Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Film Review: I Married A Witch

"I Married A Witch"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Love is bewitching in Rene Clair's classic supernatural romantic / comedy "I Married A Witch" (1942).

Based on Thorne Smith's novel "The Passionate Witch", Rene Clair's "I Married A Witch" is a wonderful screwball comedy arguing all women, even witches, want to get married because no force on earth, even witchcraft, is stronger than love.

When I was much younger "I Married A Witch" was a childhood favorite. I found the movie so silly as a child. Even the title of the movie made me smile. It didn't hurt that I enjoyed the work of the brilliant French filmmaker, Rene Clair, either.

Mr. Clair has always seemed to have had a penchant for finding good natured, fantasy comedies such as in his English language movies; "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944) and "The Ghost Goes West" (1935). This was a bit of a contrast to his French comedies, which had a bit of a Chaplin-esque quality to them as seen in "Under the Roofs of Paris" (1930) and "Le Million" (1931).

"I Married A Witch" begins in the 17th century in New England. A woman, Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father, Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are about to be burnt at the stake when they are accused of witchcraft. Before she dies however, Jennifer, places a curse on her accuser, Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), that he and his descendants will forever remain unlucky in love. All the men will marry the wrong woman for them.

And so it goes until we reach the modern day and meet Wallace Wooley (also March), who is running for governor and about to marry Estelle (Susan Haywood), the daughter of a well-connected newspaper mogul J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick).

On the eve of the election and his wedding day, something out of the ordinary happens. On the site where Jennifer and Daniel were burnt, an ash tree was planted, as it was believe this would keep their evil spirits from escaping. That remains true for three centuries until a lightning storm strikes the ash tree and releases the spirits of Jennifer and Daniel.

It doesn't take Jennifer and Daniel long to find Wallace and to quickly determine he is a descendant of the Wooley family. The two hatch a plan to add to Wallace's misfortune. Daniel informs Jennifer her curse was not the most effective. You see, all women are the wrong women for men once they are married, so says Daniel. The "curse" for man is the woman that won't marry him and he loves.

Jennifer finds inspiration in her father's words and decides she will make Wallace fall in love with her but she will not marry him. To make things worst, after Wallace falls in love with him she will reveal she is a witch!

Dating back to biblical times with the story of Adam & Eve women have always been viewed in society and pop culture as figures of temptation. Women are the downfall of man. Women lured men with their sex appeal all in an attempt to extract power and show their dominance. 

At the time when "I Married A Witch" was released "noir" films had become popular. Stories of femme fatales luring innocent men into killing their husbands for money and the promise the two would be together.

"I Married A Witch" takes events one step further and places the label of "witch" on women. The female characters in the movie are not kind, warm individuals. They nag and complain. They place the men in compromising situations. They have their own hidden agenda. The men in the movie are always a step behind, trying to play catch up. Even Daniel is eventually outsmarted by Jennifer. No man is able to escape the tricks and deceitfulness of a woman.

"I Married A Witch" takes these ideas and presents them as a screwball comedy, so as not to seem threatening or isolate its female audience. One could blind themselves to any underlying message and simply view "I Married A Witch" as nothing more than a love story. If one chooses to do that, that is where the screwball comedy element comes in.

In most screwball comedies; "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "The Awful Truth" (1937), the woman is presented as the aggressor and the man is unsuspecting. The woman devises schemes to make the man fall in love with him, even though the man has shown no romantic interest in the woman. Notice however, whether it is a noir movie or a screwball comedy, the woman is always scheming. In one way or another the woman is taking advantage of a man.

This would all seem to suit Veronica Lake, who enjoyed great popularity in the 1940s starring in comedies and noir movies. Considered to be a screen beauty with a very distinguished hair style, it was easy for audiences to accept Ms. Lake as a kind of temptress yet she was accepted in light comedies as well. "I Married A Witch" gives her the opportunities to show both sides of her skills in one movie.

It has been suggested by some that "I Married A Witch" has elements which resemble a Preston Sturges comedy. Mr. Sturges, another great comedy director, originally served as one of the producers of the movie but dropped out after creative differences with Mr. Clair.

Outside of the supernatural / fantasy aspects of the story one could see how Mr. Sturges would have been a suitable director for this story as it does incorporate physical comedy with verbal humor, which Mr. Sturges had a naturally talent for blending together. Joel McCrea was even going to star in the movie (he appeared in three of Mr. Sturges' comedies) but declined due to Veronica Lake's casting. The two did not get along after working together on the Preston Sturges comedy "Sullivan's Travels" (1941).

Also contributing to the movie is Robert Benchley, the great satirist, known for appearing in comedy shorts, displaying the difficulties of everyday living. and for being a member of the Algonquin Round Table - a group of New York writers. Unfortunately here his character he really not defined. He plays a friend of Wallace, who also happens to be a doctor, but he does deliver some nice lines and his presence alone should bring a smile to your face.

The only downfall to "I Married A Witch" is the running time of 77 minutes. It almost feels as if something is missing, an additional conflict. The movie takes to long to build up its premise and then resolves everything too quickly. But the majority of the movie is lighthearted and funny. It probably could have used a Preston Sturges to add more physical comedy and maybe someone like Robert Benchley to write some one-liners, still the tone of the movie is consistent and works.

Sadly this would also be one of the last movies Mr. Clair directed that made a significant impact on American audiences. Mr. Clair would later return to France to direct his final films.

For reasons I can't explain the movie did score one Academy Award nomination for its musical score. Of all the categories the Academy could have nominated this movie for, why they chose the musical score is as strange as witchcraft to me.

One also has to believe "I Married A Witch" was some sort of inspiration for the television show "Bewitched" which first aired in 1964. It too centered on a witch marrying a man.

I'm also willing to bet the title of the movie was inspired by the 1938 Rogers & Hart Broadway musical "I Married an Angel", which is where the song "Spring is Here" was introduced.

If you are not familiar with the films of Rene Clair, I would suggest suggest watching his early French comedies first and then view "I Married A Witch".