13 April 2021

I Married A Witch (1942)

Directed by René Clair
Music: Roy Webb
Starring: Veronica Lake, Fredric March
Susan Hayward, Robert Benchley,
Cecil Kellaway, Robert Warwick,
Elizabeth Patterson

My wonderful husband (WH from now on) pays $99 a year for the Criterion Channel. While I have been enjoying Cary Grant and Raj Kapoor, Criterion also throws up thumbnails of various films from time to time. And as my WH kept scrolling through the offerings one Sunday afternoon, he came across a double bill – the first was I Married a Witch. And since he said that he had married a witch, it was decided that we should watch it at once. (Said witch wasn’t given a choice.)

The film is set in the period:

In Roxford in a New England state which shall not be named, a young witch named Jennifer has been burnt to death, denounced by a Puritan named Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March). 

Her father, Daniel, will soon suffer the same fate. The exorcist traps their evil spirits in the roots of an oak tree that’s planted over their ashes. Jonathan confesses to his mother that before her death, Jennifer had cursed him, his children, and his children’s children – the men are forever doomed to marry the wrong women.

And as she says, so must it be – in the centuries that follow, generations of Wooley men (all played by Fredric March) marry shrewish, intemperate women. And now, it is 1942.

Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), the present descendant of the Wooley family, is a respected member of the town and is running for Governor of the state. He’s also slated to marry Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward), the spoilt daughter of JB Masterson (Robert Warwick), Wooley’s principal backer. 

A sudden storm on the eve of the wedding (and the election), splinters the oak which bound the evil spirits’ spirits, freeing them. And now, they want revenge.

The party is in full force when the spirts of Jennifer and Daniel pay a visit (in the form of vertical spires of smoke). 

Seeing Wooley (who strongly resembles his forebears), Jennifer is pleased – he looks miserable; her curse is working. "Ha." says Daniel. Every man who marries, marries the wrong women. Real torment only happens when he falls in love with a woman he cannot marry.

This gives Jennifer an idea – if her father could provide her with a body, she can ensure that Wallace will fall in love with her, and since she is never going to marry him, he will be tormented. “I’ll treat him like a slave. I’ll make him suffer body and soul!” Daniel, who’s slightly inebriated through having hidden in a bottle of bourbon (Jennifer hides in a bottle of bubbly, saying 'Whee' when she does), decides to help. 

She died in flames, she will be born of flames, he says, and sets fire to the aptly named Pilgrim Hotel. Wallace, passing by when the hotel is imploding, thinks he hears a woman calling for help and dives into the burning building to rescue Jennifer (Veronica Lake). 

Much to Estelle’s displeasure, Wallace has her taken to the hospital where he hands her over to Dr Dudley White (Robert Benchley). 

Exhausted and worried about the wedding, the election and now, Jennifer, Wallace is dropped home by Estelle. He enters his study only to find Jennifer waiting for him. What’s more, she reappears, even though he personally carries her out the front door and into the taxi of a cabbie whom he knows. When he goes up to bed, she’s in it – waiting for him. 

However, despite all Jennifer’s efforts to seduce him into forgetting Estelle (including turning the clock forward several hours), Wallace still insists on going for his wedding. Baffled, Jennifer is wondering what to do when Daniel reappears – in the grate. 

Between Daniel and Jennifer, they concoct a love potion which will make Wallace besotted with her. Unfortunately for Jennifer, it is she who drinks it. And now, she’s in love with Wallace.

Daniel decides to help her, but first, he needs to find a body. Another fire later, Daniel presents himself at Wallace’s house. He’s going to help Jennifer stop the wedding, only she doesn’t realise that his purpose is contrary to hers. 

Fortunately for Jennifer, Daniel is still too inebriated to remember half the spells. So, while he’s carted off to jail for drunk and disorderly conduct, Wallace is gratefully embracing Jennifer, Estelle finds them and calls off the wedding, and Masterson promises to ruin Wallace and run him out of town.

Jennifer and Wallace elope. They find a Justice of Peace to marry them, and on their first night, Jennifer confesses to her new husband – she’s a witch. 

Wallace doesn’t take that literally until he wins the election – his opponent didn’t get a single vote, not even his own. And that’s when the discovery dawns – he’s married to a witch. If the news gets out, it will ruin him. Besides, there’s his father-in-law to worry about as well. What’s a man to do?

Helmed by French fantasy film-maker René Clair, I Married a Witch is a screwball romantic comic caper which is filled with delightfully zany dialogues and a lead actress who pulls off the whimsy with spectacular charm. Veronica Lake grounds her Jennifer, giving the fantastical character heft and punch, her dialogues sparkling with just the right pauses, the right emphasis to the right words.

When we first see her, her back is to the camera, as she looks upon herself after 270 years. “I’m a blonde,” she observes. Then, turning (showing her face to the audience for the first time), she tosses off: “Would you rather I be a brunette?” 

If you don’t get out of this fire, you will be a redhead”, is the prompt, if unromantic reply.

The source material (The Passionate Witch – an unfinished novel by Thorne Smith, completed by his friend Norman H Matson), provides rich material, of course, and the screenplay was adapted by a slew of writers.

Susan Hayward had the less likeable role as the ambitious Estelle. But she did wonders with what she was given, lending her character a humour that stops her from being completely stereotypical. I especially loved her in the wedding sequence where she becomes increasingly exasperated and annoyed each time there’s an impediment to the proceedings. 

Robert Benchley, Elizabeth Patterson (as the flustered housekeeper) and Cecil Kellaway are equally at home in their parts, with the latter bringing a cherubic innocence to his role, which would otherwise have been pure evil. Benchley is equally good at playing Wallace’s best friend with increased befuddlement.

With a play time of less than 80 minutes, Clair keeps a tight hold on the proceedings, and the combination of a beautiful witch, a mischief-making father, a stiff-necked politician, and an ambitious father-daughter duo made for a fun filled watch,

I've never before watched a Veronica Lake film, and I'm kicking myself. She's a revelation. For all that she plays Jennifer like a child hidden in an adult's body, she doesn't make her an idiot. Or worse, a precocious child.  And for a film that was made nearly eight decades ago, I can’t recommend I Married A Witch enough.

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