The 1942 comedy I Married a Witch had all the makings of a flop but it turned out to be OK – it’s a classic if looked at from the right angle.
People kept coming and going for a start. Dalton Trumbo was hired to write but then left before he was finished. Preston Sturges was meant to produce it but never actually did. Joel McCrea had been signed up to star but bowed out when he realised he’d be working opposite Veronica Lake. He’d done a stint with her already on Sullivan’s Travels and, according to him, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake”.
Then there was the pre-shooting falling-out between Lake and her eventual co-star, Fredrich March. “A brainless little sexpot void of any acting talent,” he’d called her. She hit back, calling him a “pompous poseur.”
For all her faults, Lake is not wrong about March, who comes across as a stiff in this movie. Some of that is down to the way his character is written, but there’s still a bit of a charisma chasm on screen whenever March is on it.
Lake, for all her perceived lack of talent, holds the entire film together with a feisty performance as Jennifer, the witch who had been burned to death 270 years earlier, and whose spirit has only just escaped from incarceration in a tree thanks to a freak bolt of lightning.
March plays the 1940s descendant of the man who imprisoned her. He’s the latest Wooley to be living under a curse condemning all Wooleys to bad marriages that will make their lives miserable. A neat montage sequence shows us various Wooleys down the ages taking precisely the wrong person as a wife.
The set-up is short and sweet, with the vast bulk of the action taking place in the here and now (if you’re watching this in 1942), where the latest Wooley is about to marry the wrong person – the strychnine Estelle (Susan Hayward) – and is also about, so everyone assures him, to be elected governor.
Enter Jennifer the witch, exit Wallace Wooley’s equilibrium. Everyday chump meets supernatural blonde was also the idea behind the TV series Bewitched, which took its inspiration largely from I Married a Witch, in particular its tone. Here, even when conversation turns to topics such as being burned to death or fried alive in the electric chair, things stay playful.
That is largely down to Lake, though she’s got Cecil Kellaway alongside her for chunks of the film as her screen father – he’s a puckish Charles Laughton-esque presence. The great Robert Benchley plays Wooley’s longtime friend and confidant, and he does what he can with very little – no great laughs this time out from Benchley.
Behind the camera there’s more talent. French director René Clair, who had made his name with precisely this sort of fantastical light-hearted entertainment and is economical direction distilled to a syrup. He keeps this show on the road and moving at speed – the entire thing comes in at a zippy one hour 17 minutes, with no sense of rush. Special effects work – the smoky spirits of Jennifer and her dad, mostly – is by Gordon Jennings and it’s effective and charmingly, laughably old school. DP is Ted Tetzlaff, who’d later that decade light Notorious for Alfred Hitchcock before switching into directing.
Much is made of Lake’s tiny, girlish frame – Wooley picks her several times, she larks around in his pyjamas, slides down the banister, and wears gowns that show off her tiny waist, and the film also teases that it’s going to show her naked at various point.
She was 20 at the time and the previous year had been dubbed “the find of 1941”. By 1942 the world couldn’t get enough of her and she appeared in four films that year. It wouldn’t last long and her reputation for being hard to work with – she was known as The Bitch on 1942’s Star Spangled Rhythm, Raymond Chandler referred to her as Moronica Lake while she was shooting The Blue Dahlia in 1946 – meant that when the slide started, there was little there to stop it.
So this, along with the best films she made with Alan Ladd (This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia) is Peak Lake.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022