We all live in many worlds, the soap opera "Another World" once declared, and indeed, this shows the dangerous world of psychiatry as seen through one particular institution where different methods are disagreed upon by the long time doctors and their new chief of staff. Claudette Colbert has a calming, kindly way of dealing with even the most dangerous of patients, and has created a bond with young doctor Joel McCrea whose fragile wife (an excellent Joan Bennett) is admittedly jealous of their bond even though she knows it is platonic. Nasty nurse Esther Dale despises the coddling manner in which these two psychiatrists treat their patients, and when McCrea is turned down for the open chief of staff position, Dale is overjoyed. The arriving new chief of staff (Charles Boyer) has something against women psychiatrists and immediately moves Colbert out of the men's ward and into the more sedate out patient program. Their initial differences are passive/aggressively manipulated by the Nurse Ratched like Dale who soon finds out that her methods aren't quite approved by Boyer either and uses knowledge of his sister Helen Vinson's past against him when she is threatened with termination. Bored with his pregnant wife, McCrea begins to see the extremely neurotic Vinson which has a negative effect on Bennett's sanity that makes her see visions and hear things, especially after she attempts to host a tea party with one of the more fragile patients at the institution.
Starting off great, this was intriguing and mesmerizing up to the point where Dale manipulated her way back into the position of head nurse (more like a prison matron) who barks orders at her nurse charges and treats the patients as if they were animals. I felt sorry for the actress Esther Dale, typecast usually because of her hard looks as an unfeeling older woman, because I hated her character with no regret right from the start. Dale, who became a comical busybody in the Ma & Pa Kettle movie, plays this role the exact same way she played her prison matron in "Condemned Women". A nice change of pace for her was "Holiday Affair" as Janet Leigh's mother who is opinionated but quite big hearted. No case of that here, and after the scene where she is re-instated, she basically disappears anyway, and the film goes down hill from there. Colbert somehow got an Oscar nomination for this (she's good, but certainly not outstanding), while it is Bennett who gives truly the best performance, just a few years before darkening her hair and becoming a film noir vixen. The photography and editing are excellent, however, reminding me of some of the photographic effects later utilized in "The Lost Weekend" and "The Snake Pit" which covered much of the same territory. Certainly, psychiatry has changed a lot in the past 80+ years (for the better, Thank God!), but this isn't quite the drastic and cruel methods used in the Val Lewton/Boris Karloff horror melodrama "Bedlam" which dealt with mental patients a century before this. Had the script focused more on improving the situation (and dealing with nasty Dale) rather than focusing on the growing romance between Colbert and Boyer, I would have ranked this quite a bit higher.