Monday, October 29, 2012

I Married a Witch - 1942

“I Married a Witch” (1942) is a playful examination of three elements: the image of the “good” witch; the idea of a naughty woman being reformed by love; and the idea that love is stronger than witchcraft. One might say stronger than hate or stronger than evil, but witchcraft in this movie is represented as something mischievous rather than diabolical.

Massachusetts -- despite the family-fun atmosphere and tourism dollars raked up like so many autumn leaves over in Salem due to the businesses catering to those interested in the infamous Witch Trials of 1692 (see this post on the monument to Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha character in “Bewitched” at my New England Travels blog) -- bears even today a leaden sense of chagrin, if not still a feeling of guilt, over persecution in the 17th century. Salem was only one town; there were others, and witchcraft was an easy card to play in a superstitious era if you did not like your neighbor or spouse and wanted to legally get rid of them.

How we in the 20th century have managed to turn that sorry era into something comic is as much due to a healthy sense of humor as it is a short memory. In the 20th century we manage to see witchcraft as something ridiculous, and yet imagine how fun it would be to have special powers. Especially if they belonged to a pretty, blonde scamp.

Veronica Lake is the witch in the title, and she is charming. The only devil is in her eyes, and she plays both the comedy and the angst of her character with a light, breezy touch. Fredric March is the bumbling mortal she first teases, and then loves.

I wonder if our old pal Glinda “The Good Witch” of the “Wizard of Oz” (1939) was our first exposure to the idea of a “good witch”? The idea of the good witch, by the 1940s and 1950s, turned into the sexy witch through this film, and stage hit and film “Bell, Book, and Candle” (1958) -- see this previous post. Samantha of the TV hit “Bewitched” followed in due course in the 1960s.

The high points of this film are its silliest, small moments that seem to step away from the script, break the fourth wall and say to us, “We’re only kidding.”

This begins only moments after the film starts when, in a prologue, we are taken back to a witch burning in the 17th century, and a man played by Billy Bevan, is selling popped maize, tuppence a bag to the crowd. Later, in the modern era, Cecil Kellaway, who plays Veronica Lake’s warlock father, sets the Pilgrim Hotel afire. There are the usual sly uses of broomsticks, a black cat, and lots of fun special effects.

Fredric March plays, at first, the 17th century Puritan whose testimony sent Veronica Lake to her execution as a witch. She puts on curse on his family, whereby none of his descendents will enjoy a happy marriage. Then we see brief vignettes were Mr. March plays his unhappy descendents in loveless scenarios.

His 20th century self is just as despondent. We join the modern era in a ballroom celebrating both his impending marriage to a shrewish Susan Hayward, who is really very good in this small role, and his impending election to the office of governor. Robert Benchley is Fredric March’s bemused friend and sidekick.

A storm brews, outside as well as in, and a freak bolt of lightning zaps the tree in which the spirits of Veronica Lake and her pop, Cecil Kellaway have been imprisoned through the centuries. Now they’re out and making mischief.

She wants revenge on Mr. March for his ancestor’s part in her execution. Her weapon is a potion to make him love her. However, by mistake, she drinks the love potion and then she’s nuts about him, to her father’s disgust.

Lots of twists and turns both in their romance and his run for elected office, but just a few fun scenes:

When observing the black tie party, Lake (still a formless wisp of smoke before she has found an appropriate 4’11” body) remarks on the cheek-to-cheek dancing of the modern era: “I never thought I’d see close like that in New England.”

I love the several false starts of “I Love You Truly” at the wedding of March and Miss Hayward sung with wavering gusto by Helen St. Rayner. And the gust of wind created by Miss Lake and Mr. Kellaway at their late entrance that wreaks havoc on the wedding.

After spending the entire movie reminding his daughter, Susan Hayward to smile, Robert Warwick finally replies to her anxious, “Do I look all right?” with a bark, “Who cares?” I also love the weary, fake smile she plasters on her face for the cameras as she comes down the aisle for, I think, a third time. She has a very strong presence in this movie despite playing what could be a throw-away role.

Her matron of honor is Bess Flowers, because really, you just can’t have a movie without Bess Flowers.

I think my favorite scene is when Veronica Lake, who has just discovered the joy of waffles, keeps shoving them into her mouth, folding them up like a sandwich.

We have a late entry here into the Women Wearing Men’s Jammies genre. See this previous post.

Good old Elizabeth Patterson, who enjoyed such a long career on stage but is probably known to most of us as Mrs. Trumbull on “I Love Lucy” steps in as Fredric March’s beleaguered housekeeper.

At the end of the movie, we have little Ann Carter galloping around the house on a broom, to the consternation of her parents. She looks like a miniature Veronica Lake. We’d see Ann later doing very good work as Humphrey Bogart’s daughter in “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947). Sadly, she was struck with polio in her teens, ending her film career. Fortunately, her health eventually recovered.

I wonder how many films featured a Justice of the Peace awakened in the middle of the night and officiating a wedding in his bathrobe?

Fredric March is very polished, and good in his deadpan moments, especially when he has won the election through Veronica’s witchcraft. His opponent had no votes. March gapes at Robert Benchley, “He didn’t even vote for himself!”

I like the way he lifts her long locks off her shoulders as he speaks to her. Many fans are aware the two did not like each other at all, but their work does not show that.

Veronica Lake’s comedic timing is quite good as well. She presents March to her father, and adoringly looks up at Fredric, “He’s just like a Greek god.”

The image of the good witch or at least the sexy, charming scamp is challenged only at one chilling point in this movie. It’s a fascinating scene played by Cecil Kellaway with knife-edge tension masked by a roguish smile. He intends to force Fredric March to shoot him (being a sorcerer, only his borrowed body will die, he has no fears for his immortality) so that March will be convicted of murder and be sentenced to death. In the electric chair. As Kellaway puts it, the modern way to “burn”.

His plan is evil, devious, and strangely human. Veronica Lake decides love is stronger than witchcraft. An idea that love can make us superhuman if not supernatural.

The movie was released October 30, 1942, just in time for Halloween. I did not notice any wartime references, so this must truly have been a delightful escape.


Fred Theilig said...

It's amazing to me that two people who hated each other so much could have such great on screen chemistry.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Fred. I agree, they relate really well to each other. A pro just does the job, no matter what, I guess.

Laura said...

I really enjoyed this movie and, like others was somewhat amazed to learn after seeing it how much March & Lake didn't like each other, as they definitely have chemistry! The last half of the film is a really lovely romance with a believable sense of intimacy between the characters, such as you describe with him touching her hair.

I also thought Susan Hayward was absolutely hilarious in that wedding scene. :)

I hadn't noticed Bess Flowers was in the wedding party, what a hoot!!

Thanks for an enjoyable walk down memory lane. Time to watch it again!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. Its funny how, like Samantha in "Bewitched", Veronica Lake wants to be a wife without using her powers and proudly shows off to March that she lit a fire the normal way. I suppose in the final scene when we see their old-married-couple selves, we assume she's dropped witchcraft for good. I think I would have liked one last demonstration of her sorcery to show she still has a spark of mischief in her. Turn Bess Flowers into a table saw or something.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

While I enjoy the movie, I actually though Fredric and Veronica lacked chemistry. The supporting cast is quite good, especially the always reliable Cecil Kellaway.

The Lady Eve said...

I was recently reading about Veronica Lake's short, sad life and career and the dislike between her and Fredric March on this film was mentioned. All that aside, you remind me how much I like "I Married a Witch" and I only wish I'd recorded it when it recently aired on TCM so that I could sit down and enjoy it again this Halloween. Wonderful piece.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yes, the supporting cast is splendid, and Kellaway in particular.

Lady Eve, thank you, and I know how it feels to miss recording something at the time. Maddening. I would like to see a restored version of this film, though. With all those special effects, it begs for a crisper look.

Laura said...

I keep wishing for a Criterion edition of this film, I think it would be very popular. :)

Hoping you and yours have weathered the storm with a minimum of difficulty!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for your concern, Laura. Though there was some minor damage and power outages in my area, I lost one small branch and never lost my power. My heartfelt sympathy and prayers to all along the CT shoreline, NYC, and New Jersey for the destruction from which they must now recover. They're a tough bunch; I'm sure they will.

Caftan Woman said...

It feels like centuries since I last saw "I Married a Witch". It's never on TV here and is one of those that doesn't make it to TCM Canada's schedule.

You reminded me of just how perfect Cecil Kellaway can be.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

CW, I love Cecil Kellaway. Sometimes he just gets plugged into these odd little roles and just takes off. Like the movie is really about him. Terrific.

Kevin Deany said...

I've never seen this one, but it sounds great. Didn't know that about Ann Carter, that's very interesting. Glad she recovered. Also, glad you are doing OK after the storm.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Kevin. Storms are capricious things; others in my area suffered some damage and are still without power, but I'm fine. Last year's Halloween snowstorm was much worse for us here. I hope Halloween storms don't become a habit.

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