Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Maid of Salem (1937)

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. (Update: This film is now also available as a single title DVD from the Universal Vault Series.)

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.


Blogger panavia999 said...

I'd watch it just to see Bonita Granville in action. She was great as the rotten child in "These Three". I always avoided this film because it's more History According to Hollywood, which is mostly fun, but I didn't think Claudette Colbert would really work in the part.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Granville is as rotten in this one as in THESE THREE -- even more so. :)

Colbert might be a stretch in the part -- she was in her 30s playing someone who storywise should be a decade younger -- but I thought she did a good job with the script she had to work with. She usually seems sophisticated and wordly-wise on screen but I thought she was able to channel that aspect of her personality into the character's more "rebellious" instincts and be fairly believable as a sweet Puritan girl. Would enjoy hearing what you think about that if you get the chance to see it.

Best wishes,

10:48 AM  
Blogger Abe Lucas said...

I've awarded you the One Lovely Blog award.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

C.K., I am so appreciative of your recognition, especially as I enjoy your blog very much. Thank you for giving such a lift to my Monday morning!!

Best wishes,

11:15 AM  
Blogger Sally said...

I just discovered your blog through C.K. Dexter Haven - I love it!

I do really like Claudette Colbert and I've had this one tentatively on my to-see list. I'm grateful for the warning, and I'll be sure to watch this one with care and the fast-forward button ready!

7:57 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

How wonderful that C.K.'s kind award and link led you here, Sally! Thanks for visiting, and I hope you'll stop by again.

I'd be particularly curious to know what others think of MAID OF SALEM. Would love to hear what you think when you have the chance to catch up with it.

Best wishes,

10:41 PM  
Blogger Kimo StJames said...

What good is a review when the reviewer themselves admits they fast forward through the second half only because it exhibits important aspects of American history which they apparently abhor.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Dear Kimo,

Since my not finishing the film seems to trouble you, let me share a couple thoughts: 1) Any regular reader of my blog knows I have reviewed hundreds of movies over nearly 13 years, and not being interested in finishing a film (or fast-forwarding through unpleasant sections) is highly unusual for me. 2) That fact constitutes part of my review in and of itself, I was not enjoying it enough to invest the time finishing it. 3) Do you finish every single movie you begin, even if you're not enjoying it?

I'm glad if it it's a film you like, but while I love American history I am not interested in the Salem witchcraft trials and did not find this story enjoyable. Those who are interested in the topic, such as yourself, obviously may feel differently. None of us are exactly alike in our interests and comfort levels, and that's as it should be.

Best wishes,

6:01 PM  
Blogger Kimo StJames said...

Thank you for your input Laura and in response to your query yes I do finish every film regardless of the fact that I'm superficially not enjoying it for the mere fact that I enjoy every product and creation of filmmakers. I can't not enjoy a movie. Any movie. Additionally as I hinted in my first missive it's an important aspect of American History even those Hollywood product and not to any degree a documentary... the movie could be taken as many things: a cautionary tale, a mirror held up to us displaying contemporary society's prejudices, narrow-mindedness, myopia and tunnel vision... it has many lessons and for any reviewer to fast-forward through any aspect of a film
.... well, they just don't know what they're missing I mean you might not enjoy a movie at the halfway mark but five minutes later, boom there it is. It might be enjoyable, who knows.

8:56 PM  

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