The Salem witch trials have permeated the historical consciousness in America and beyond for many reasons, loaded with symbolic import in the grey zone between new world and old, distant past and modern consciousness, whilst of course the overtones of exploitable hysteria in the colonial community have often been seen as specifying one of the more troubling traits of the later national character. Most famously, of course, Arthur Miller argued this via his use of the trials as metaphor for McCarthyism, and the relevance of his prognostication only seemed reinforced when George W. Bush started accidentally quoting Judge Danforth. The existence of a film depicting the Salem trials made long before Miller permanently inflected the events with his prism is therefore enticing. Maid of Salem also stands as a perfectly worthy piece of mid-‘30s prestige cinema, made by Frank Lloyd, the Glasgow-born, reliable studio craftsman with a talent for finding relatable drama in prestige-heavy fare, having captured the Best Picture award twice in recent years with Cavalcade (1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Claudette Colbert, whose fearless erotic punch had awoken DeMille’s more fiendish imaginings, and shaken out Capra’s dirty mind, was quickly becoming domesticated as a Code-era star, finding her place with her aura of soulful intelligence and well as gentle but persuasive sensuality that made her calmer alternative to the archness of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Here she plays Barbara Clarke, the titular Salem girl whose past is murky and whose feisty independent thinking puts her at risk in the repressive climes of the stern and hard-bitten town of Puritans, although tensions only manifest to the degree that her new, frilly Boston bonnet attracts Rev. Parris’s (Ivan F. Simpson) invidious descriptions, and she offends a boorish suitor: “I made a joke, and I’m afraid he understood it.”
The early scenes of Maid of Salem by and large play as light comedy, depicting the foibles of a small community defined by a portentous sense of its own uprightness. The man entrusted with the duty of driving the town’s cattle herd back and forth from pasture, Thomas Bilge (E. E. Clive) is kicked out of his job and confined to the stock for being too fond of the bottle, whilst his replacement Miles Corbin (Sterling Holloway) is said boor who uses his new prosperity to try and coax Barbara into marriage. But Barbara, who works as delivery girl for her candlestick-manufacturer aunt, encounters a far more interesting suitor in Roger Coverman (Fred MacMurray), nephew of lobster fisherman Jeremiah (Halliwell Hobbes), who’s on the lam from Virginia because he engaged in a tax rebellion there, and besides, he’s a flashy, lively cavalier who seems positively alien in the chilly midst of Salem. MacMurray is fun as Roger if a bit forced as the cheery, lively arbiter of nascent democratic sentiment in the new world, offering an interesting stab at a proto-American accent. Barbara’s romance with Roger is therefore forced to remain clandestine, a secret that will eventually cause Barbara great trouble when the townsfolk start looking with great and suspicious interest in anyone given to making midnight rendezvous with strange figures in the woods. Elder Goode (Edward Ellis) is the model Puritan patriarch, coldly birching his daughter Ann (Bonita Granville) for absconding with his Cotton Mather-penned witchcraft manual to read for lurid thrills with her pals, whilst his wife Abigail (Beulah Bondi) is panicking at the imminent loss of her youth and so presses household slave Tituba (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), who entertains the bored and hopeless lasses of Salem with tales of witchcraft from Africa, to make her a rejuvenation potion.
Although a depiction of judicial process perverted in an historically remote period, it could be argued Maid of Salem nonetheless might deserve some consideration as an entry in the string of 1930s social-conscience films like Fury (1936) and They Won’t Forget (1937) contemplating lynching and mob justice as an American ill. Whilst Miller's The Crucible noted how little some things had changed, Maid of Salem's essential thesis is that these events may have laid the seed for liberality in the common spirit by revealing the unworkable side of the Puritan project. The film’s take on the events engages intense resentment of the power structure of the town, from the household outwards, and the impossibility of normal behaviour in such an environ causing an eruption of mania that gains fuel from neighbourly maliciousness and self-interest: Ezra Cheeves (Donald Meek) uses the witch trials to destroy a woman who owns land he covets, whilst Barbara will find herself indicted as a witch partly because her gifts with handling children compared to the strict and loveless Puritan code makes kids mysteriously more responsive to her than their parents. All hell starts breaking loose when Mr. Morse (Pedro de Cordoba) blows into town bringing reports of supernatural terror striking in another town; as he regales the townsfolk, a storm blows in from the sea, announcing a night of fear that represents the film’s most effective passage as credulity and petty events suddenly give way to full-blown hysteria, as doors and barred and houses besieged by the storm and fear of the unknown in this land on the edge of dark. Ann and younger sister Nabby (Virginia Weidler) fake fits of torment, squirming in frenzies as thunder crashes and the walls are buffeted by winds, whilst Abigail takes Tituba’s filthy concoction and is found by her husband in the pit of a seriously bad trip, leaving Elder Goode surrounded by evidence of devilry that is actually only evidence of his world’s presumptions turning inside out. Notably, Granville, still a year away from playing Nancy Drew, plays a variation on her role in These Tree (1935), as the bratty adolescent girl who stirs up social evil.
Meanwhile Roger tries to arrange passage out of the colony for himself and Barbara, only to be captured by some sailors who know there’s a reward out for him; they kill Jeremiah and drag Roger back to Virginia where he’s imprisoned. The film’s depiction of social tyranny sharpens to a point during the impressive scene of Tituba’s interrogation, Puritan men with clothes like crow plumes and hatchet faces looming over the singularly terrified woman (impressive work from Sul-Te-Wan) and her ready acquiescence to the program of indictment and murder knowing too well she’d otherwise be the first victim. Maid of Salem betrays similarities to Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1948) amongst other films of this breed in taking a period setting and tweaking it to appeal directly to the young women in the audience chafing against social norms and dreaming of bigger things – dreams in large part fostered, of course, by going to the movies. Barbara is glimpsed dancing in her attic room, practising for a life of larger and freer thrills than she’s known before, and like many a teenage girl given to sneaking out to their boyfriends in the night, is forced to barter with her nosy young nephew Timothy (Benny Bartlett) to get him to keep quiet about her romance. But Timothy blabs to a young friend and Barbara’s encounters with the mystery man no-one’s seen becomes a supposed assignation with the lord of flies.
Likeable, level-headed local doctor and man of reason John Harding (Harvey Stephens) tries to defend Barbara, but he and his wife Martha (Gale Sondergaard, giving her sly sidelong smoulder a good workout) know Barbara’s ugly family secret, that her mother was burnt as a witch back in England, and Martha tells it to the court when she’s afraid his defence might backfire on him, and also because she’s jealous of his and Barbara’s friendship. In her torment however upon the witness stand, in a fashion reminiscent of DeMille’s heroines, Barbara is instead all the more powerfully transformed into the stuff of martyrs and movie stars the more elegantly deshabille she becomes, with streaming loose hair and anguish-lit eyes appealing to her fellows for sanity and compassion. The film’s visual language unfolds in regulation studio style, with a quick, dramatic montage of events as the trials gain pace and the poppet is fed. Lloyd stages scenes of mob rule well as the victims are dragged up the gallows tree amidst crowds of ranting townsfolk, and works in dashes of pulpy colour, like Roger escaping his jailers through a murky swamp. The film is a good, clean piece of melodramatic storytelling from the days when Hollywood tossed that sort of thing off with casual savvy, and the only major, fairly inevitable stumble is the very end, which gives a regulation last-minute rescue and a swift rebuke to the explosion of destructive intolerance that just ends, like it never was.