I love American colonial history, with the exception of anything to do with the Salem witchcraft trials. I thus enjoyed the first half of Claudette Colbert's MAID OF SALEM, but once the witchcraft hysteria started it was time for me to hit the fast-forward button.
Colbert is enjoyable as the lively Barbara, a Puritan girl living in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 17th century. Barbara wavers between conformity to her strict society and a yearning to break free. When she meets and is secretly courted by Roger Coverman (Fred MacMurray), a charming political refugee from Virginia, a new, happier life seems possible.
First, however, Roger must either receive a pardon or find a safe place where he and Barbara can settle -- Spanish Florida is a possibility -- and while he's off planning their future, Salem's witchcraft hysteria snares Barbara in its net. It doesn't help Barbara when a jealous woman (Gale Sondergaard) discloses that Barbara's mother was convicted of witchcraft back in Olde England.
Although I didn't care for the unpleasant storyline, one of the film's strengths is its deep cast. It's fun to see Colbert and MacMurray in somewhat atypical roles. Bonita Granville follows her portrayal of a wicked little girl in THESE THREE (1936) by playing an even worse child in this film, whose spiteful accusations lead to deaths. Virginia Weidler is Granville's cute little sister.
Familiar faces cast as citizens of Salem include Harvey Stephens, Beulah Bondi, Edward Ellis, Louise Dresser, E.E. Clive, Halliwell Hobbes, Donald Meek, Russell Simpson, Mary Treen, and Sterling Holloway. Helen Westcott (THE GUNFIGHTER) is said to be one of the uncredited children in the film. Babs Nelson, who plays little Mercy, did voice work for Disney's BAMBI (1942) a few years later.
Much of the movie has a nice outdoors feel; the coastal scenes, with Santa Cruz, California, filling in for Salem, look appropriately "Massachusetts cold." (I loved touring Salem's House of Seven Gables a few years ago. The house is next to the harbor, and I've always remembered the guide saying you could "smell the world" from the windows back in Hawthorne's day.) According to IMDb, other exterior scenes were shot at the Paramount Ranch.
This movie was filmed in black and white by Leo Tover. It runs 85 minutes.
MAID OF SALEM was directed by Frank Lloyd. Lloyd specialized in historical dramas; his credits include titles such as CAVALCADE (1933), BERKELEY SQUARE (1933), MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), WELLS FARGO (1937), and THE HOWARDS OF VIRGINIA (1940).
MAID OF SALEM is available on DVD as part of the six-film Claudette Colbert Collection. The print was in good shape. There are no extras.
MAID OF SALEM is worth seeing once for fans who especially enjoy the work of Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, but otherwise it's a pass for all but those deeply interested in the subject matter.