Stripping on Camera, Teasing on Air: Cecil B. DeMille, Four Frightened People, and the It of Radio Trailers

I just returned from the steamy jungle adventure that is Four Frightened People. It is one of the lesser-known—and lesser—melodramas directed by Cecil B. DeMille, maker of epic spectaculars and master of sensational showmanship. Before I compose myself and submit my review of this early 1934 pre-code effort to the Internet Movie Database, I am going to discuss it here in relation to, what else, old-time radio. I was fortunate to have come across an on-air trailer for the film, a rare recording from the archives of WFUV in New York.

Claudette Colbert in Four Frightened People

Introducing his latest motion picture on the Paramount Movie Parade, DeMille began to set up his persona as the swanky pimp of Tinseltown, an image so skillfully exploited during his tenure as host of the well-oiled and powerful advertising engine that was the Lux Radio Theater. DeMille sure knew how to hawk his salacious wares, even as Hollywood was facing the pressure of the Production Code, which was responsible for timed kisses and screwball cheek.

An expert at unwrapping his leading ladies for public display, and at packaging such lowbrow peepshows as high art, DeMille found a great extension to his lure in radio. On the air, he could stimulate his potential audiences to picture in the dirtier recesses of their minds what they just had to go see for themselves at the theaters.

We have “a surprise for you,” the Paramount Movie Parade barker promises the listener. Instead of disembodying another heartthrob, the program brings before us one of Hollywood’s invisible VIPs—”a celebrity never seen in the films, but a man whose artistry nevertheless has been manifested on the screen many times. He’s one of the real pioneers of the motion picture industry, responsible for many of its history-making productions.”

The legendary director expresses his gratitude and is only too glad to seize the microphone: “It isn’t often that we who work behind the cameras have an opportunity to speak to those who view the results of our work on the screen.” That he has “just returned to Hollywood after months spent in the South Seas” where he “underwent many hardships, unexpected thrills, and even dangers” makes this an occasion for exciting storytelling.

What follows is a selection of snippets from the film’s soundtrack (rather than restaged scenes, as those heard on the Lux program) introduced and commented on by the director. We can readily imagine what might happen if four civilized people—two men and two women—get lost in a tropical wilderness. “They 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.”

And shedding her clothes for him as she had done before (in The Sign of the Cross) was that favorite among DeMille’s leading ladies, Ms. Claudette Colbert. This time, however, the director did not use the context of antiquity as a pretext for showcasing her beauty; instead, he dwells on the film’s “authenticity” as a nature study.

DeMille has all the braggadocio of King Kong‘s Carl Denham; but with Colbert as his Ann Darrow, an awakening sex goddess pursued by two none too moral mortals (one married, no less), this Hollywood showman is not in need of a supersized ape to symbolize libido. It’s all in our minds already—and the radio trailer does its darndest to keep it burning within us until we are all fired up to see this Paramount paradise and follow Colbert, along with the boys, to that less than cooling waterfall in the deep woods.

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