I Married A Witch is a little slip of a film much the way its star, Veronica Lake, was a little slip of a woman – charming, high-spirited, but remarkably brief. Directed by a French émigré with connections to Dada and Surrealism, and a source of inspiration for the '60s sitcom Bewitched, it has also garnered the dubious distinction of being "problematic" for audiences born decades after it was made.
Director René Clair would probably have availed himself of every cutting edge digital effect if he were making movies today. Clair made his name in 1924 with Paris qui dort, also known as The Crazy Ray, about a mad scientist with a freeze ray who plunges his city into chaos. The same year he made Ent'racte, a short film created for the intermission of Francis Picabia and Erik Satie's ballet Relâche – a madcap montage full of dissolves, stop-motion animation, slow and fast motion sequences, with a hearse pulled by a camel and cameos by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.
Having neatly established his avant-garde credentials, Clair briefly worked for British producer Alexander Korda before making a fortuitous exit from France to America ahead of the German invasion, after which the Vichy regime stripped him of his French citizenship. His first Hollywood film, The Flame of New Orleans (1941) starring Marlene Dietrich, was a flop, but he bounced back a year later with I Married a Witch, a film based on a story by Thorne Smith, author of Topper, which was made into a classic screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in 1937 .
The film begins ominously, with the smoking funeral pyre of Jennifer, a young witch sent to the stake with Daniel, her warlock father, in Puritan New England. Jennifer's accuser is the upright Jonathan Wooley, who worries that he might have condemned an innocent person, and for his zeal he's cursed by the young witch – doomed along with his descendants to marry the wrong woman.
A quick sequence establishes that Jennifer's curse worked, and generations of Wooley men find themselves wedded to harpies and shrews, one of them fleeing his crockery-throwing wife for the relative peace of the Civil War. In the meantime, the spirits of Jennifer and her father are trapped in the roots of a tree planted over their ashes, escaping in the present day when a bolt of lightning strikes the tree.
In a nearby country club, Wallace Wooley (Fredric March) is glumly celebrating his impending marriage to Estelle (Susan Hayward), a spoiled, demanding brat whose rich father runs the state and is backing Wallace's run for governor. Jennifer and Daniel recognize a Wooley immediately, and set out to wreak havoc on him and the world at large.
Destroyed by fire, they can only reincarnate in fire, and a convenient blaze in the Pilgrim Hotel set by Jennifer's father allows the young witch to take on the fetching form of Veronica Lake. Wallace runs into the fire to save her, only to discover the oddly unflappable damsel-in-distress and apparent amnesiac popping up in unexpected places, like his bedroom, wearing his pyjamas.
Jennifer does her best to seduce Wallace, but the vestiges of his Puritan rectitude impede her until she decides to dose him with a love potion. This being a screwball comedy, she ends up quaffing the philter herself, falling hopelessly in love with him. The witch and her warlock father, now in possession of a body of his own, crash the wedding and disrupt the proceedings; Estelle catches Wallace and Jennifer in an embrace and calls off the wedding, but the bibulous Daniel gets too drunk to remember the spell that would turn Wooley into a frog and ends up in jail.
Veronica Lake was at the peak of her fame when she made I Married a Witch, a ravishing blonde famous for her "peekaboo" hairstyle, which she was pressured to forego when the war sent millions of women into the factories, as it (apparently) posed a safety hazard while working over lathes and other machinery. It would be an intense but brief fame; a diagnosed schizophrenic with a pushy stage mother and a tragic personal life, going into premature labour and losing a child a year after I Married a Witch came out, Lake went through three marriages and had two surviving children that she rarely saw as adults.
Lake was supposed to share billing in the film with her Sullivan's Travels co-star Joel McCrae, but he refused to work with her again, and her off-camera chemistry with Frederic March was so bad that he referred to the film as I Married a Bitch. Alcoholism and mental illness poisoned her reputation on set, and her career was effectively over by the end of the decade.
She left Hollywood and moved back east, doing summer stock and other stage work before lapsing into obscurity. By the early '60s she was living in an all-female hotel in New York City under her second husband's surname and working in the cocktail bar downstairs. Talk show host Dick Cavett, who relished bringing onetime Hollywood screen goddesses on his show, interviewed Lake in 1971 after she'd published Peekaboo, her autobiography; Cavett's startlingly awkward persona aside, it's a painful segment to watch even if you don't know about Lake's unhappy life.
The truth is that the young Veronica Lake could probably have co-starred with anyone and brought off the role of the destructively willful and naïve Jennifer. Whether wearing pyjamas, a gown or a fur coat, the petite Lake (her height is cited variously on either side of five feet tall) is a vixen with soft edges, carrying Wallace hopelessly along with her and outsmarting her warlock father's vengeance in the end.
"Watching the heavenly Lake, positively itchy with sexual frustration because she can't seduce this man," writes Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin in an overwrought essay included with the recent Criterion reissue of the film, "is enough to cast a blazing spell over anyone! When she accidentally drinks a love potion that makes havoc of her plan, the stakes are raised to agonizing levels! (Lake actually sings while concocting the philter! Ah, the sweet music of her voice and of Clair's soul!)"
Like the best screwball comedy, I Married a Witch is set in a more than slightly cynical world. Watching the fire at the beginning of the film, the owner of the Pilgrim Hotel surprises Wallace with his obvious delight; the place is insured, he says, and he's already made plans for rebuilding. In spite of his ex-father-in-law-to-be's plans to ruin him, Jennifer bewitches the electorate and delivers Wallace a landslide victory; even his opponent votes against himself. This is New England, so nobody apparently considers it worth protesting.
The urbanity is underscored by the casting of Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley as Dudley, Wallace's best friend and genial accomplice. If the film has a more than slight resemblance to something Preston Sturges might have made, it's no surprise since Sturges was the producer until he left due to creative conflicts with the director.
Not everyone, however, can let themselves be swept away by Lake or Clair's film. Writing about the film in SyFy Wire's Fangrrrls column alongside the camp supernatural 1958 rom-com Bell, Book and Candle as the genesis for the sitcom Bewitched, Emma Fraser worries that the earlier films send a regressive message about a woman's right to cast spells and ride broomsticks.
"In the '40s and '50s being a witch and a wife was out of the question," writes Fraser. "By the time Bewitched debuted, so had second-wave feminism. Samantha didn't have to use her powers to find love nor give them up (even if she tells her husband she will). The options should not be spinster aunt with magical abilities or wife with none. A woman with extraordinary powers should also have the capacity to love."
In an appreciation of the film on the Journeys In Classic Film blog, Kristen Lopez worries that she enjoys the film too much: "I absolutely love Veronica Lake in this film and I shouldn't from a feminist perspective."
"For all her innocence and child-like qualities she's controlled by men. A large part is the time period the film sets her in, but in looking at other films the men in these comedies treat her as much like a child as she acts. With this film in particular, Wallace actually picks up Jennifer, places her in a cab and tells her to 'be good' and pats her on the head. When Wallace tries to do this to his fiancée Estelle, she resists. Sure, Estelle is selfish and spoiled but she's far more independent than Jennifer."
Lopez tries to work out a redeeming outcome for Jennifer's story, but admits that "I just know I'd have friends breathe down my neck about how I bash romantic comedies yet I praise this." I know that the audience for classic films is aging out, so I'm happy when I see younger people appreciating the virtues of films like I Married A Witch. But it's actually painful to see them struggling against ideological conditioning and even peer pressure, instead of being able to enjoy the craft, wit and blessed light touch of movies that are hardly artifacts of an alien culture, even if it's safe to say that nobody living today would be capable of creating or starring in one.
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