Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Maid of Salem (1937)

Claudette Colbert returns, her glamour able to shine through the confines of puritan garb. This time, she finds loves and happiness with an outlaw (Fred McMurray), outside the confines of her home in conservative, god-fearing Salem Massachusetts. All this comes crashing down when witch-hunting frenzy takes hold.

As far as I can tell, this is the earliest cinematic variation of the Salem Witch Trials. The few reviews that I've been able to find often compare this to Arthur Miller's infinitely better known play, The Crucible. And it’s easy to see why; besides sharing the same setting and historical event as a backdrop, the plot centers on a person whose love life gets them in trouble, and when they dare to protest and point out the madness of the trails, fall victim to its mechanisms. Unlike Miller, emphasis is placed on the gossipy and lynch mob atmosphere resulting from the accusations.

The movie blames the strictness of the society, and it’s discouragement of affection with families, as the cause of the troubles. The fits enacted by Ann are cries for attention and a way to hold some power in a loveless, abusive household.

The artistic design is very impressive, managing to conjure up a drab conformist community that views a new bonnet as something close to blasphemy. The cast is also very good; McMurray is adequate as the dashing romantic outlaw, but the rest of the villagers are made up of some fine character actors. Madame, Sul-Te-Wan, for example,as the slave Tituba, one of the early victims of the witch hunt, is incredibly impressive.

If I have some reservations, they mostly have to do with the the ending. Not to give anything away, but it is pure Hollywood. It just feels tied up too neatly, though I suppose if one were to scrunch up their eyes, they could interpret the last shot to be ambiguous and rather disconcerting. Also, there this a the character of the dr., whose sole purpose is to point out the obvious messages in the film. In other words, he’s the closest thing the films comes to an Arthur Dimmesdale equivalent.

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