Cecil B. DeMille's least characteristic sound feature, Four Frightened People is a character study about a quartet of castaways whose fates are permanently altered by spectacular circumstances. Four coastal steamer passengers jump ship when a deadly bubonic plague breaks out. They steal a lifeboat and land on a remote Malayan island. The frightened people are a wealthy, married rubber chemist (Herbert Marshall), a mousy schoolteacher (Claudette Colbert, with requisite eyeglasses), a tough news correspondent (William Gargan) and the supercilious wife of a British official (Mary Boland). As the four adapt themselves to the rigors of jungle life, the lady teacher sheds her glasses and becomes more attractive by the day--and is subsequently fought over by the two men in the party. Their native guide (Leo Carrillo) dead, the castaways are captured by hostile Islanders. The newsman dies, the chemist and the teacher are thrust together in peril, and the official's wife becomes the unofficial queen of the island thanks to her diplomatic skills. Upon rescue, the married chemist nobly parts with the schoolteacher, but eventually escapes his loveless marriage and is reunited with his new love--even as her young pupils look on in adolescent fascination. As entertaining as any of DeMille's "big" pictures, Four Frightened People did disappointing business, prompting DeMille to return to historical spectacles.
by Hal Erickson synopsis