FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE , 1934 comedy-drama-romance-survival-adventure nonsense from producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, runs 78 minutes. DeMille cut it from 95 following negative preview response, and his own summation was that after he saw it “there were five frightened people.”
As the old-style title cards inform us,”On a tramp steamer perspiring down the Malayan coast” we meet “A celebrated newspaper correspondent and radio headliner to whom civilization has given everything” (William Gargan), “the wife of a British Official in Malaya, who, through her club activities, bends civilization to her objective–this season it’s fewer babies‘ (Mary Boland), “an unimportant rubber chemist “(I love his one!), “too sensitive and shy to shake Life’s foot from his neck” (Herbert Marshall), “and a Chicago schoolteacher, too unimportant even for Life to notice” (Claudette Colbert). Yeesh…they hurriedly abandon ship when plague strikes. Making it ashore, they find cholera raging. Only way out is through the creature-laden jungle, led by a local guide (Leo Carillo), who proves as inept as his character is patronizing. What will these people reveal as they fight to survive?
Scripted by Bartlett Cormac and Lenore Coffee, it’s based from the successful 1931 novel by English pulp authoress and later astringent critic E.Arnot Robertson, who’d never been to Malaya. Location filming was done in then-pristine Hawaii, and we are informed “All exteriors in this picture were actually photographed in the strange jungles on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea in the South Pacific”. Hawaii is in the Central Pacific and SE Asia’s Malaya abuts the South China Sea, but for Kansas, Kentucky and Wisconsin, “South Pacific ” was then fair game for generalized misinterpretation (1941-1945 would rectify that for too many people).
The brusque reporter turns out to be fumbling braggart (Gargan an annoyingly weird choice for a lead); the blathering society dame—‘Fifi Mardick’ —complete with pearls and a Pekingese, starts out annoying and gets insufferable, written and played; the “unimportant rubber chemist“, initially snarky, finds his heart and man-parts after spouting a cascade of quasi-poetic gibberish; the mousy teach, ‘Judy Jones’, yet, loses her specs, undoes her hair and sheds her clothes, turning into a jungle princess ala Jane, complete with waterfall showering peekaboo and letting the men have it with “Can’t I have feelings as well as you? Well, I can! And from now on I’m gonna let them out. If I got to be lost, I’m gonna be lost the way I want to be, and do all the things I’ve wanted to do before I die.”
This includes wearing leopard skins from one of the animals they conveniently kill, with weapons made with and out of nothing, let alone constructing elaborate quarters—including stairs—for brief stops while they trudge, away from savage natives (that is, the people who live there) and toward civilization (look for the smoke).
“This is practically virgin country.” “Perhaps that’s why Mr. Carter doesn’t like it!”
As comedy, it flails. As melodrama, it groans. As romance, it’s ridiculous. As survival-adventure, it’s absurd. As far as portraying Malaya–well, it has ferns, vines and palm trees. As a social document of the times, it’s worth noting. As camp, it’s a keeper.
Gargan is a trial, Boland a litmus test, Marshall ill-served. But Colbert is fun as always, and cinematographer Karl Struss (Island Of Lost Souls) gets in some neat material from the claustrophobic jungle settings. Cogerson lists it #58 for the year, with a gross of $1,400,000 but a DeMille specific site holds its gross at only $494,000, a big flop against a cost of $509,000, which jives with biographer Scott Eyman’s info in his fascinating book on the director, “Empire Of Dreams”.
With Tetsu Komai, Ethel Griffies (memorable 29 years later as the snippy ornithologist in The Birds), Chris-Pin Martin (145 credits) and Teru Shimada. *
* Busy 30s character villain Tetsu Komai (Island Of Lost Souls, The Real Glory) was Japanese-American and spent 1942 to 1945 with his family, stuck in Arizona’s Gila River War Relocation Center. Fellow ‘Malay native’ Teru Shimada, 29 here, five years into his new life in America, also spent WW2 behind wire at another Arizona internment facility. He was most famous for his 1967 bit as ‘Mr.Osato’, who fatally angered Blofeld by failing to “KILL BOND–NOW!” in You Only Live Twice.
1934 was otherwise a coup year for the smart and sexy Claudette, with a #2 hit, slinking for DeMille again as Cleopatra, dealing with taboo racial issues in Imitation Of Life (#22), and knocking it out of the park by winning her Oscar for the years #3 hit, It Happened One Night.”