I Married a Witch (1942)
Release Date: October 30th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Rene Clair Actors: Fredric March, Veronica Lake, Robert Benchley, Susan Hayward, Cecil Kellaway, Elizabeth Patterson, Eily Malyon, Robert Warwick
ong, long ago, when people still believed in witches…” begins “I Married a Witch,” as a bitter mob crowds a hillside. The Wooley family has been plagued by the otherworldly presence of an occultist named Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway, who, in his darker moments, sounds like Emperor Palpatine) for centuries, ever since Puritan Jonathan (Fredric March) burned them at the stake for sorcery. Her final words were to curse the Wooley men to come, to be forever doomed to marry the wrong woman and remain miserable. Jennifer’s spirit was trapped in an abominable tree, to permanently preside over their sorrows. In 1770, 1861, 1904, and finally present day, the damnation is resilient.
Descendant Wallace Wooley (March, again), running for governor with the unwelcome financial help of his soon-to-be father-in-law, is engaged to Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward), and the two are constantly at odds. During a celebratory evening, a bolt of lightning strikes the massive tree outside the Wooley residence, releasing the evil spirits (in the form of writhing smoke) of Jennifer and Daniel, who are hellbent on causing further misfortune and destruction. When the mischievous phantoms set the Pilgrim Hotel on fire, Wallace comes to Jennifer’s rescue – and suddenly she becomes a luscious, petite blonde, intent on toying with Wallace, scandalizing his governorship, and ultimately driving him mad.
Deliciously hateful yet with an angelically flirtatious voice, Lake makes a striking visual entrance as her iconic self, swishing her bouncy hair around her distinct, delicate features (a stark contrast after beginning the film with voiceover narration alone). In “I Married a Witch,” Lake is the perfect choice to demonstrate that love is terribly confusing: at first, Wallace thinks Jennifer is infatuated with her rescuer, before realizing she’s likely been sent by his political rivals to spoil his election and career. Or possibly she’s just running away from her abusive father. When he can’t convince her to leave, she continues her seduction, instigating scenarios of the most unseemly kind – starting with spending the night in his bed. But her mission becomes increasingly more troublesome when she accidentally ingests the love potion she mischievously prepared for Wallace.
It’s no masterpiece, but the film features plenty of bubbly romance, playful magic, bungled witchcraft, light singing, and a hilariously awkward disruption of Wallace’s wedding to Estelle – the wrong woman he’s been cursed to marry – by the witch who initially wanted to destroy him but is now hopelessly smitten. It’s a brilliant sequence, involving Wallace struggling to go through with his nuptials, even after witnessing a suicidal homicide and alternately confronting his belligerent wife and his possessed suitor. A repetition gimmick with a wedding singer is also notable for its humorousness. Additionally, the tone is consistently airy and the predicaments silly, lending to a resolution that oversteps the boundaries of a typical romantic comedy to be far daffier and less severe. In fact, if it weren’t for Lake dripping sexuality in the most casually erotic manner, the film would be downright childish. “Mere physical beauty isn’t everything,” claims Wallace, quite unconvincingly, as he sees Jennifer in clothes (for the first time!) – a magnificently sparkling dress that signifies her extraordinarily recognizable screen persona.
– Mike Massie