DirectorCecil B. DeMille
Release Date(s)1934 (August 3, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B-
Four Frightened People, a lesser-known film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, puts a small group of strangers together in an inhospitable environment. Newspaper columnist Stewart Corder (William Gargan); mild-mannered chemist Arnold Ainger (Herbert Marshall); the overbearing wife of a British official, Mrs. Mardick (Mary Boland); and mousy Chicago school teacher Judy Jones (Claudette Colbert) are on a steamship when bubonic plague breaks out. Jumping ship with nothing but the fancy dinner clothes they’re wearing and Mrs. Mardick’s little dog, they commandeer a fishing boat and, led by a half-caste guide, make it to the Malayan jungle.
Ironically, the local natives happen to be fighting an outbreak of cholera. The foursome and their guide head out to make their way back to civilization. As they trek through the thick jungle, we get to know more about the unlikely quartet. Corder fancies himself a leader and bullies the guide and his fellow travelers. Ainger is dour and pessimistic about extricating themselves from their predicament. Mrs. Mardick, forever carrying her small dog, is flighty and seems to be enjoying the adventure even as she tramps through the underbrush in her long bejeweled gown and high heels. Judy is alternately terrified and exhilarated by the environment and undergoes a physical as well as an emotional transformation.
Roles shift as time passes. Corder becomes less arrogant. Ainger realizes he’s been beaten down in his high society marriage and feels freed in this new environment. Mrs. Mardick is held for ransom by a tribe of natives but earns the trust of the tribal women, forcing their husbands to comply with their will. Judy emerges as a fierce leader, shedding her horn-rimmed glasses and literally letting her hair down, transforming from a dowdy schoolmarm into an alluringly beautiful young woman.
Colbert’s versatility is apparent in her portrayals of the schoolmarm Judy and the jungle Judy. Not only does she alter her appearance, but she also changes her behavior, taking on a looser, freer style, as if the wilds of the jungle have exorcised her inhibitions and fears. Colbert could play practically anything during the 1930s—a spoiled heiress, a girl from the other side of the tracks, even the queen of Egypt in DeMille’s next picture, Cleopatra.
Boland, a fine character actor, was known for her harebrained or eccentric characters. Here, she brings that persona to an unfamiliar setting and provides considerable humor, which the film sorely needs. Gargan and Marshall are drab and colorless compared to their female co-stars and play second fiddle as the women easily walk away with the picture.
In typical DeMille fashion, there’s a scene in which Judy bathes naked under a waterfall. More exploitative than essential to the plot, the scene is brief and shot at a considerable distance but still pretty racy for 1934. DeMille mixes the adventurers’ upper-class pastimes in the jungle, such as playing bridge, with new experiences, such as encountering a water buffalo. The women acclimate themselves much quicker than the men and are excited about being removed from societal expectations. They need not be concerned with what other people will think. Their intelligence and strengths, previously constrained, automatically kick in.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray release of Four Frightened People by Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The visual quality is murky, blacks lack richness and depth. In many scenes, it seems we’re looking through mist. In the opening credits, scratches are visible on the right side of the frame, but only for a few seconds. Lighting isn’t particularly dramatic and Karl Struss’ photography lacks imagination. Colbert’s bathing scene, with nothing between her and the camera but a waterfall, reveals enough to make the moment memorable. De Mille, who started his career in the silent period, uses several title cards at the beginning of the film to introduce the main characters and establish the setting. One of the title cards notes that the film was shot in Hawaii.
The sound is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. The sound is very low on this release. I had to raise the volume considerably to get to a comfortable listening level. Dialogue can be understood but lacks the clarity of other Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases. Various animal noises suggest lots of wildlife but we only see a water buffalo, a cobra, and a chimpanzee (who steals Colbert’s clothes as she’s bathing). We hear about the ubiquitous mosquitoes as the actors slap their necks. An eerie whistling is heard in a bamboo forest and the rumblings of natives and the beating of drums add an ominous note to the proceedings.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film critic Nick Pinkerton, in a monotonous voice, provides background on the making of Four Frightened People. The film is atypical for DeMille because it doesn’t have the epic quality of his best-known work. It followed The Sign of the Cross, also starring Claudette Colbert. In Four Frightened People, DeMille dispenses with how the four protagonists met aboard the ship and begins with them together in the small boat, escaping from the plague-ridden steamer. DeMille made a number of successful films with Gloria Swanson, including Male and Female. Career overviews of the four principals and some of the supporting players are provided. Islands appeared frequently in films of the 1930s, including Bird of Paradise, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, and King Kong. Four Frightened People was shot on the island of Hawaii. The film is based on a 1931 novel by E. Arnot Robertson, who also was a film critic. DeMille became famous as the epitome of the star director. He achieved immediate success in the fledgling film business after encountering failure in the theater as actor, playwright, and manager. His first film was The Squaw Man. The Ten Commandments (1923) marked him as a director of epics and especially of orgiastic excess, but always with a moral point of view. Four Frightened People, a modest production by DeMille standards, can be regarded as an exercise in social class structure. While on location in Hawaii, the director scouted locations for his next film, Cleopatra. Excerpts from then contemporary news reports about the making of the film are read. Additional scenes were shot back at Paramount after Hawaii filming was completed. It was extremely rare to make a film on location in the 1930s, when most films were studio bound. DeMille was always concerned with giving audiences what they wanted. Four Frightened People is the last of the smaller DeMille pictures. He would go on to direct The Crusades, The Buccaneer, Union Pacific, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth, and his own Technicolor remake of The Ten Commandments.
Theatrical Trailers – Fourteen trailers for films available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics are included: Four Frightened People, The Sign of the Cross, The Gilded Lily, The Bride Comes Home, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Arise, My Love, Since You Went Away, No Time for Love, Thunder on the Hill, The Good Fairy, The Plainsman, Union Pacific, Reap the Wild Wind, and Unconquered.
Four Frightened People is an amusing adventure film that starts melodramatically and becomes a jungle romp with dangers that never seem that onerous. Better working with large casts in epic dramas, DeMille is an odd director for what amounts to an intimate comedy/drama/romance. Creaky in places, the film draws on the fish-out-of-water plot device. It’s worth a look if only for Claudette Colbert’s engaging performance.
- Dennis Seuling