Monday, October 15, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: I MARRIED A WITCH (1945)

Classic horror makes an obvious choice for Halloween, but comedies can also fit the bill, especially when they offer a seasonably supernatural twist. Few Halloween treats could be more delightful than I Married a Witch (1942), an adorable screwball comedy from director René Clair that stars the very bewitching Veronica Lake as an immortal enchantress who falls for a human male. With an excellent cast that also includes Fredric March, Cecil Kellaway, Susan Hayward, and Robert Benchley, I Married a Witch is certain to cast its spell over almost any classic movie fan.

Lake plays Jennifer, a beautiful witch condemned to death by the local Puritans in colonial New England. She and her warlock father (Cecil Kellaway) are burned at the stake, and their spirits are then trapped inside a tree planted over their ashes. When they finally escape this prison several centuries later, the pair set out to avenge themselves on the descendant of the man responsible for their fate. Their unsuspecting target is Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), an aspiring politician already suffering from Jennifer’s dying curse that all Wooley men should be unlucky in love. Wallace’s luck, however, might be changing when Jennifer herself falls in love with him, thanks to a misdirected magic potion meant for him.

Although we remember her primarily as a noir star, Veronica Lake really shines in this comic role, perhaps her best aside from Sullivan’s Travels (1941), which had come out the previous year. Lake brings great vivacity to her strange but charming heroine, who represents a humorous mix of feminine types, from the immortal seductress to ingénue to madcap minx. It’s no wonder that Fredric March’s baffled hero doesn’t know what to make of her. Various sources report ill will between Lake and March on the set, but it doesn’t show up on the screen.

March takes the straight man role and plays it admirably; his character spends most of the picture uncomfortably caught between his intended bride (Susan Hayward) and the determined interloper. Cecil Kellaway, however, has all the fun as Jennifer’s mischievous, drunken father. A talented comedian and character actor, Kellaway plays the warlock as more devilish scamp than true villain, even though he’ll stop at nothing to end Jennifer’s romance with her mortal beloved. Luckily, his fondness for liquor proves a convenient Achilles’ heel that prevents him from doing too much damage.

Be sure to enjoy the special effects that open the movie and pop up periodically throughout the picture. Of course, I Married a Witch, along with Bell Book and Candle (1958), helped to inspire the later production of the classic television series, Bewitched. I Married a Witch earned an Oscar nomination for its score, but there were 18 nominees for the award that year, which finally went to Now, Voyager (1942). René Clair also directed The Flame of New Orleans (1941), And Then There Were None (1945), and The Gates of Paris (1957). See more of Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946). Fredric March won Oscars for his performances in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Don’t miss the marvelous Cecil Kellaway in Harvey (1950), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Ironically, Kellaway also turns up as Santa Claus on an episode of Bewitched.

While you’ll have trouble getting a copy of I Married a Witch on DVD, and it’s not available at all on Netflix, it does air sometimes on Turner Classic Movies. The Criterion Collection version of the film is also available for streaming on Hulu Plus.

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