Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review: 'I Married a Witch' (1942)

Dodgy ideas are scattered like landmines throughout the introductory passage of René Clair’s 1942 comedy I Married a Witch. The film ignites in 1770 Salem where broom-rider Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her pop (Cecil Kellaway) are about to be burned after getting ratted out by Puritan Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March in a bad wig). As the witch heads to the stake, she vows vengeance on Wooley and all his descendents, cursing them with eternal unhappiness. That means they’ll all get married to ruthlessly henpecking wives. We then see March in various Wooley guises throughout the centuries getting his balls handed to him by generations of harpies. Hardy-har.

Milking laughs out of the misogynistic murders of the Salem witch trials is a creaky foundation on which to build your chuckle fest, and the henpecking wives montage suggests I Married a Witch will follow through with a sexist agenda. Fortunately, the picture quickly switches its trajectory toward more lighthearted skies. Jennifer and her dad are resurrected as mobile plumes of smoke 270 years after their deaths. They seek out gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (March again) to resume their jiggery pokery against the Wooley line. After taking voluptuous corporeal form, Jennifer schemes to make Wally squirm, first by nearly cooking him after luring him into a burning building (ah, poetic justice!), then foiling his wedding to a “shrew” (who isn’t really portrayed that shrewishly by Susan Hayward). Romantic comedy conventions dictate that Jennifer’s plans are ultimately turned inside out when she falls for Wooley, and the picture plays out with her battling her dad, who still wants revenge, and stoking her new hubby’s political campaign.

I Married a Witch is slim and a bit meandering. None of that is surprising considering the film was based on a novel (The Passionate Witch) its original author (Thorne Smith) failed to finish before he croaked (Norman H. Matson completed the job in 1941). The script, producer’s seat, and lead actor changed hands a number of times, too. Joel McCrea was originally slated to play the Wooley men, but declined when he discovered his former Sullivan’s Travels co-star, Veronica Lake, would be playing the witch. Lake was a notorious handful, and she didn’t endear herself to March either. She hid a 40-pound weight beneath her dress during a scene in which March had to carry her (which, assumedly, brought her up to an even 100 pounds). She played footsy with his crotch while he attempted to recite his lines. Consequently, Lake and March lack chemistry in the film, so the revelation that Jennifer has fallen in love with Wooley seems forced and unprecedented. As far as romantic comedies go, I Married a Witch isn’t terribly romantic.

Yet, at an easily digestible 77 minutes, I Married a Witch has quite a bit to recommend it. Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff designs some beautiful shots. Anyone who has seen his work in Hitchcock’s Notorious knows the guy was an ace with light and shadow, and he exploits those skills marvelously in Witch. Clair also gets off a number of beautifully executed set pieces, such as the witches’ smokey resurrection during a lightning storm, an impromptu indoor hurricane Jennifer whips up at Wally’s wedding, and a flying taxi cab. Kellaway, who was a charming presence on a couple of “Twilight Zone” episodes, nearly steals the show with his funny, drunken capering. I say “nearly” because Veronica Lake owns this movie. She may not have been able to generate any sparks with March, but she does just fine generating them on her own. Hilarious and adorable, Lake not only brings the film to life when she’s actually on the screen, but she can make it pulse with nothing more than her disembodied voice. Her performance totally negates March’s charge that she was “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability,” and almost singlehandedly makes I Married a Witch must-viewing. You can view it right now for free on hulu here.
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