One of the great things about films from Hollywood’s pre-Code era (besides the excessive boozing, blatant depictions of sex and strong, independent women) is the runtime. A vast majority of films made between the early talkie era in 1929 and the enforcement of the Hays’ Code in 1934 have runtimes under 75 minutes. Get in, get out. To be clear, I don’t have anything against long movies; matter of fact, one of my favorites is William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), clocking in at two hours and fifty-two minutes. It’s just that many films overstay their welcome. A great example of efficient, effective storytelling is 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game (currently streaming on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck until Nov. 29), directed by Irving Pichel. Starring a young Joel McCrea (fresh off his steamy performance alongside Dolores del Rio in Bird of Paradise), Fay Wray (before her meeting with King Kong in 1933) and Leslie Banks, The Most Dangerous Game is a faithful adaptation of Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Hounds of Zaroff.
Joel McCrea’s portrayal of the famous big game hunter-turned-prey Robert Rainsford is entertaining, if a bit stilted at times. McCrea’s physical build, good looks and athleticism were integral components of his earliest performances, especially in films where he sheds his clothing (see Bird of Paradise). McCrea wouldn’t really come into his own until 1940 with an incredible string of films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), Preston Sturges’s back-to-back comedy hits Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), and George Stevens’s The More the Merrier (1943). Fay Wray isn’t particularly memorable as the shipwrecked socialite Eve Trowbridge, but then again I don’t consider myself much of a fan of hers, or the helpless and weak female character trope. Leslie Banks gives the finest performance in the film as the deranged, brilliant hunter Count Zaroff, a man so wicked that it shows in his facial hair, particularly his perfectly manicured eyebrows.
The Most Dangerous Game isn’t the greatest movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it makes very good use of its fast-paced sixty-three minutes, with not even one moment wasted on useless exposition or excessive action. The film adaptation is a perfect companion to Connell’s forty-eight page short tale of hunting, the fight for survival and gross depravity. Unfortunately, the pre-Code model of quick and powerful storytelling has been all but lost. In many of the modern Hollywood films released today, brevity has been exchanged in favor for bloated spectacles and billion dollar franchises squeezing long feature-length films out of every little moment in a piece of literature. (A perfect example of this is the ill-conceived trilogy “adaptation” of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.) Audiences don’t seem to have too much of a problem with longer runtimes and the seemingly obligatory film sequels (and their accompanying themed merchandise, television spinoffs and amusement park attractions), as they are incredibly eager to line-up on opening weekend. I don’t have an issue with the big blockbuster or even a well-made film franchise, but somehow good storytelling has been unfairly equated with length. Honestly, a lot of modern films, specifically action adventure and comic book adaptations, spoil their entertaining source material by being way too long. I call it the “James Bond Syndrome”: great story and fascinating characters, but one location, one villain, one action sequence too many. Even films directed toward children have lengthened considerably over time. My movie-obsessed daughter will gladly sit down for a two hour film if it’s good enough, but most kids can’t make it past the one hour mark, especially in a theatre. I imagine that if Lady and the Tramp (1955) were made today it would be twice the length with a spinoff franchise on Aunt Sarah’s twin cats Si and Am. Actually, that’s not a bad idea. You’re welcome, Disney.
At an hour in length, The Most Dangerous Game isn’t a huge investment for the audience. Many of the films of this era were cranked out in remarkable numbers. Their low budgets, tight schedules and fast post-production turnaround were necessary for the studios to make a profit, especially when most films only stayed in the theatre for a week or two. This frequent changeover in the theatres created sort of an episodic tone, keeping audiences interested from week to week. This early filmgoing experience is akin to modern television programming, but was lost once televisions were ubiquitous in American homes. Hollywood scrambled to compete, creating bigger films with more stars, larger budgets and longer runtimes, and for many years this model was successful. Now with television experiencing an incredible renaissance filled with diverse characters, rich storylines and the freedom to tell stories at a slower, more satisfying pace, Hollywood really needs to reevaluate its approach to film (not to mention its serious issues with lack of diversity, inclusion and representation in front of and behind the camera). I don’t know if returning to the pre-Code model is the right answer, but surely there is a happy-medium between that and the bloated nine hour trilogy. If cinema is to survive it should take a note out of its past. There’s much to be learned.