In an earlier IMDb posting, I said that "Roman Scandals" was probably the best film directed by Frank Tuttle. I take it back. "Puritan Passions" is a dark, moody masterpiece: a retelling of the Golem legend with elements of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen". Most of the cast give subtle performances in roles that would be very easy to overact. The film is based on a play I'm not familiar with, which in turn is based on a well-known Nathaniel Hawthorne story. "Puritan Passions" features a much deeper plot (and more supernatural elements) than Hawthorne's original story: I don't know whether to credit these improvements to the scriptwriter or to the play on which this film was based.
The film takes place in Salem, Massachusetts; presumably near the time of the witch trials. Nathaniel Hawthorne supposedly had an ancestor named Hathorne who was a judge at the witch trials, but there's some doubt as to that legend.
At the start of the film, a pointy-eared stranger tries to enter Salem: his name is Doctor Nicholas (very well-played by Osgood Perkins, father of Anthony). One of the very few flaws in this film is that it's obvious straight away that Dr Nicholas is really Satan himself. Nicholas wants to enter Salem (to do his satanic work) but he's stopped at the town's outskirts by Wingate, the puritanical (and Puritan) beadle, who chivvies Nicholas for wearing a feather in his hat: this sort of gaudy display is illegal in the strait-laced town of Salem.
Beadle Wingate is a pious hypocrite: years ago, he had a sexual liaison with Goody Rickby: now he is castigating a visitor for wearing a feather, whilst concealing his own much greater sin of adultery. This hypocrisy gives Nicholas (Satan) the power to enter Salem: apparently the Devil can't enter anyplace where all the people are virtuous.
Goodwife ("Goody") Rickby is a poor old woman who is embittered against God and the "respectable" burghers of Salem, because her son died when she had no money to pay a doctor's fees. Now she desires to give herself to the Devil and become a witch. Dr Nicholas changes her into a witch, and together they create a Mirror of Truth which reveals a person's true self. Dr Nicholas looks into the mirror, and reflected in its glass we see his true satanic self: a devil with horns and cloven hooves. (Wot, no bat wings?) Perkins wears very elaborate make-up for this sequence ... so elaborate, in fact, that I'm not even completely certain that it's Perkins under the devil make-up.
Rachel Goodkin is the most beautiful and virtuous maiden in Salem. (Rachel is played by Mary Astor, who usually fails to impress me as either an actress or a beauty ... but here she gives an excellent performance and she's genuinely attractive.) The local blacksmith, Richard Talbot, is in love with her. (Talbot is played, rather ineptly, by Dwight Wiman, who was in real life an heir to the John Deere tractor fortune.) Talbot has built a scarecrow, with a pumpkin for its head.
Nicholas and Goody Rickby conspire to corrupt Rachel's soul. Nicholas moulds the scarecrow's pumpkin head into the features of a handsome young man, and then he satanically brings the scarecrow to life as a well-dressed and handsome young man whom Rickby names Lord Ravensbane. (Hunter is eerily convincing as the scarecrow brought to life.) Lord Ravensbane is alive but has no soul: in order to remain alive, the scarecrow must keep puffing on the clay pipe that Rickby gives him. The pipe contains a bewitched coal, which stays permanently lighted.
Nicholas brings Ravensbane to the Goodkin household, where he introduces himself as Lord Ravensbane's father. (If the father is alive, then 'Lord Ravensbane' must be only a courtesy title.) A romance develops between Rachel and Lord Ravensbane, who is not only handsome but also innocent and utterly guileless. But then...
HERE BE SPOILERS. Rachel happens to glance into the Mirror of Truth, where she sees the handsome well-dressed Ravensbane reflected as a grotesque and ragged scarecrow. Knowing him for what he truly is, she is now terrified by him. To atone for the harm he has inadvertently caused, Ravensbane deliberately shatters his clay pipe ... dooming himself. The satanic spark of life dies, and Ravensbane falls dead ... transformed into a ragged scarecrow again. But now, in the Mirror of Truth, we see the scarecrow reflected as the corpse of Lord Ravensbane: lifeless, but handsome and well-dressed. In giving up his life, the scarecrow has gained a soul.
"Puritan Passions" is a beautiful and remarkable film, which could easily form a double feature with either "The Golem" or "The Devil and Daniel Webster". Glenn Hunter gives a performance that should have made him a star.
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