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 four people in the title are Claudette Colbert, as Judy, a mousy spinster of a schoolteacher no one takes seriously - at least at first, until she loses her glasses and goes all nature girl sexpot later in the film; the refined Herbert Marshall, believably snarky if hard to buy as a downtrodden rubber chemist and henpecked corporate schlub named Ainger; Mary Boland as Mrs. Marsdick, a cheerful (and surprisingly tough and resilient) society grand dame and wife of a British official, on a mission to educate the East about the dangers of overpopulation; and William Gargan as a brassy, boorish newspaper reporter named Corder.
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.
The rest of the film details the party's plight as they get lost, contend with miscellaneous wild beasties, thick underbrush, deteriorating clothing and hostile native tribes - as the layers of civilized behavior gradually peel away.
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.
The two men go from ignoring shrinking violet Judy (fat chance, as any hetero male would spot the hot bod and good looks behind those specs and frumpy clothes right away) to swooning once they see her showering nude under a waterfall. The increasingly confident Judy gradually comes to prefer the soulful Ainger over the more overtly masculine Corder, though is dismayed to learn he's stuck in a loveless marriage. The viewer is also dismayed to witness Herbert Marshall suddenly go from enjoyably sarcastic misanthrope to sensitive, poetry-quoting drip. Meanwhile, and more amusingly, Mrs. Marsdick is kept captive by a tribal elder (Tetsu Komai) in ransom for a large payment of rice for invading his home turf, and that enterprising lady is soon organizing spear throwing tournaments for the tribe's children and enciting the women to wrestle some power back from the men.
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.
Thirty-one years old here, Claudette Colbert looks great in her jungle girl outfit and does a decent job both as the hesitant "old maid" from Chicago and the proto-Sheena she blossoms into, even if the transition is a bit abrupt. (By the way, September 13th 2013 marks the star's 100th birthday...readers are encouraged to head over to fellow blogger Patti's site They Don't Make 'Em Like the Used To for lots of good coverage of the lovely Ms. Colbert and her career). It's amusing to see Herbert Marshall, so delightfully urbane in later films like Foreign Correspondent, here trying to portray earnest romantic yearning and keep a straight face. I don't know much about William Gargan but found him just fine as the prototypical rough, loudmouth newspaperman.
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.
Cecil B. DeMille was a powerhouse figure in early Hollywood, though his reputation has somewhat diminished with the passing decades. Never one for subtlety, DeMille is most famous for his huge spectaculars like Cleopatra, The Sign of the Cross, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments, among others. Whatever you might say about DeMille's films, they were rarely boring, and the same holds true for Four Frightened People. Certainly far from the best the now-defunct "jungle adventure" field has to offer, but far from the worst, either.
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.
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