Review: DeMille's Overlooked 'Four Frightened People' Shines on Blu-ray

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday August 16, 2021

Review: DeMille's Overlooked 'Four Frightened People' Shines on Blu-ray

Bookended between "The Sign of the Cross" and "Cleopatra," Cecil B. DeMille's far more understated (and underappreciated) effort, "Four Frightened People," happened to also star Claudette Colbert, his leading lady from the other two films. And while the pre-code adventure-comedy-drama is decidedly uneven, it's definitely worth a watch, if only for its two leading ladies.

Based on a 1931 novel by E. Arnot Robertson with a screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Lenore Coffee, the story begins as a bubonic plague-ridden steamer is dumping bodies off the deck of the ship. Four people manage to escape, and find themselves lost in the Malayan jungle. The film chronicles their interactions with one another and with nature.

We are literally introduced to the titular characters before the narrative even begins. William Gargan is an arrogant journalist. Herbert Marshall plays a bored chemist. Colbert is a shy virginal schoolteacher. And Mary Boland portrays a witty aristocrat who carries her dog everywhere.

The first two thirds of the film is captivating, as each character faces their own fears and transformations. The dialogue is snappy and sharp. Boland provides the film with much needed humor and a grounded control; Colbert is allowed to finally let her hair down, and she's also a treat. DeMille briefly shoots her bathing in a waterfall, which was quite racy for that time, though the shot is fairly blurry — also, it's not necessary to the story.

The women are far more interesting than the men in terms of character and performance.

The final third, unfortunately, turns into a melodramatic love triangle, and here's where the film falters. We do return one last time to the Boland character for a feminist scene — amazing for 1934, and even for today — where she rallies the native women to stand up to the men when it comes to birth control. I was surprised by it, and can only imagine it was allowed because the code had yet to go into effect.

The Supporting Oscars would not be instituted until 1936, but had they existed in 1934 Boland would have been assured a nomination, if not the award itself.

The film's exteriors were shot entirely in the South Pacific, something rare for that time, and Kino has done a wonderful job with the Blu-ray visual transfer. The ocean and jungle scenes look terrific. The only fuzzy moments happen late in the film, in the studio shots. The sound is also quite good.

The audio commentary is once again provided by Nick Pinkerton, who discusses DeMille's career and the cuts that were made after the film's preview.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Critic Nick Pinkerton

  • Theatrical Trailer

    "Four Frightened People" is currently available on Blu-ray.

    Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute