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Being on the side of the angels doesn’t automatically endow one with talent. Conventional wisdom has it that The Crucible bombed upon its debut in 1953 because Arthur Miller’s bold dedication to exposing the searing truths of a complacent society—of two societies, really—was too much for the numbed-out, conformist ’50s. Never mind that this is an unfair and inaccurate characterization of the period’s arts audience; it also sidesteps the question of whether The Crucible deserved success, much less the immortality granted it by a million unimaginative high-school teachers, who don’t seem able to explain that the McCarthy hearings were wrong without bringing in Miller’s hyped-up, extremely skewed metaphorical version.

The Crucible is not a good play; worse, it’s not an honest one. It is an era-centric fallacy that people born before the cotton gin must have been actually stupider than us. In order to understand why the witch trials in New England took place, one would have to understand the kind of society in which they took place, and that would mean seriously granting that a commitment to Christianity could be the foundation for an entire community. This is not a fashionable view in these (or Miller’s) secular times; it’s even too dicey to grant this view to history while sensibly rejecting the same standards for our own times.

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It was not the witchfinders’ hobby to randomly harass the populace for kicks; this was the enlightened New World, not the England of roving self-appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who collected ninepence for every witch he named and was finally accused and hanged himself by the elders of an East Anglian village. The only parallel between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy hearings that seems at all credible is the quest for names—the phrase “naming names” has taken on a sinister cast from its association with the HUAC fanatics; “Names! I want names!” the judges bellow at the girls cowering in the Salem courtroom.

But witch-hunting judges wanted to hear no names; it was with wariness that famous anti-witch scholars like Cotton Mather treated such finger-pointing revelations by the afflicted. After all, the devil is the Prince of Lies, and following up such an accusation would mean heeding the devil’s words—witchcraft itself.

Anything a society heartily believes in most likely exists in that society. Image magic (dolls, pins) and folk-magic divining tricks were probably not unknown to the girls of a 17th-century New England village curious to see the initials of their future husbands spelled out in egg white; there were card-carrying Communists walking the streets of 1952 Washington. Miller does propose occult goings-on—in Nicholas Hytner’s pumped-up art movie, this translates into teenage girls dancing naked and biting into live chickens. So if the issue isn’t whether such beliefs were practiced, it is surely whether the people have a right to practice them, and that is a right Miller raises not a finger to defend.

The Crucible depends for its drama on the piling up of wrongful accusations. As more and more goodwives and addled old men who clearly do not practice the black arts are indicted, the pitiful point of all this hysteria seems to be that it’s so unfair. A 7-year-old’s sense of worldly justice is at the heart of this plot; the situation as Miller has constructed it never indicates that the story could have a larger purpose or that its lesson could be applicable elsewhere.

It is perhaps a measure of Miller’s limitations as a writer that it takes only a small tweak, as the filmmakers have given it here, to skin the play’s noble MacGuffin and reveal its maggoty core. The Crucible is about fear and hatred of female sexuality, about silly underage minxes with black hearts and the innocent men and women who are destroyed on a schoolgirl’s whim. Winona Ryder’s Abigail Williams is Salome in a white bonnet, pulling the populace’s strings with enough dexterity to assure that her lover’s head will end up on a platter whether she specifically asks for it or not. At the end, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis, who doesn’t undress once), Abigail’s erstwhile lover, allows his wife (Joan Allen) to confess that this was all her fault—it was her frigidity that led him into the arms of the willing little vixen.

The Crucible is Hollywood’s idea of an art movie—a big-budget period piece with top-rung stars and a virtuous sheen, directed by that perennial class act, an Englishman. How any of the actors made it through their embarrassing, faux-impassioned scenes is a wonder. Hytner’s idea of old-timey realism is to show people with snot running out of their noses and not wiping it away. Oh, and maybe it was in her contract, but since Ryder spends the movie in plain clothes and without makeup, all the other members of the haunted-girl gang are woofdoggies by any era’s standard.

Penny Marshall is a gooey, sentimental director; she should not be allowed anywhere near a clear-eyed, hard-edged story, and she should even be kept away from stories that have a small measure of moral ambivalence. That said, set her loose on a sweet, uplifting Christmas fable with handsome angels and darling little kids and a preacher who is too good to be really happy, and nobody does it better.

The Preacher’s Wife is not great art, but it is competent, charming, and absolutely in the business of making you, the weary shopper, feel aglow about the holiday season again. Whitney Houston, marginally less annoying than usual, plays Julia Biggs, singer in the church choir and wife of the Rev. Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance), who has taken on so many good works that the wife he imagines can always wait for his attention is feeling neglected. His lovely old church is falling apart, his congregation is thinning, and his kid’s best friend has been relocated by Child Welfare; Henry feels entitled to ask the Big Guy for a little help.

What he gets is Dudley—a kind, mischievous, slightly bucktoothed angel in the single most expensive coat I have ever seen on a movie screen. Denzel Washington makes a very agreeable angel; he downplays his considerable hunk factor and trades on sweetness and determination. Henry, of course, doesn’t believe him (these screen grumps never do) and instead palms off the increasingly impatient Julia on eager Dudley for everything from Christmas shopping and ice skating with the kid to dinner-and-a-show. Dudley may have spent 30 years in heaven waiting to return to Earth to do good, but he is not yet immune to the possibilities inherent in his situation—pretty, neglected wife; busy husband.

But he is an angel, and Penny Marshall is at the helm, and everything works out so dazzlingly well that it is giving nothing away to reveal that the town’s rich developer (Gregory Hines as the kind of greedy slimeball whose concession to Christmas is a giant, fake, entirely white tree that matches the pristinely white room) goes back to the church and even the kid’s best friend returns in time for Christmas—you’ll figure that out within the first few minutes. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lewis turns in a tart performance as Julia’s sophisticated mother, and Marshall pulls off some canny jokes, like the full-dress Victorian carolers who sing under the developer’s windows—did he hire them or what?