Four Frightened People

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Four Frightened People (1934) is an underrated entry in director Cecil B. DeMille’s filmography. It may lack the scope and grandeur of The King Of Kings (1927) or Cleopatra (1934) but it makes up for it in terms of the economy of the storytelling, the brisk pace of the action, a focus on characterization and some pre-code naughtiness. Of course Four Frightened People retains DeMille’s jingoism and racist portrayals of non-whites.

Characterization in a film by DeMille is rarely ever a thing of sophistication. In Four Frightened People even the characters with the most compelling arcs are still limited to the dimensions of something from a comic strip. What is different is that DeMille’s camera wanders far less frequently over superficial spectacles designed to inspire awe. This simply frees up more on camera time for the people who inhabit the world of the film.

Needless to say DeMille has contrived another way to get Colbert bathing on screen, though this time in a waterfall instead of asses’ milk. Still, the most engaging and entertaining arc in the film comes in the form of Judy Jones (Claudette Colbert). As Jones and the others traverse the Malayan jungle and encounter all sorts of perils she is transformed from a bookish school teacher into Lorna, The Jungle Queen. Colbert really gets to explore either pole of her onscreen persona and she does it with relish and wit. When watching Four Frightened People it’s easy to see why Colbert was perfect for the title role of Cleopatra, made later the same year.

The screenwriter responsible for a lot of the wit and fun in Four Frightened People is the great Lenore Coffee. The way Coffee scripts banter retains the natural flow of language so that the dialogue never feels too literary or plastic. Coffee and Colbert would also work together again on a later project, the weepy Tomorrow Is Forever (1946).

Four Frightened People is a sort of lost chapter in DeMille’s oeuvre. It marks a transition for DeMille not just from pre-code era productions, but also to a more modern and less Victorian style of storytelling. To those with just a casual interest in the films of DeMille Four Frightened People may just be an enjoyable diversion. However to those invested in the study of film, particularly its history, Four Frightened People offers something more than its superficial delights.