all the zaniness that it brings to the table for all characters involved.  Determined to see this one through to the end, this amateur reviewer let the film digest in my mind over the course of a week, re-watching the film and individual scenes, until I finally came to appreciate more than Top Hat’s incredible musical numbers.  The biggest struggle I encountered with Top Hat was the sparse musical numbers coupled with the incredibly dry wit of the film’s screenplay.  Whereas many modern day musicals are rather over-the-top in their comedic and emotional delivery, Top Hat maintains a good-natured and subtle sense of humor throughout, never pandering to an audience looking only to be thrilled by song and dance set pieces.  For this, I can only applaud the four credited (and one uncredited) writers of the script for creating a picture that charms not only in its music, but also in its story and character development. What could very well have been nothing more than a showcase for the dancing and singing abilities of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers instead is turned into a genuinely charming, funny, and witty screwball comedy.

The surprisingly smart script is paired with incredible music by Irving Berlin and Max Steiner, who together wrote some of Astaire and Rogers’ most iconic numbers.  These include “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” – where Astaire proudly declares that he doesn’t need a woman in his life, and famously lulls Ginger Rogers to sleep by being her personal “sandman”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” – where a madly in love Astaire tries to charm Rogers in a park on a rainy night, “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” – which sees Astaire mockingly and playfully guns down a chorus of men with his cane, and finally “Cheek to Cheek” – the musical number that has become one of the most famous songs shared by the two actors, which sees Astaire once again try to woo the hesitant and rather confused Ginger Rogers.  This being my first ever exposure to the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, one can’t help but immediately notice the incredible on-screen chemistry shared by the two actors.  They play incredibly well off each other comedically, and compliment one another perfect in their musical sequences – Astaire playing the role of the cocksure famous dancer, and Rogers playing the strong, but hesitant woman who suspects his intentions may not be entirely noble.  Complimenting their chemistry is the energetic, but patient, direction of Mark Sandrich.  His camera perfectly follows the fluid movements of both dancers, and also isn’t afraid to sit and observe a scene if it calls for it.  Quick edits and unique high angle shots are wonderfully employed to capture the film’s more elaborate dance numbers, creating a sense of wonder seen in many of Hollywood’s early musicals.  If I have one minor complaint about Top Hat, it would be that the madcap and zany nature of its middle act stands out awkwardly when sandwiched between the incredibly charming and romantic first and last acts.  This isn’t a major issue, nor does it completely ruin the film’s flow; the transitions between these acts just stands out as being slightly abrupt and awkward.

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Fred Astaire’s famed “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” dance number.

While it may have taken me longer than most to find something to sink my teeth into, Top Hat managed to win my appreciation – and a place in my heart – after multiple viewings.  The pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are still unrivaled as a musical duo, and the chemistry, passion, and charm they bring to the big screen has to be seen to be believed.  While I may not be an expert of song or dance, I can certainly appreciate that the onscreen pair are some of the very best to ever appear on film.  Top Hat brings with it a solid and truly funny screenplay, incredibly memorable and well-choreographed dance numbers, and high-energy direction that suits the tone of the film perfectly.  Whether you’re a fan of dance or not, Top Hat is a film you should see in order to fully appreciate the evolution of music and dance in the movies.  Top Hat is highly recommended.

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John Ford Feature #6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

SheworeayellowribbonpostShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Nugent, Laurence Stallings (based on The Big Hunt & War Party by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen

The second part of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy is a beautiful and sweeping technicolor dream, marking it one of the director’s very first full-color films.  The middle chapter in this spiritual series takes place immediately after the death of Commander George Armstrong Custer, who in real life died during the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon had the honor of being one of the most expensive western films ever produced up to 1949, and went on to be a smash hit for both John Ford and RKO Pictures.  The name of the film is listed from the classic and triumphant cavalry marching song of the same name, which makes an appearance or two in the movie.  The film was shot in beautiful color by cinematographer Winton Hoch, one of the originators of the technicolor format.  He won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his photography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a prize he had won the previous year for Joan of Arc, and would win again in 1952 for John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  John Ford would take on Hoch as a cinematographer for four other pictures, many of which are acclaimed for their cinematography.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon once again stars John Wayne, this time as Captain Nathan Brittles, as well as Joanne Dru as Olivia Dandridge, John Agar as Lieutenant Flint Cohill, and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree.  The film also stars Ford regulars Harry Carey Jr., and Victor McLaglen.  Apparently, the casting of John Wayne in the lead role was up in the air initially.  The character of Brittles was two decades older than Wayne was at the time, and Ford wasn’t certain of his long-time partner’s acting abilities.  After seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ classic Red River, Ford realized that John Wayne could act, and promptly changed his mind and finally decided on his lead star.

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As mentioned previously, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon begins immediately after the fall of Commander Custer and his cavalry troops in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is a man on the verge of retirement, but has been given one last major mission to carry out.  The mission is to lead his troops from their post in Fort Starke to ease tensions with Cheyenne and Arapaho forces following Custer’s Land Stand.  Things are further complicated when Brittles has to escort the Major’s wife and niece, Abbey Allshard (Mildred Natwick), and Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) along with them.  The women are accompanying the cavalry to a nearby post in order to avoid the incoming Indian War.  Two of Brittles’ soldiers, Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), become romantically interested in miss Dandridge along the way, further complicating matters.  After the apparent failure of both such missions, Brittles decides to retire and head back for his Fort.  After some deep thinking by the Captain as well as unnecessary bloodshed, Brittles rejoins his men and arranges for a face-to-face meeting with the important Chief Pony-That-Walks (Chief John Big Tree).  When things once again don’t go so well with the Chief, the cavalry must regroup and devise a plan to lead the Native American forces back to their reservations and ultimately avoid another senseless war.  Will Captain Brittles finally overcome the odds and make peace with the Native people, or will he be forced to see more violence and bloodshed before his retirement?  Find out in the second chapter in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is quite possibly the most beautiful film in the marathon so far.  I might be biased though, because I’ve always had a soft spot for technicolor.  I love how the format looks both a little too bright and a little washed out at the same time, it never fails to create incredible imagery that I’ll remember for a long time to come.  Not only is the photography by Winton Hoch spectacular, but the lead performance by John Wayne is absolutely something to behold.  Even though he’s playing a man much older than he was in real life, you believe that Captain Brittles is a tired old cavalry captain on the verge of retirement.  It’s easily one of the best performances I’ve seen Wayne give thus far, and I can’t wait to see more of his more celebrated performances as the marathon goes on.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is famous for being the moment that John Ford realized the acting potential in John Wayne after a twenty year partnership, and I can certainly imagine the “eureka” moment he must have had.  A scene where Brittles breaks the news about no longer leading the cavalry to their mission and receiving a medal from his troops is truly touching, and allows Wayne to display a rare instance of humanity in one of his characters.  Captain Brittles may not be as loveable as Wayne’s Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande, but the performance given more than makes up for that.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon tells a realistic story where not every plan goes the way that they’re supposed to, and watching Captain Brittles battle his frustrations and doubt himself is heartbreaking in moments.  The “overcoming the odds” story is often riddled with cliches and general cheesiness, but somehow this film manages to subvert the tired trope and become something unique.  When things finally start to go the way they’re supposed to, you can’t help but feel triumph along with the rest of the cavalry.  On top of the triumphant moments felt when Brittles does have things go his way, the film’s titular theme song helps move the action along and makes the adventure feel much more grand.  IT plays over and over and roars over the film’s greatest moments, and I can guarantee it’ll be stuck in your head for a week afterward.  I haven’t stopped whistling the tune since the credits rolled the first time around.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon doesn’t have the same level of comedy, redemption, or incredible action set pieces as seen in Fort Apache, but it’s still a more than worthy follow-up to a terrific trilogy opener.  

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The first two parts of John Ford’s famous cavalry trilogy have been terrific pieces of good old fashioned western films, bringing with them a grand sense of adventure, thrills, progressive attitudes towards the Native American peoples, and two terrific performances.  I can only hope that the closing film, Rio Grande, is half as good as these two are.  With its terrific John Wayne performance, beautiful technicolour photography, roaring score and theme song, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is everything you could ever want from the western genre.  There’s a great deal of fun to be had here, no matter how you feel about westerns or the films of John Ford.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is highly recommended.

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