One of Cecil B. DeMille's lesser and lesser-known efforts, Four Frightened People is a Depression era melodrama that cashes in on the public's misgivings about modern society, a culture of decadence whose values seemed as doubtful as its future. Will a forced return to untamed nature lay bare what refinement and sophistication have only hidden from view? Escaping to a remote island after the plague breaks out on the steamer that was to take them back to the US, four frightened people are about to find out. As the director himself put it in a radio trailer for the film, the titular characters are meant to "reveal just how rapidly the polite mold of civilization disintegrates under the influence of the jungle. These people shed civilization when they shed their clothes. They become like animals of the jungle, fighting and loving like the beasts who terrify them." DeMille, of course, is decidedly of that culture of decadence; and when he strips his characters, he is less interested in teaching than in teasing us.
Don't expect to see starchy Herbert Marshall drop his trousers; the cameraman reportedly had some difficulty concealing the actor's artificial leg. Claudette Colbert, however, once again obliges, as she did before in The Sign of the Cross. Here she plays Miss Jones, a timid schoolteacher who gradually tosses her inhibitions and prim getup to pursue a wilderness romance and frolic in a waterfall. To keep such titillation going, cheeky DeMille employs a chimpanzee to snatch what's left of her dress. Far from being shamed and subdued, Miss Jones learns to enjoy being lost and finding out what school and society seem to have kept from her. "Can't I have feelings as well as you?" she confronts her male companions. "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." Of course, when exposed to such fire, neither the self-absorbed reporter (William Gargan) nor the disillusioned and unhappily married chemist (Marshall) in her party can resist the flame.
DeMille was an expert at striptease, at unveiling his leading ladies for public display, and at packaging such lowbrow peepshows as high art. Four Frightened People does without the props of antiquity and insists instead on the film's authenticity as a nature study. "All exterior scenes in this picture were actually photographed in the strange jungles on the slopes of the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea in the South Pacific," the words on the screen are meant to assure us, even though the less than impressive cinematography will fail to convince anyone that DeMille was even half as interested in flora than in flesh.
Filmed and initially released prior to the enforcement of the production code, Four Frightened People generates some steam, however creaky the engine. Welcome sparks of comedy are added by the delightful Mary Boland, who portrays a society lady determined to educate the natives about birth control while encouraging the illicit affair of her cultured companions.
Based on a 1913 stage play and twice filmed during the silent era, The Misleading Lady is a slight pre-code variant of The Taming of the Shrew, with Colbert as a scheming socialite who meets her match in the out-of-touch wildlife explorer (Edmund Lowe) she ventures to ensnare.
Neither gold digger nor vamp, Helen Steele is not particularly interested in landing a man. After all, she got both the finances and the fiancé to be set for life. But what a life! Parties, gossip, and insufferable boredom. It is the chance at reinvention that proves irresistible to her.
Finding it difficult to convince a theatrical producer that she is just right for the part of a siren in a new play he is mounting, Helen vows to give this sceptic a real-life demonstration of her seductive powers. To be considered for the role, she accepts the challenge of getting the thoroughly old-fashioned and downright misogynistic Jack Craigen to propose to her within three days of their first encounter. So, Helen's engagement ring changes fingers and the bet is on. Jack, who has just returned from a jungle expedition, turns out to be surprisingly easy preyuntil he discovers, in a rather humiliating manner, what we know from the start: that Helen has neither been forthright nor free.
Can this modern woman be conquered by brute force? Jack is enamoured enough to give it a shot. This is pre-code romance, so pretty much anything goes as Helen is abducted, trapped, stripped and chained. The farce, which also confronts the increasingly terrified young woman with a lunatic on the run (Stuart Erwin), would have been more enjoyable and less disconcerting in its handling of the conquest had it not been approached like a neo- Gothic melodrama, a genre for which director Stuart Walkerthe most "misleading" person in this productionhad a far greater affinity.
In 1935, Colbert's most memorable shrew-taming co-star, Clark Gable, played the role of Jack in a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation. Yet even though The Misleading Lady does not lack sex, sophistication, and subversionthe key ingredients of the later screwball comediesIt Happened One Night it just ain't.