Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now
Saturday, July 30, 2011
The Blossoming of Judy Jones: FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934)
A cherished lump of stocking coal for Cecil B. DeMille devotees, FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934) is remarkably lapse on realism for being such jungle-set escapade: no one seems to actually move through the jungle, or deal with any real danger, i.e. dehydration, tigers, or malaria. The frightened four's trusty guide whips up a camp with ladders and tree houses latched from vines and trees every night and the next day the men are free to mope after the 'blossoming' Claudette Colbert. A chimp (in Malaysia!) steals Claudette Collbert's clothes while she showers in a waterfall--the big DeMille money shot of 'did we or didn't we see something' prurience--and her emergence in a costume made of leaves, like an amazon queen, is greeted with slack-jawed approval by the now lusty journalist and irritated Englishman. It's fine, but it's not TARZAN, or RED DUST, or even art. So what is it? A portrait of a beat-down librarian who finds her groove in the jungles of Malaysia? You betcha.
Even in the days of the pre-code, nudity was a very rare commodity. One needed an excuse for the censors, and enough doubt and blur to cover all 'ahem' bases; the best excuse was 'naturalism' - i.e if you want to show naked women, go to remote locales where scanty (or no) clothing are the norm. D.W. Griffith's THE LOVE FLOWER and THE IDOL DANCER (both 1920) starring Griffith's then love, Carol Dempster, are prime examples. The legitimate stage meanwhile was dank with productions like Rain and West of Zanzibar. And into this mess comes Four Frightened People. It was originally a novel, but was then adapted by Bartlett Cormack (writer of plays like The Painted Veil and The Racket) and Lenore J. Coffee, turning into something far more like a play, which suited DeMille's silent film-bred ambitions. Old Cecil liked to lens elaborate tableaux as opposed to kinetic action so we move from a scene of the lovers tied to a tree and surrounded on all sides by shadowy black figures moving closer--the lovers romantic and enraptured as they face certain deathn-- to being back with our island matron who's enlisted the entire female population of some remote Malay village in a proto-Planned Parenthood. No one actually ever moves anywhere, except off or onscreen.
So while not officially an adaptation of a play, FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE makes sense when you imagine it in this context. We must read the palm of this film like a reverse fortune teller: one went to the theater in the 1920s to see what silent cinema couldn't give them, a story wherein people actually speak, and to see hot live girls in sarongs so the menfolk in the audience could lust after them via opera glasses. Jungle films allowed, nay enforced, a strict dissolution of the then extreme moral code. One simply couldn't sleep in separate bedrooms when on the jungle floor with snakes and tiger and lusty skulking natives all around. It was too hot to wear a corset, and good luck trying to keep your full-body swimsuit intact should you stumble on a swimming pool or waterfall.
Now you get the picture, and it's one that's been clouded in the misty waterfall of modern society. Who cares about waterfalls and chimps swiping your threads these days? Now you can be gay and interracial in public; now you can sleep with a girl in a hotel room and not need a marriage certificate or have to worry about the hotel detective barging in; you don't have shotgun-toting fathers dragging you to the all-night justice of the peace; you don't need to be lost in the jungle or stranded in a remote corner of the tropics to be 'free' to let your hair down, take your glasses off, or fall in love with... gasp... a poesy-spouting Herbert Marshall.
There's a great gag where the rich old matron is taken hostage for a sack of rice equivalent to her weight (which is why they chose her instead of Colbert's Judy Jones, with her skinny but shapely arms) to be delivered in a month (or they eat her) - and the matron might give you the impression she's a pushover, but she's a saint! I've never agreed with a crazy old society committee type before, but I'm all for planned parenthood, and it's a nice bit of inverted morality (going against the code by implying the need to use protection if you're going to be tumbling in the jungle rather than just lecturing against it). The matron also gives Judy her makeup bag before she departs (with her little dog too) and as the remaining three move closer and closer to Edenic savagery, Judy Jones stumbles on lipstick, eyeliner, facials, and, one imagines, contact lenses. Out of nowhere come wooden cups and things that might take one some little time to make if they didn't have a massive crew of technicians just out of frame.
So while the BLUE LAGOON / CASTAWAY fantasia has been forgotten in the last 20 years thanks to loose morals, it may in the future re-emerge as our fantasy of life without cell phones Now that we've so overrun the globe that 'getting away from it all' isn't an option even in fantasy, the only way to imagine getting out from under the suffocating flag of debt and demand is to bring the whole edifice down in an apocalyptic crash, so you might be free to roam, hunt, and take whatever junk you can find without worrying if you can afford it, living debt-free, and most of all, shooting back and shooting often, fishing without a license, and drinking and driving, all without guilt or anxiety.
Until all that happens, we still have these relics, these outstretched palms ready to predict the past, this breadcrumb trail down through the years to an era when fantasy was attainable merely by escaping from a plague-stricken ocean liner in the dead of night. The funky aroma of the jazz age lingers all over FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE, and if it seems static, just imagine you're watching it on Broadway, and the close-ups are seen through your trusty opera glasses. Now maybe you understand the appeal that silly waterfall scene might have onstage. Now that's a blossoming, am I right, bud?