Saturday, September 17, 2016
I Married a Witch
Veronica Lake stars with Frederic March in Rene Clair's 1942 comedy, I Married a Witch. A big-budget enterprise, directed with suave efficiency, the film slips uneasily between too many stools (and genres) to be wholly effective. In some respects, the film is a horror movie. But, primarily, the picture is a romantic comedy as well as a political satire. Frederic March plays a politician running for governor. In order to complete his resume, he needs to marry well; his betrothed is played by Susan Hayward in a thankless role -- she plays an irredeemable shrew whom March ultimately spurns. (She's the daughter of a newspaper publisher who supports March's candidacy and hopes to ride the governor's coattails to greater influence over the electorate.) March's character, Woolly, doesn't like his fiancée and she despises him as well. Veronica Lake, as 300 year old witch, is injected into this situation as Woolly's other love interest. It seems that Veronica Lake and her father were burned at the stake as witches in Salem and their ashes buried under a scary-looking tree on the Woolly estate. From that place, the witch and her sorcerer father have afflicted the Woolly's with misfortune in love and marriage, a curse that has descended to the present generation as witness the unhappy match that March's character is about to make. A lightning strike sets the witch and her demonic father free and, as vagrant puffs of steam, they wander about waiting to become embodied. (This aspect of the film is not very clear.) The witch's vengeful spirit enters into Veronica Lake and she attempts to seduce the politician. However, her love philter ends up self-administered and she falls hopelessly in love with Woolly. The remainder of the film involves the course of true love, not running straight, but unerringly toward a union between Lake's witch, who has now become a mortal woman, and the politician. Much of the film plays like a screwball comedy with faintly supernatural overtones. It's all rather mild, but, also, a little disquieting. The clash in genres and styles is evident in the opening scene -- it's an image out of an Universal horror film: a smoking heap of soot and charred wood, the remains of the fire where Veronica Lake's character has been burned at the stake. The camera draws back from the pyre and Frederic March reads from a scroll announcing that they have just burned at the stake a powerful witch and that her father has been condemned to die by flame as well. Then, March turns to the audience, a group of rubber-neckers in Puritan clothes, and announces a "brief intermission" -- vendors sell "popped maize" to the crowd of spectators. It's supposed to be a joke about the audience but the context is a little too horrific, and the German expressionist shadows and angles too dire, to be very funny. How well you like this film will depend upon your appreciation of the principals -- I've never much liked Veronica Lake, she's a tiny inexpressive Barbie Doll with a curiously gruff, husky voice. She pouts effectively, but isn't much of an actress. (The film is worth seeing for one of the gowns that she wears -- the woman's body is entirely covered but she is as close to naked as you can imagine; I'm not sure how the effect is achieved -- it may have to do with lovingly wrapping each of her breasts as if they were Christmas presents -- but it's startling to see.) I've always found Frederick Marsh stiff and unwieldy -- he's a great supporting man, plays a fine understated villain as in Stagecoach, but he's not persuasive as the leading man in a romantic comedy. The script is reasonably clever and Robert Benchley is on display as -- you guessed it -- a cynical wit and the hero's sidekick. The movie was made during the WW II and, I suppose, therefore, it can't be too critical of American political institutions, although the film does show in detail how voters can be bewitched into electing a candidate that they might otherwise reject. The best scene is the thwarted wedding in which a hapless soprano keeps having to belt out her much-interrupted solo, vamping as the proceedings become increasing embarrassing and chaotic. It's amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny.