Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): I Married a Witch

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I Married a Witch

I Married a Witch could easily have been a novelty item, a slight trifle which was forgotten with time, but the serendipitous involvement of two major personalities guarantees its legacy as a comedy classic. First, there's French director Rene Clair -- this is the first of his American films I've seen, and if its tonic whimsy and imagination is any indication, then his Hollywood period may be seriously underrated. In making the trans-Atlantic jump, Lang, Renoir, and some guy named Hitchcock all earned praise - eventually, if not initially - from intellectuals but Clair is rarely discussed following his early talkies. Yet his tinkling sense of magic and erotic energy feel as present in I Married a Witch as in A nous la liberte. Perhaps this was a rare high point, but at any rate, it crackles with invention.

Oh, and then there's Veronica Lake. Ah, Veronica Lake. Now that I have a DVR again, there are a few factors which overwhelmingly determine which movies I'll be recording and prioritizing. Ranking somewhere between "this is supposed to be a masterpiece, and I haven't seen it" and "hey, this sounds kind of wacky and interesting, why not?" is "ok, she's in it..." As far as forties films go, if I see Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, or Veronica Lake in the cast listing, I'm in. Lake has a warbling, pulsating charisma that's hard to pin down. Yes, she's gorgeous (in a surprisingly offbeat way when you look closely) but it's also that voice, not exactly coy in its open flirtation yet somehow wholesome and erotic at the same time.


Speaking of which, for 1942 this is surprisingly frank about sex. A witch is burned by Puritans several centuries ago, and a town father admits he turned her in after a (literal) roll in the hay. Later that same witch, Jennifer, who has returned to the flesh (and how) in 1940s America, is rescued in the nude from a hotel fire by a gubernatorial candidate, Wallace Wooley (Wendell Willkie anyone?) who is descended from that earlier Puritan. To show her gratitude, Jennifer pops up in his house and won't leave his bed. For the rest of the movie people will stumble on Wooley and Jennifer in compromising positions. Somewhat disturbingly, the witch's dad seems to be pimping her, sending her forth to seduce Wooley and disrupt his already unpleasant engagement to the daughter of a newspaper magnate. Even before Wooley abandons his political marriage to fall into Jennifer's arms, he and the beautiful witch can hardly keep their hands off of each other.

Fredric March plays Wooley very effectively, as the straight man in over his head, but it's Lake's show to steal, and she makes off like a bandit. The movie teases us endlessly as we await her appearance - first we see her stake burning itself out, her execution complete; then we hear her disembodied voice as she and her father float around as columns of smoke; finally we see the back of her head and hear her calling - oh so nonchalantly - to Wooley in the midst of a nine-story blaze. Well into the movie we finally get our first look, and she's wrapped in a large coat, calmly enfolded in Wooley's arms as he stumbles around the burning hotel. Wooley seems taken aback by her cool; so are we. Lake manages just the right combination of sauciness and wistfulness - she's irresistable. Of course if she wanted to, she'd only have to peek out from behind that drooping blond lock with a slightly quizzical expression and we'd be hooked.

Like all of Clair's work, I Married a Witch has the quality of a music box. The editing is limber as the movie zips from scene to scene, the camera is dexterous and clever, and the sets and set pieces are lush yet somehow sprightly (the fire is utterly unconvincing yet completely engaging on its own terms). And then there's the use of props...through shot selection, editing, and sound design, the director invests inanimate objects with a bubbling life. He pans and cuts rapidly between two bottles, frothing with smoke and accompanied by the voices of the witch family supposedly hiding inside of them. Only he could get away with a shot reverse shot involving empty and immobile glass bottles. Clair's films are delicate yet robust, light and frothy but bursting at the seams with creativity and verve.

Some 25 years after I Married a Witch, TV borrowed the concept with "Bewitched." But despite the loosened social mores of the time (albeit not so much in sitcom-land) the earlier work is far sexier and does a better job tapping into the fantasy behind the whole idea: men dreaming of women who want to submit themselves as domestic wives, yet who also hold forth the possibility of completely overpowering their male companions. And it doesn't hurt if they look like Veronica Lake too.

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