It was always decided that I’d include I Married a Witch during my Halloween festivities. After all, it was the film that brought Veronica Lake into my life. To give some context, Sullivan’s Travels cemented my love for Veronica, but I Married a Witch was the first film I ever saw with her. I adore this movie and it pains me that there’s no proper DVD release (ahem Criterion you want to get on that, you do own the rights). The film loosely inspired Bewitched and is one of the best witch films out there (sorry Hocus Pocus). You can watch this on HuluPlus if you have it and I recommend finding a way because it’s sweet, funny, and possesses just a dose of magic.
Jennifer (Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are 17th-century witches who were burned at the stake by Puritan leader Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March). In her final moments Jennifer cursed all of Wooley’s descendants that they would always marry the wrong woman. So far, that’s been the case all the way up to Wallace Wooley (March again). When the tree holding Jennifer and Daniel’s spirits is struck by lightening the two witches are released and Jennifer seeks revenge on this decade’s Wooley. The problem is in her attempts to make him fall for her, she ends up falling for him.
You’ve probably heard the negative stories associated with this film, both involving Veronica Lake and not. The film originally had Preston Sturges as a producer before he left over disputes with director Rene Clair. Dalton Trumbo was also associated with the production as a screenwriter but his views clashed with Sturges. On the acting side Joel McCrea was the original choice for Wooley (definitely an All-American choice to March’s cold European quality in my opinion) but McCrea refused to work with Lake again. Similarly, March and Lake hated each other for reasons that Lake never divulged although in the biography Peekaboo it was alleged Lake refused March’s sexual advances. Suffice it to say the two hated each other with Lake admitting to playing pranks on March during filming, including kicking him in the family jewels during a scene, and March calling the film “I Married a Bitch.” In spite of all that animosity the film is adorable and one of my favorite fantasy films. The magic is sweet and understated and really becomes a love story between a man and a young woman whose never been in love. When Wallace and Jennifer finally do end up married, about 20 minutes towards the end, Jennifer becomes afraid that she won’t be exciting without her powers or a good wife to Wallace. The end famously has the duo discussing their children and leaving Jennifer to worry about her only daughter who seems to have a touch of the witch in her, “I’m afraid we’re going to have trouble with her someday.”
Appropriately the film is a fairy tale opening with the “Once upon a time” set-up or to be exact “A long time ago when people still believed in witches.” Immediately contradicting this is when Jennifer and Daniel are burning and the townspeople have an intermission and start selling popmaize…popcorn for my non-historical friends. For 1942 the film doesn’t try to be dour and present this as a tale of revenge or persecution even though it sets itself up to be, probably why we have that humorous moment above to say “Hey this isn’t your typical Salem film.” From there we see the various incarnations of the Wooley clan all played by Frederic March.
I do like March here although I wouldn’t have hated if he were replaced by McCrea. March doesn’t have that ability, at least in this film, to loosen up. He’s good in the romance department when he’s wooing Jennifer but in the comedic scenes opposite Lake he just seems stiff. Now I’m not sure if that’s because he hated Lake but I think McCrea would have been able to work better with the comedy. March does find a happy medium and his deadpan punch lines are really asking what the audience is saying. In the scene where the Pilgrim Hotel (get it?) is on fire the hotel manager starts laughing and becomes excited that his business is burning. Wooley increduously asks what’s so funny only to have the manager casually say he’s insured. March succeeds in posing the question in a way that makes the audience believe the manager is crazy and not that Wooley is disinterested. He’s a solid straight man to the wild antics of Lake and Kellaway.
Kellaway is hilarious in this film, really stealing the male lead from March. His drunken antics and inability to remember spells would be sad in another genre of film but here it allows our lovers to continue their relationship. Daniel holds the strongest grudge against the Wooley’s, more than Jennifer, and in a way just wants to create destruction. When Jennifer and him are released from the tree he jokes about lighting buildings on fire and causing mass destruction. Jennifer even says that her father was responsible for Pompeii. The humor dissolves the dark nature of the character but if this were any other type of film Daniel would probably be the Devil. Instead Kellaway comes off like the loveable albeit drunk uncle.
The majority of my notes are on Lake so why beat around the bush. I absolutely adore Veronica Lake in this film and I really shouldn’t from a feminist perspective (I’ll argue this in a second). Lake was able to create an innocent, child-like quality in all her characters. She was girl who could be a brat (and according to her coworkers she was) but always did so with a wink and smile. Her characters could irritate, they were selfish, but there was always something good-hearted underneath. Sure she derives glee out of making Wallace suffer but it’s the glee of a girl making fun of a boy as a way of saying “I like you.” Having only seen her comedies so far I could contradict myself once I watch a few of her dramatic performances. In I Married a Witch she’s a 13-year-old girl trapped in an adult’s body from minute one. Unlike her father she doesn’t want to destroy the world, just the Wooley’s. She seeks revenge through love but at the same time she’s curious and desirous for love. Regardless of the behind the scenes shenanigans Lake has great chemistry with March. Their relationship has that magical momentum that allows them to fall in love after a few hours (I argue that this plot works because it’s wrapped up in a magical framework).
Lake delights in acting like a child and the script is filled with one-liners that work to great effect with her persona. She doesn’t possess a body in the film’s opening minutes, merely being smoke. When she has to hide she goes into a bottle but not before exclaiming “Wheee!” and saying that the bubbles in the bottle tickle her. After meeting Wooley in the burning hotel she becomes concerned that she’s not pretty enough for him, openly asking what women internalize. Mind you the hotel is collapsing but Jennifer has to fix her hair and ask Wallace if he likes blondes. A running gag is Wallace’s ability to pick up Jennifer and deposit her wherever he wants (according to Lake she’d go limp and stuff her coat with rocks to make it hard for him to carry her) and my personal favorite line has to be when Wallace runs out of the hotel with Jennifer in his arms. Jennifer looks at the other people in the crowd, one of whom is Wallace’s fiancée Estelle (Susan Hayward) and cries for him to “take me away” from these people. Of course Jennifer obsessively follows Wallace using magic. When Wallace asks Jennifer how she got there she coyly tells him “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you” only to have the camera pan to a nearby broomstick. A side plot of the film is Jennifer acclimating to the 1940s; learning how to light matches and, another favorite scene, eat waffles. I honestly don’t know anyone who wouldn’t laugh at the way Lake grabs the waffles and folds them up to stuff them in her mouth. Wallace tells her at one point that she’s beaten his record. When Jennifer asks the housekeeper for more the woman replies the batter’s all gone. Only Veronica Lake could stuff her face with waffles and make it look spectacular, thus the reason why she’s the site’s mascot.
I mentioned above that from a feminist standpoint I shouldn’t love this film or Lake’s character. For all her innocence and child-like quality that comes from the fact she’s been controlled by men. Sure a large part is the time period the film sets her in but in looking at other films the men in these comedies treat her as much like a child as she acts. With this film in particular Wallace actually picks up Jennifer, places her in a cab and tells her to “be good” and pats her on the head. When Wallace tries to do this to his fiancée Estelle she resists. Sure Estelle is selfish and spoiled but she’s far more independent than Jennifer. The reason why I give Lake a free pass, in this film and in others, is how serious she plays the role. She doesn’t play the character like an idiot. She’s aware that she’s annoying and pestering and that’s why you love her. In Sullivan’s Travels she is hardened in the intro and while she does act like a child around McCrea’s character she never acts like she’s an idiot or unaware of things. At the end of this film she goes back to Wallace out of love, to show that “love is stronger than witchcraft.” She’s willing to fight for love, to break the curse, and isn’t content to listen to her father. This argument may make no sense but I just know I’d have friends breathe down my neck about how I bash romantic comedies yet I praise this.
I Married a Witch continues to be one of my FAVORITE Halloween movies. I can’t state this enough, Criterion needs to put this out on DVD in some form. Currently the only way to get this is on import or iOffer. The acting, especially from Lake, is hilarious. The story is simple and sweet and embraces the whimsy. If you have HuluPlus I recommend watching it now.
Type of Horror: Comedic, Witches
Fright Meter: 1