Monday, October 31, 2011

I Married a Witch (1942)

Directed by Rene Clair 
Starring Veronica Lake, Frederic March, Susan Hayward

“Oh well, it's late, I've got to be getting into my straitjacket. I'll call a broom.”  

If the title of this film reminds you of a certain 60's show, it should. Sol Sacks, creator of beloved supernatural sitcom Bewitched, cites I Married a Witch as one of the main inspirations for his creation. And, much like Bewitched, this film came with its share of backstage drama. John McCrea, star of Sullivan's Travels, was originally slated to play the male lead, but dropped out after deciding it wasn't worth the considerable effort to work alongside Veronica Lake again, his prickly co-star in Sullivan's. Even by Hollywood standards, Lake was a handful, a booze-guzzling paranoid schizophrenic who enjoyed tormenting her co-stars with vicious pranks. The ideal choice, then, to play a wicked witch. Her signature hair-style - flowing blonde locks covering one-eye, a signature style that came to be labeled "The Peekabo" - and petite frame hid the out-of-control she-demon that lurked within her, a grim fact that newly recruited leading man Fredric March had to learn the hard way. He reportedly endured verbal and physical abuse from the tiny terror throughout the production. No wonder he began to refer to the film as "I Married a Bitch". Released the day before Halloween in 1942, the film has subsequently become a minor cult hit, thanks to its peculiar concept and its even more peculiar leading lady.

Back in the old-timey Salem days, a pilgrim named Jonathon Wooley (March), who had a dalliance of some sort with a buxom-faired woman named Jennifer, later accuses her of being of witch.

Before she and her pop Daniel are burned at the stake, she curses Jon and his family and all their descendants. The curse? They will always marry the wrong person.  Seems pretty mild for a curse. Anyway, 270 years later, the tree their ashes were buried under gets struck by lightning and their souls are released as puffs of smoke.

They float over to Jonathon's house – now owned by his great-great-great-great grandson, Wallace Wooley (March again), who's currently hosting a pre-election party. He's running for governor, and he's a shoo-in to win. He's not happy though, because he's got a shrewish fiance, Estelle (Susan Hayward), and he's due to marry her the next day. The curse is still working! Good job, Jennifer.

Jennifer's dad thinks the curse isn't evil enough, and suggests that falling in love with a woman you can't have is much worse than marrying the wrong woman. Jen agrees, and suggests she find a sexy body and torture Wallace with it. Dad's into it. They grab a broom and zoom off into the night, looking for fresh bodies. But first they burn down the Pilgrim Hotel. They hate pilgrims.

Wallace and Estelle are driving home when they spot the fire. Wallace stops and hears a woman crying out inside the hotel. Feeling chivalrous, he runs in, finding a beautiful blonde (Veronica Lake), wearing nothing but a fur coat. She's excited to see Wallace, but seemingly unconcerned with the fire or the walls caving in. He manages to carry her out and hands her to the cops. He's a hero!

Turns out the blonde is, in fact, Jennifer-the-witch. She's taken to the hospital, but she immediately flies away on her broom, and when Wallace get home, he finds Jennifer in his bed (and in his pajamas).

He is, naturally, shocked, but they talk all night long and before he knows it, Wallace is smitten. As is the audience.

However, when morning breaks, so does Jennifer's spell. Wally comes to his senses when Estelle shows up, and he splits for his friend's house to get ready for the wedding.

Frustrated, Jennifer talks to her dad (he's in the fireplace) about what happened. They sing a terrible song together, and then he suggests he she conjure up a magic elixir, a love potion, and then make Wallace drink it. But how to get him back to the house? That's easy, Daniel burns down Wally's pal's place.
That part of the plan works out, and Wallace comes home. But while trying to convince him to drink the potion, Jen gets knocked in the head, and Wally ends up giving her the drink. And now she's in love with Wallace, instead of the other way around. What a mix-up!

Of course, he has no time for this nonsense, so Wally splits for the wedding. He's getting ready to walk down the aisle when a gust of witchy wind blows through the hall, upending everything. Rushing off to a back-room, Wallace finds Jen and her dad (now in the body of a fat drunk), who demands he marry Jen instead. When he refuses, Daniel shoots himself and yells for help. But then he falls out the window, and the cops drag him away.

And so, once again, Wallace tries to marry Estelle. And once again...well, this time Estelle finds Wally making out with Jennifer (long story), and that's pretty much the end of that.

Not only is Wallace not getting married, but now his political career is fucked, since Estelle's big-wig dad owns the newspaper. He decides to get the hell out of town, and brings Jennifer with him.

Jen and Wally find an inn to stay in, but there's only one room available, and they'll only rent to them if they're married. So, what the hell. The innkeeper's registered, and they're game, so he marries them. They seem pretty happy, but when the innkeeper's wife asks Jen if she's planning on having children, she freaks out. She's 300 years old, after all. Way too old to have kids. She hadn't thought of that.

So, she confesses. She tells Wally that she's a witch. Naturally, he thinks she's just joking, and then he beds his beautiful new bride.

The next morning, she's still yammering about it. Wally goes to jail to see Jen's dad. He's worried about all this witch talk. Maybe he married a nut. Daniel tells Wally that if he gets him out, he'll help out. Meanwhile, Jen's using her witchy powers to make everybody vote for Wally in the governor's election. Even parrots and babies want to vote for Wooley. He wins in a landslide, which convinces him. He married a fuckin' witch!

Wally's worried that if the word gets out, his career is over. Again. Meanwhile, dad shows up and takes away Jen's powers. Then he tells her at midnight, she's going back under the tree. Because it's bad-form to tell a mortal that you're a witch. Bummer.

Wally and Jennifer pile into a cab to try to escape her sorcerer dad, but he hijacks it and crashes it into the tree. The clock chimes midnight. It's time for her to return to the cursed soil under the tree.

Wally wanders off, clutching Jen's now empty husk of a body in his arms and sobbing. 

Dad thinks this is all pretty awesome. After all, the plan was to make the guy suffer.

But wait, maybe there's a loophole! Maybe love can conquer witchcraft!  

Lighter-than-air and economically paced - the film gets in and out in an 75 eventful minutes - I Married a Witch is a fun and frothy little romp made more captivating then it probably should be by Lake's impish capering, goofy vocal inflections, and vampy, proto-goth get-ups. Even without a cursory knowledge of her trials, travails, and dramatic fall-from-grace just a few years after this film wrapped, it's painfully obvious here that not only was Lake a born movie star, she was also completely bananas. It's an irresistible combination. I Married a Witch is by no means a classic comedy, but it's well-worth digging up and would make for great Halloween viewing. 

- Ken McIntyre


  1. Where'd you find a copy of this bad boy (girl)?

    I've wanted to see it for years but it's been out of print.

    Love the site!


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