November by the Numbers: Four Frightened People (1934)
This month, the crack CMPS staff tackles a series of movies with numbers in the titles. Each different in era and tone, join us as we crunch the numbers of Four Frightened People (1934).
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Based on a novel by E. Arnot-Robinson, Four Frightened People follows a group that escapes from a ship reeling from a bubonic plague outbreak. They reach land only to discover the natives are battling cholera, so they trek into the jungle in hopes of reaching civilization the hard way. A virginal schoolmarm Jane (Claudette Colbert) is manipulated into a crush on the impatient reporter named Corder (William Gargan) although his rude behavior redirects her attention to their married companion Arnold (Herbert Marshall). Mary Boland plays the talkative and wealthy Mrs. Mardick who miraculously speaks the native tongue and carries a silent Pekingese throughout the film. (How many tranquilizers were used on this dog to keep him still and quiet?)
ADAM WILLIAMS: This movie begins abruptly. Bodies are being wrapped up and tossed overboard the tramp steamer in the pre-dawn hours. The radioman is punching out message in morse code: “Calling Singapore – plague-on-board – bubonic plague – dead-dying-can’t keep secret long – crew and coolies will riot – mutiny feared – passengers ignorant conditions…” The four strangers are already on a lifeboat, quietly rowing away from the disaster. Another diseased body plunges into the water.
It's an intense scene. My initial thought was that this opening minute-and-a-half could have instead been a whole first act. Perhaps the audience might like to get to know these four people before they get frightened. My impression changed when the characters began to chatter. At the seven minute mark, the film reveals itself completely. In the midst of this crisis, Mary Boland as the society dame asks the man rowing the boat, “How do you say “condensed milk” in Malay?” That line delivered in Boland’s imitable intonation lands with a thud. It dawned on me that this was going to be a supremely unfunny movie. A minute later, they find the island and this silly movie unfolds. Who helmed this movie? Cecil B. DeMille or Sherwood C. Schwartz?
SG: Colbert’s costume and makeup are quite good. The effort to make her look dowdy goes beyond just giving her character glasses (a trope I resent as a glasses-wearer), at least at first. Her hair is tied back, her clothes are plain and her makeup is light. If only her acting were so subtle. She shrieks hysterically multiple times during the movie conjuring up Victorian values about the way a good girl should act during a crisis. Once she loses her glasses and her hair flies free, she somehow becomes increasingly glamorous which could never have been achieved without a hot iron and significant hair brushing. Where Boland’s character is allowed to get sweaty, Colbert’s only become luminous.
AW: If I’m on the marketing team for this movie, I’m solely concentrating on the sex appeal of Claudette Colbert. See a schoolteacher transformed into a jungle goddess, witness this plain girl become a savage huntress, observe as all inhibitions are dropped in the natural wonders of a tropical island, etc. Prefiguring the willfully stoopid nudie cuties of the early 60s is the scene where Colbert takes a shower under a waterfall. William Gargan and Herbert Marshall stumble upon the scene. Unbeknownst to all involved, a silly chimpanzee is also watching—and that daggone monkey steals all her clothes! Of course, the film isn’t totally revealing, but eagle-eyed viewers might catch a glimpse of Ms. Colbert (or, more likely, her body double) in the altogether.
So, yes, this movie will chip away at your dignity a bit.
SG: Colbert had just undergone an appendectomy and had a nurse from Good Samaritan Hospital on set. The studio wanted to replace her with Gloria Swanson but she requested too much money and they waited for Colbert to recover. Scott Eyman speculated that the appendectomy was actually an abortion; Colbert was married to Norman Foster at this time. To preserve his tyrannical reputation, DeMille forced Colbert to shoot swamp scenes right away and caused a relapse. She was bedridden with a 104 degree fever. DeMille found it somewhat difficult to keep her happy during the shoot. “Claudette, however, does not enjoy the creeping and crawling creatures of the jungle, and I had to assure her solemnly that she would not meet any such unpleasant companions in the parts of Hawaii where we were to shoot the film. Almost the first thing she did when she arrived at the location was to sit on an eight-inch centipede.”
One of the very first classic movies I ever saw was Blonde Venus in which Marshall plays a stubborn, macho and sickly man who condemns the audacity of his wife to earn money to save his life by going on the stage. I was a teenager when I saw this movie and Marshall seemed old and old-fashioned. It was a startling experience seeing Marshall in this movie made two years later than Blonde Venus and finding him to be appealing and attractive, even in spite of, or maybe because of, his dad bod. Is it the character that has changed or my perception of him as a peer? I’ll admit that I always watch his films on the lookout for his artificial leg—he lost it during WWI—and I can never spot it. Apparently the wardrobe department found it difficult to disguise and resorted to slinging a heavy and hot animal skin over half his body.
Marshall brought his beloved Irish setter from England to Hawaii where the film was shot, but he was not allowed to bring him on the set lest the dog ruin a take.
AW: It’s easy to take Marshall for granted. He’s certainly not the most dynamic performer—that missing appendage certainly slows him down—but that voice is out of this world. That sort of eloquence is completely unheard today.
SG: American Cinematographer praised cameraman Karl Struss for his ability to provide a consistently good picture quality to a film shot on location in a dense jungle environment with inconsistent lighting and unstable ground. “Only the most skilled cinematographers could have achieved such photographic quality—such uniformity, such an impression of naturalness, such well-balanced compositions and lighting. An orchid to Mr. Struss and his crew!”
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I fell asleep watching this movie on four different occasions. It was a slog to get through it and I could only do so in fits and starts. The premise is appealing. Who can’t relate to a story about a threatening deadly sickness these days? Who hasn’t wondered how they would fare if they were thrust into the wilderness? Unfortunately, none of the characters stands out as the obvious choice to root for. Colbert’s character is too naïve. Gargan’s is too mean. Marshall’s is too passive. Boland’s is slightly abrasive, and she disappears before the conclusion.
AW: It’s shocking how lowbrow this movie is. I had no problem getting through it, in fact I was glued to the screen. It was something like morbid curiosity that kept me wide-eyed. I’m not that well-versed on DeMille’s career, but I suspect there were some major complications with this project.
SG: DeMille claimed the pacing and the humor of the movie suffered in the editing room, which he was unable to completely supervise due to being summoned to testify to the tax department.
Picture Play magazine’s Norbert Lust said it best when he wrote, “The first half of this picture is superlative, but the rest of it is pretty nearly blah… You don’t care when the people find the marmalade jar which tells them they are nearing civilization because you know it doesn’t matter to them either.”
Harrison’s Reports called it, “The world’s worst! It is incomprehensible how any producer even of ordinary experience, let alone a person of Cecil B. DeMille’s experience, would so heartlessly throw so many tens of thousands of dollars away on story material of this kind.”
D.E. Fitton of the Lyric Theatre in Harrison, Arkansas said, “Absolutely nothing to it. No excuse for making it.” Alternately, W.H. Brenner of the Cozy Theatre in Winchester, Indiana called it, “Another surprise package. Many exhibitors reported bad business with this one. We had better than average business and put it on cold last three days of the week.”
AW: As a connoisseur of negativity, I loved the reactions of the theater managers in Motion Picture Herald. It’s interesting to note how prominent the name DeMille was in their reactions. How could a visionary like C.B. make such a trivial film? Here’s my favorites:
“…tiresome to the ninth degree. Personally, I’m surprised at Mr. DeMille for not making a more entertaining picture. If you do play it, surround it with some good singing and dancing shorts.” – A.N. Miles, Eminence, Kentucky
“DeMille seems lost if he does not have a spectacle picture to produce…” – A. E. Hancock, Columbia City, Indiana
“About the worst yet. DeMille ought to be ashamed to release a picture like this.” – M.N. Mattecheck, McMinnville, Oregon
“Terrible. Because Cecil DeMille directed it I made the mistake of playing it on Sunday and Monday. The result was the biggest box office flop for Sunday in many months.” – Edith M. Fordyce, Selma, Louisiana
“DeMille is serving what he wants to give the public, but not what the public wants. His name is getting to be poison here. A gruesome, dull picture that mildly entertained.” –A. B. Jefferis, Piedmont, Missouri
“Even an independent producer would be ashamed of this.” George N. King, Binghamton, New York
“If you like to hear Claudette Colbert and a jungle full of wild animals grunting, sobbing, screeching, gasping, squawking and squealing for 95 minutes, this will tickle you to death. Personally, I found so much noisy noise annoying.” – Roy W. Adams, Mason, Michigan
CORDER: Reminds me of Bunker Hill. ARNOLD: Were you there too?
SG: I have a difficult time awarding this one star, especially given the many talented people involved, but I have no desire to ever revisit this movie. It was difficult to visit it even the first time. What a tremendous amount of potential squandered. I think it is fitting that after shooting wrapped and the production left Hawaii, Mount Pele erupted, purging the lingering bad taste from the island.
AW: Indeed, all the noisy noise can be annoying, but this was one of those trainwrecks—make that shipwrecks—that I couldn’t look away from. It’s an episode of Gilligan’s Island lensed with the careful artistry of Karl Struss. Crack open a coconut, don your finest leopard skin attire, and wallow in the worst Hollywood has to offer. One star; highly recommended!