Judging by most accounts, the making of Rene Clair's 1942 film I Married a Witch was an unpleasant experience for most of the people involved. Dalton Trumbo contributed to the screenplay, but ultimately left the production due to creative differences with producer Preston Sturges. Later, Sturges left the production due to creative differences with Clair. Veronica Lake (The Blue Dahlia) was cast as the film's star, and quickly proved difficult to work with. The producers had approached Joel McCrea about playing the male lead, but McCrea had no desire to work with his difficult Sullivan's Travels co-star. So, the filmmakers turned to Frederic March (The Best Years of Our Lives), who also proved difficult to work with. March called Lake, “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” Lake responded by calling March, “a pompous poseur.” The two fought furiously throughout the production, and multiple scenes had to be re-shot due to behavioral issues.
Miraculously, none of that behind-the-scenes turmoil shows up onscreen in I Married a Witch, a thoroughly delightful screwball comedy that benefits from sparkling chemistry between its two leads. Clair – a French filmmaker who made a few movies in America while temporarily stripped of his French citizenship - must have had a magic potion or two up his sleeve.
The story begins in 17th century Salem, where self-righteous Puritan Jonathan Wooley (March) is overseeing the execution of two people he accused of witchcraft: a young woman named Jennifer and her elderly father Daniel. Unfortunately for Jonathan, Daniel and Jennifer were indeed experts in witchcraft, and a curse is placed upon Jonathan's family. For generation after generation, one Wooley after another finds himself compelled to marry a woman who treats him horribly and makes him miserable. Meanwhile, the souls of Daniel and Jennifer remain trapped beneath the roots of a giant tree. It all sounds rather ominous, but Clair plays this material with an infectious tongue-in-cheek charm: between the two executions featured in the opening scene, a friendly popcorn vendor appears and starts selling snacks to the crowd.
Finally, in 1942, Jennifer and Daniel are freed when lightning strikes the tree that binds them. They are now able to wander the world as clouds of smoke, flitting in and out of bottles, fireplaces, automobiles and cigarette trays. They're both eager to look in on the Wooley clan and see how the latest Wooley male is faring. Sure enough, gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (March again) is preparing to marry Estelle (Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!), a vain heiress who despises Wallace but wishes to marry him for social reasons. Watching humans interact with each other, Jennifer is overcome with a desire to have her own body: “'Twould be nice to have lips... lips to whisper lies... lips to kiss man and make him suffer.” Sure enough, Jennifer persuades her father to create a body for her, and soon she looks just like Veronica Lake.
Jennifer immediately sets out to seduce Wallace – initially for the purpose of tormenting him, and eventually because she begins to fall for him. She frequently places him in compromising situations, magically appearing in his bed at night and snuggling up to him when photographers are around. The last thing Wallace needs is a scandal just before the election (much less his wedding day), and his panic-stricken reactions lead to some of the film's funniest moments. The film's comic high point is an extended wedding sequence in which Jennifer and Daniel find countless ways to disrupt the ceremony. Clair demonstrates a real gift for staging a comic thunderstorm, finding little ways to make the whole scenario just a little bit funnier with each new beat (I laughed a bit harder every time the wedding singer started the opening bars of her song again).
March does solid work as the film's terrified straight man, but this is unquestionably Lake's show. It's a snapshot of the actress at the peak of her career, and she commands her early scenes with the confidence of a woman who knows she's the biggest movie star in the world (never mind whether that was actually the case). It's also a surprisingly rich performance. There's a good deal of nuance in the way Lake depicts her character's transition from wicked witch to lovestruck human, and her work is so effective that the film's climactic scenes approach the power of classic melodrama. The other great performance comes from Cecil Kelleway (Harvey), who shows up as Daniel's human form around the film's halfway mark. Kelleway steals every scene he appears in, particularly those delightful moments in which his villainous spellcasting is undercut by his drunkenness.
Running a mere 77 minutes, I Married a Witch moves with the sort of brisk energy a great screwball comedy demands. I greatly prefer it to something like David Lean's similarly supernatural Blithe Spirit, which lands on a few funny ideas and then repeats them over and over until they become tiresome. You want every scene in this movie to last just a little bit longer, but not in the sort of way that leaves you frustrated when Clair moves on to the next thing. Despite all the backstage drama and creative conflicts, I Married a Witch is exactly the movie it ought to be.
I Married a Witch
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 1942