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United Artists distributed many independent productions in the 1940s with artistic ambitions or political themes sometimes avoided by the big studios: Sam Wood's Our Town, John Cromwell's So Ends Our Night, Douglas Sirk's The Private Lives of Bel-Ami. Years later, quite a few UA-distributed pictures suddenly became available only in substandard 16mm prints, even an occasional huge hit such as John Ford's Stagecoach. 1942's I Married a Witch falls into this 'orphaned film' category. It is one of the funniest pictures of the decade, and one of the most influential. With a rare, wicked sense of humor, it mixes witchcraft and romance to fashion a delightful screwball horror comedy. Preston Sturges was reportedly one of the film's uncredited producers. The director is the French expert René Clair, a comedic trickster well versed in fantasy, comedy, and musical magic.
Based on an incomplete story by Thorne Smith, finished by Norman Matson, Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly worked out the final screenplay's blend of diabolical farce. Upstanding gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (Fredric March) is set to marry Estelle (Susan Hayward), the disagreeable daughter of his party handler J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick). Little does Wallace know that a storm has set free a witch and a warlock, who have been imprisoned in a tree for hundreds of years. Before the Puritans burned them at the stake, warlock Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Jennifer (Veronica Lake) put a curse on the Wooleys, which accounts for the romantic disasters that have befallen all the family descendants. Jennifer happily seduces Wallace, making it impossible for him to go through with his marriage. But a love potion prepared for Wallace backfires, causing Jennifer to fall hopelessly in love with him instead. While Wallace's best friend Doctor Dudley White (Robert Benchley) tries to fathom all the supernatural goings-on, the impish Daniel prepares to take extreme measures to make sure that his vengeance against the Wooley clan is carried out. Jennifer has only one defense -- Daniel is a notorious drinker, and when under the influence he can't remember any of his diabolical spells: "Oh, why can't I remember the formula for dissolving iron?"
The infectiously funny I Married a Witch still elicits gales of laughter when seen with a full audience. As a romantic lead and straight man, Fredric March brings a bit of wide-eyed innocence to his role that reminds a bit of Harold Lloyd; he's suitably befuddled all the way through. The jokes make fun of a multiplicity of targets. Wallace's political campaign is relying on the illusion of his happy relationship with Estelle, who smiles sincerely for the cameras while mercilessly criticizing her fiancé. Later on, a farcical landslide victory obtained through witchcraft seems as honest as any normal rigged election. The movie's central set piece shows the Estelle-Wallace wedding utterly destroyed by black magic spells, one attempt after another. Wallace is caught with another woman in his room, and then a dead body, but it takes a windstorm to shut down the ceremony. In one of her last supporting roles, Susan Hayward's temper boils over as the matronly singer warbles into "I Love You Truly..." for the umpteenth time.
Veronica Lake was Paramount's glamour girl of the moment. Casting her as the slinky witch Jennifer lends credibility to the idea of a Love Spell. In full seductive mode, with one eye covered by her blond hair, Jennifer barely needs magic to set Wallace's heartbeat racing. She burns down an entire hotel to get his attention, and contrives to see that he's caught in one compromising situation after another, first by the incredulous Dudley, and eventually by the furious Estelle. With René Clair's light touch behind every fantastic development, the show is an unbroken series of hilarious situations. Thanks to that Love Potion, Jennifer is transformed from a femme fatale into a romantic, comfortably domestic American woman -- with a witchy edge.
Cecil Kellaway's grinning, booze-soaked warlock Daniel is the funniest thing in the picture. Daniel invokes the nastiest spells with delicious wit and a hearty, fiendish laugh. He frames Wallace by using magic to shoot himself through the heart: "Pistol, Pistol, let there be / murder in the first degree!" When Daniel gets drunk he sings about his happy state, and then tears his hair when he can't conjure up the simplest of spells. But as Jennifer knows only too well, Daniel is a dedicated minion of the Devil. Director Clair deftly slips in a shock moment that works as well as a "Boo" in any horror movie. Kellaway is inspired. He even pulls off an expert slapstick pratfall, tumbling out of a window.
As a comedy, I Married a Witch gets away with content denied straight horror films ever since the Production Code cast a shadow over Hollywood. The humor is frequently wicked, as when a Pilgrim witch burning is interrupted long enough to allow popcorn vendors to circulate through the crowd: "Get your pop-maize!" The demonic powers presented are fairly impressive, and Christian symbolism is not employed to defeat them. Although on a slightly lower level, lust is definitely part of the story -- Jennifer is impressed by Wallace Wooley's looks, and when she takes corporeal form, she chooses a supremely sexy body. And it's difficult to find an American movie that lampoons courtship in such a thorough manner. When witch and mortal marry, certain adjustments have to be made.
The movie has an unusual production history. René Clair developed it at Paramount, and the traces of Preston Sturges' involvement reach to the use of a couple of actors from his stock company. But it was then sold for distribution to United Artists, a maneuver that may have had something to do with Paramount finding itself with an overstock of film product. In this first year of the war Clair technically was a refugee from Occupied France, although he had already made films in England. He had difficulty finding film subjects appropriate to his particular talents. His other big American success was the fanciful It Happened Tomorrow, about a man who receives newspapers from the future.
Although the finished film betrays nothing, testimony from the participants indicates a measure of personality fireworks on the set of I Married a Witch. By all accounts Veronica Lake was a spoiled, demanding troublemaker who played her sudden stardom for all it was worth. Fredric March fancied himself a ladies' man and took pride in his seductions, but Lake responded by pulling disruptive and humiliating pranks on him. (see TCM's feature article for more details). The on-screen attraction between their characters is so convincing that it's hard to believe that the performers couldn't stand each other.
Director Clair packs his film with interesting visual effects, involving matte paintings, animation and interesting double exposures when Daniel and Jennifer exist only as plumes of transparent smoke. Clair loved film trickery. FOr his 1920s avant-garde movies he fashioned clever effects with slow motion, running the film backwards, etc. His silent feature Paris qui dort is about a science-fiction invention that makes time stand still, freezing all motion except for the film's adventurous heroes. Classics like The Italian Straw Hat put him in the first rank of internationally known directors. Clair's unique personal style and way of choosing material seems antithetical to the Hollywood system, which makes I Married a Witch seem all the more of a happy creative exception. Nobody who has seen it can resist a smile when recalling Daniel's drinking song: "For tonight I'll merry merry be / For tonight I'll merry merry be / For tonight I'll merry merry be / Tomorrow I'll be so-ber!"
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of I Married a Witch is licensed from Westchester Films, which retained the film's original nitrate negative and a fine-grain duplication element. The image on view here seems untouched by time. Most of us have only seen René Clair's movie in seriously compromised, dark copies with rough audio. Although a ding or two remain, Criterion's transfer and cleanup job is a complete video rejuvenation. Roy Webb's amusing score was nominated for a Best Music Oscar; it deftly leaps from light themes to impressively menacing tones.
Appropriate extras were apparently hard to come by, for the disc carries only a trailer, and an audio interview with director Clair. The insert booklet features a number of rare stills to accompany an essay by Guy Maddin, and a text interview with the director, from 1970. As a Halloween treat I Married a Witch couldn't be bettered.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Married a Witch Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.