Acteurism: Joel McCrea in "The Most Dangerous Game"

Our coverage of the Museum of Modern Art’s series dedicated American actor Joel McCrea continues.
Z. W. Lewis

The Most Dangerous Game. Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures Inc./Photofest.

Early in his career as a leading man, Joel McCrea was cast in two films about dangerous animals on the loose. Using the same jungle sets, the same directors (Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack), and even the same stars (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong) as their upcoming King Kong (1933), RKO’s production of The Most Dangerous Game (1932) submitted to economic shortcuts. Both adventure films would be made at the same time by organizing the same constituents in different roles. Even our hero McCrea would be asked to cross over to Team Kong, only to pull out thanks to thesesame frugal actions. Within this year of production McCrea’s star power had already exceeded what the studios could afford him.

The Most Dangerous Game’s first reveal of McCrea’s Bob reveals him wearing a sport shirt adorned with military epaulets and a casual tie. It’s a lackadaisical approach to formality, especially when compared to his shipmates, each sporting neatly ironed dress shirts, full ties, and well-fitting suits for their voyage on a luxury ocean liner. He’s a boy among men, or at least a nouveau riche figure to well-mannered old money, admitted in their company thanks to his renown as a big game hunter. McCrea’s addition to this character resides in his easy-going compliance with these suits: a smile at their compliments, a joke or two to lift any air of class difference. It’s a sense of belonging with the established elite through a degree of can-do exceptionalism, another slice of American meritocratic thinking that pervades McCrea’s characters. He had barely gained his leading man status, but already McCrea imbued his role with the mannerisms and attitude of a boy scout.

After regaling his shipmates about the thrill of hunting tigers for sport (and what a thrill it must be to take the role of the hunted, noted with the verbal inflection version of a heavy wink), the liner crashes, sinks, and explodes, leaving only McCrea to explore the nearby island himself. He’s taken in to a castle set straight out of a Robert Weine film by Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks’s debut role), a Cossack narrowly escaping the trials of the Russian Revolution. Opposite him, a brother-sister pair of stranded guests (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, shared with King Kong) bring attention to the odd circumstances that have placed them into the manor. The Most Dangerous Game, based off a 1924 short story by Richard Connell, refers to humans. Zaroff intends to hunt each of these guests after regaling them with the energy and pleasure he receives from difficult game. 

With so many vibrant personalities to contrast, Joel McCrea’s carefree style blossoms. Banks’s Zaroff dons an unbelievable Russian accent which aligns to a more heightened verbal inflection of his own invention than any geographically derived intonation. His wide-eyed, dynamic behaviors fill the Great Hall while McCrea’s broad shoulders and lifted chest delivering a more serious antithesis. McCrea bellows lines to the count as if reading from a nearby cue card, most of his quick deliveries belonging to a transparent subtext or a pure narrative drive. This no-frills interaction, emphasized by basic medium-shot profiles of McCrea sitting in his armchair to a reverse shot of Banks’s mobile display, reveals a workingman attitude toward McCrea’s craft akin to the anti-poetic public personality of director John Ford. However, also like Ford, he cultivates a poetic atmosphere through his literal displays, gaining his own rhythm by playing off others.

Robert Armstrong’s boozy tramp, Martin, cozies next to Banks to relinquish his threatening attitude and place it into the realm of camp behavior. Banks proclaims his boredom of traditional big game hunting to deaf ears as each foreboding line is answered with Armstrong’s half-cognizant interjections. It’s a quick comedic bit before Armstrong is executed for his attempts at disregardingBanks’s power, and again McCrea plays the straight man. He’s confused, but confident; stone-faced until he finds the appropriate lighting for a flattering portrait.

And, just like in The More the Merrier (1943), his straight man act dissolves when playing off a love interest. Fay Wray’s Eve acts the most vigilant over the count’s odd behavior, keeping a taut posture and sideways glance at McCrea. When Banks leaves earshot, she whispers to McCrea about the missing guests that occupied the manor just a week ago. McCrea misreads her proximity as intimacy instead of secrecy and her nervous appearance as an opportunity to play the confident hero. Despite the looming presence of the manor itself (chiaroscuro lighting, high ceilings, the implied threat of what lurks in the trophy room, et al.), McCrea relaxes his shoulders, puts on a goofy grin, and eases into Wray’s face. McCrea’s claim of his effortless acting style always seems at odds with scenes in which he’s asked to win over the lead woman – his posture seems to dip, his attention seemingly thwarted by a previous soft-lit close-up of his partner’s face.

Then, he must change pace. Banks’s reveal that he’s hunting his guests throws the film into an action rhythm. McCrea’s military shirt, previously a demarcator of class and occupation, rips and dirties into the more traditional uniform. With its epaulets and front pockets still not only visible but prominent, the shirt adds to the mythos McCrea must fill in these scenes. It’s a shirt worn by a boy scout, a safari hunter, a soldier, but most importantly the idea of the adventurous American male that McCrea represents. Add a cartoonish Cossack antagonist and a damsel-in-distress to the mix and McCrea suddenly becomes a political symbol of American strength in the wake of rising international powers (the short story was published a few years after World War I; the film was shot during the rise of the Nazi party and the tightening of Stalin’s power in the USSR). His line delivery still gives the midrange inflection of reading straight from the script; but now he can shift from reciting a hurried narrative-driving monologue to the air offscreen (a stand-in for the audience) to a rhythmic bunch of misogynistic platitudes when facing Wray (typically about his obligation to protect her).

Though the shirt leads to a sort of American catch-all personality McCrea must exhibit, the holes and tatters also reveal an expectation of masculinity from him. A particular type of rolled-sleeves, exposed-chest pragmatism accompanies his cutting a trap for the count deep in the jungle. Sweat and muscle take more of the frame than McCrea’s personality, solidifying him as an early male sex symbol as only a pre-Code film could. McCrea bounds over cliffs, grabs the hunting dogs (all rented from Harold Lloyd) by the throat, and subsequently gores them. His athleticism and violence here are of a pure energetic McCrea, a quality not often exploited in these early years despite his long career as an active rancher. McCrea’s actions throughout the entire film are underscored by a heightened sex appeal, as each movement and every line puts him in either a position of power among men (exhibiting a relaxed air among the ship’s elite and counterpointing the count) or an excuse to nuzzle against and control Fay Wray.

As a result, The Most Dangerous Game contributes to the mythos of what would become “leading man Joel McCrea” rather than actually letting him exhibit his acting chops. By exploring their limits in the last days before the Hays Code and as a move to make him believable as the upcoming hunter of Kong, RKO puts McCrea’s body on display. Gauging from the way he squeezes the life out of Banks in order to hoist Wray away in the film’s final sequence, he was happy to oblige.


Part of our on-going series covering the Museum of Modern Art's series Acteurism: Joel McCrea.

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Joel McCreaActeurismMuseum of Modern ArtNew York
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