Monday, February 07, 2011


In the village of Salem in 1692, Claudette Colbert is a young woman of marrying age who seems fated to be matched up with the Ichabod Crane-like Sterling Holloway; she is told it is her "duty to marry and have children to the glory of God and the colony." However, she is a free spirit who dances by herself and dares to wear frivolous hats to church and doesn’t think much of the stuffy Holloway. Fred MacMurray (surprisingly scruffy and hunky) is a tax resister who has escaped from jail in Virginia and is hiding out with his uncle; he and Colbert meet, get together on the sly, and fall in love. Meanwhile, bored teenager Bonita Granville hears stories of girls getting the attention of none other than Cotton Mather by claiming to be bewitched, and the slave Tituba attracts an audience with stories of witchcraft and magic potions (even the respected wife and mother Beulah Bondi, in a weak moment, admits she'd like to live a little and attend a Devil's Feast). When someone stirs up the townsfolk with news of witchcraft in a nearby village, Granville starts faking convulsions, claiming she's being attacked by demons conjured up by local witches. Other girls get in on the act and soon the town is in a frenzy of dark accusations, with suspected witches jailed and hanged; as a title card puts it, "Old grudges are paid with the fatal charge of witchcraft." Colbert, accused of consorting with a dark, mysterious man, is left alone to face charges of sorcery when MacMurray is arrested and hauled back to Virginia.

Given the drama (political, religious, personal, and historical) inherent in the subject of the Salem witch trials, it seems odd that Hollywood hasn’t done much with this dark time in our past. Aside from versions of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, no other films come to mind. This one just barely begins to scratch the surface of the topic, but for its time (the Hollywood doldrums of the mid-30's) and style (artificial studio sets, middle-of-the-road stars, journeyman director), this is a fairly good first stab at filming the story. Colbert does a nice job early in the film, seems to lack energy in the middle, but rises to the occasion during her climactic courtroom scene; MacMurray is fine, though the plot contrivance of his arrest leaves him absent for crucial sections near the end (suffice it to say that the studios would never leave Colbert to burn, so through more plot contrivances, she's saved at the end). The supporting cast is uniformly fine, especially Granville and Bondi (at left), who makes the most of her handful of scenes. Madame Sul-Te-Wan doesn't get as much screen time as she should as Tituba, who along with Granville is at the center of the mess. Gale Sondergaard, Harvey Stephens, Virginia Weidler, and Halliwell Hobbes also do good work. [DVD]

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