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 her in. I adore this movie and I adore Criterion for releasing a beautiful Blu-ray transfer of it. 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 especially recommend buying it on DVD or Blu-ray 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 curses all of Wooley’s descendants so they’ll always marry the wrong woman which has been the case 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 her attempts to make him fall for her cause her to end up falling for him.
You’ve probably heard the negative stories associated with this film, both involving Veronica Lake and otherwise. The film originally had Preston Sturges as 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 Lake never divulged, although her biography Peekaboo alleges 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 dubbing 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 do end up married, about 20 minutes towards the end, Jennifer is afraid she won’t be exciting without her powers. The end famously has the duo discussing their children and leaving Jennifer to worry about her only daughter (played by the phenomenal Ann Carter) who seems to have a touch of the witch in her, “I’m afraid we’re going to have trouble with her someday.”
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 Jennifer and Daniel burning and the townspeople having an intermission and 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 although I wouldn’t have hated if he were replaced by McCrea. March doesn’t have the 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 he just seems stiff. I’m not sure if this is because he hated Lake, but I think McCrea would have been better able to work with the comedy. March finds a happy medium eventually, 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 incredulously 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 the audience believes 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, 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 just wants to create destruction. When he and Jennifer 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 love Veronica Lake in this film and I shouldn’t from a feminist perspective. Lake creates 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 did so with a wink and a smile. Her characters could irritate, they were selfish, but there was 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.” 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 which 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 dives into a bottle, but not before exclaiming “Wheee!” and saying the bubbles in the bottle tickle her. After meeting Wooley in the burning hotel she becomes concerned 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, in another favorite scene, eat waffles. I honestly don’t know anyone who can’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 qualities she’s controlled by men. 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 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. In Sullivan’s Travels she is hardened in the intro and while she acts 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.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray is exquisite in terms of the picture and audio. I originally had a cheap bootleg DVD and the quality was okay, but far below TCM’s showing or the movie’s picture on HuluPlus. Everything on the disc is crisp and clear which heightens the magical qualities. Sadly, the bonus content is lacking. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the slimmest Criterion discs in recent memory (compare it to the bonus content in my review of The Uninvited). There is an audio interview with director Rene Clair, but it’s more a generic exploration of his films and his craft. It’s focus is solely on Clair, the director of films, and not of this film. There’s no mention of this movie or anything personal. Taking into account the long road this has taken to getting a release, and the fact Lake is virtually forgotten, I wish they’d found some interviews with people who knew the history of the movie itself. You also have the trailer for the movie included. No special features on Lake herself, a shame. Thankfully, director Guy Maddin saves the day with a beautiful and lyrically verbose essay about the history of the movie, and a loving tribute to Lake herself. The biography is well-tread and offers nothing new, but obviously Maddin respects Lake as an actress and I loved reading an essay from a man whose love pours off the page and into your heart; it saves a lean presentation.
I Married a Witch continues to be one of my FAVORITE Halloween movies. 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, or show Criterion how much you love Veronica Lake by buying a copy out now!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.