Back into the Malaysian jungles we go again for Cecil B. DeMille's early survival pic, Four Frightened People. Released just under the wire before the studios started fully enforcing the Hays Code in 1934, the movie retains a few spicy Pre-Code moments, even in its edited-down theatrical release form (the studio hacked it down from 95 minutes to 78, most of the cuts seemingly not eliminating juicy or saucy material, but mostly unnecessary backstory for the four main characters.) The film starts out like gangbusters, full of lots of witty banter and some fun character interactions, but becomes increasingly ridiculous and melodramatic the more it goes on.
The movie opens with our protagonists sneaking off ship to escape an outbreak of bubonic plague on their steamer. No sooner do they arrive on shore in the wilds of Malaya (once again, Hawaii acts as a substitute) then they find themselves tramping through the jungle to get to the port on the other side of the peninsula, led by an amiable native guide, Montague (Leo Carillo), who thinks of himself as a "white man" (fittingly, as he's played by one) and wears a necktie over his bare, barrel chest.
All of this sounds good on paper but in execution, it's a bit lacking, mainly because any last shred of credibility flies out the window as the movie goes on, and film lapses into a lengthy middle reel interlude lacking in any real threat, eventually winding up in a series of rather silly, sub-Swiss Family Robinson-style scenes of domestic housekeeping in the jungle.
Despite its exotic setting (there's a title card stating how the exteriors for the movie were filmed in Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea), there's little in the way of panoramic scenery; instead, the close, chokingly dense vegetation of the jungle heightens the more intimate, character-driven atmosphere of the film - quite a change of pace to director DeMille's usual style of epic filmmaking. While the film remains entertaining overall, starting and finishing strong, it's marred by its baggy middle section, general silliness and lack of peril, and its myriad plot inconsistencies (For instance: Just exactly how did Judy fashion her jungle bikini get-up? And her glasses get broken and, miracle or miracles, it turns out she never needed them in the first place, and can now see well enough to shoot down birds with a bow and arrow she somehow fashioned out of thin air. Also, are we to presume these city folk were capable of building the numerous huts and shelters they use throughout the film? We later see Ainger skinning a leopard to give its pelt to Judy - are we supposed to actually believe that he killed it himself? The list goes on and on...I know it's "just a movie," but jeez!) I'm not sure how much blame for these gaffes rests with DeMille or with the screenplay (by Bartlett Cormach and Lenore Coffee), but I'm willing to bet that the original source novel by E. Arnot Robertson bears up to closer scrutiny.
The real delight here is Mary Boland, who constantly defies character type expectations by gamely and cheerfully trudging through the wild in her pearls, Pekinese clutched in one arm, rarely batting an eyelid at whatever dangers cross their path. She also gets quite a few choice lines, for example: "Aren't men fussy about their food? Robinson Crusoe ate leaves." (plucks a leaf from a nearby bush, chews it and makes a grimace.) "Stupid book."
Some other pluses include some excellently designed jungle sets, which blend pretty well with real exterior shots; the occasional nice directorial flourish (such as a scene near the opening, where we see sailors pitch a dead, shroud-wrapped body overboard and the camera pans down along its falling trajectory until it splashes into the water below); and a goodly number of funny little throw-away moments, such as when the two male leads, having just discovered what Judy really looks like during her waterfall bathing moment, hasten back to camp and attempt to shave and comb their hair with makeshift tools in order to make themselves more presentable.
DVD Note: Considering its age, Four Frightened People looks and sounds quite nice (albeit grainy), and is part of the very affordable 5-disc Cecille B. DeMille Collection from Universal, which also includes Cleopatra, The Sign of the Cross (both also starring Claudette Colbert), Union Pacific and The Crusades.