It takes some doing to miss the dramatic possibilities of the old Salem witchcraft trials, but this prestige item from Frank Lloyd comes close. The story elements are familiar from Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, with it’s famously topical anti-McCarthy slant, but here villainy emerges from all types of extremism and from coveting thy neighbors’ wealth & wife. Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray play secret lovers and townies include Beula Bondi, Edward Ellis, Donald Meek, Sterling Holloway, the remarkable Madame Sul-te-wan as a fortune-telling servant & young Bonita Granville reprising her vicious little-liar speciality.* MacMurray is rarely convincing in period roles, but Claudette makes the ultimate sacrifice by appearing in the courtroom scenes sans makeup. Lloyd made lots of big ticket items (CAVALCADE/’33; MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’35), but his sound films often have a formal, even static quality which is accentuated by his unhealthy penchant for deliberately played comic relief. Fortunately, in the last half hour when lies & accusations overtake the town's commonsense, Lloyd finds his best form and a good bit of the grim power of the old story takes hold. It almost excuses the cop-out ending.
*Bonita Granville is at her little-liar best (and quite terrifying) in William Wyler’s THESE THREE/’36. Alas, this superb, if bowdlerized version of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR isn’t out on DVD while the far less effective 1962 remake is.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT:Carl Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH/’43 is the lodestar of all witchcraft films.