Dir. Rene Clair. Starring Veronica Lake, Fredric March, Cecil Kellaway
Most of us in our movie judging lives reach a point where we begin to generally credit directors instead of actors for film quality. It’s easy to get carried away on this front, especially if you’re André Bazin or Andrew Sarris or someone like that, but I think the lion’s share of the credit in what we often think of as “great movies” probably belongs to the directors. I Married a Witch is a refreshing reminder that an element like casting still matters in making a movie, and can be the edge between a potentially great screwball flick and a merely good one. Neither Fredric March nor Veronica Lake is right for this movie, and a few degrees of change in the leads feels like the solution that we of course can’t have until Edgar Wright remakes this. (That’s not really a joke. I Married a Witch has strong enough bones that I think we could stand to see it again in the right hands.)
There are little chemistry problems for our leads, beginning with the insuperable age gap. Hollywood has always put older men with younger women, but one imagines that the average studio executive would nix a pairing in which the difference in years between the two (25, in this case) is greater than the age of the starlet. Veronica Lake was nineteen during production! Maybe it’s my newfangled mores which make me a little queasy watching a man who just looks that much older kissing a young woman who could easily be his daughter, but I bet it ain’t. One is reminded of Day of Wrath, which in turn leads us down a rather less pleasant rabbit hole concerning our own cultural history with witches. Dreyer’s 1943 movie about a witch is the absolute tonal opposite of I Married a Witch, but the age difference between Thorkild Roose and Lisbeth Movin, playing newlyweds, is greater than four decades. Dreyer seems to understand that husbands and wives cannot survive that sort of difference, and so Anne’s witchcraft, used primarily against Absalon, is a terrifying cosmic vengeance, a violation of the laws of nature wielded against the unwritten codes of human connection. One is also reminded of future horror flicks like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, in which female sexuality becomes an agent of terror; the witchcraft of younger women, or of demonic presences within them, is frequently representative of masculine anxiety about female bodies. Sex and witches go together, which is part of the reason why there a great many people my age who grew up with enormous crushes on Emma Watson. This subtext does not play into I Married a Witch in any serious way, short of Veronica Lake’s all-too-apparent youth which is largely ignored anyway. If it had we’d be talking about a great horror movie instead of a serviceable romantic comedy.
March is not made for screwball—he spends most of the movie looking vaguely confused, as if he’s just been struck over the head, and not all of that can be purely character. Being compared to Cary Grant as a screwball male lead is rough business for just about anyone, but Grant (and Joel McCrea and William Powell…) bring out the humor in their situations by becoming stridently indignant, as if they can’t believe that this latest jape has affected them, of all people; of course, this only gets funnier as they continue to act in much the same affronted way even after sixty or seventy minutes of silliness. March doesn’t have silly in him, and the replacement for it—humility—is not funny. Bashfulness is its own species of funny, as proven by Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, but the general self-effacing charm of Wallace Wooley is not the same at all. There are some moments in this movie (and in other ones, obviously) where he gets a laugh. One of Wallace Wooley’s forbears, who bears a marvelous resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, decides there’s no other way to get away from his wife short of the Civil War. He grabs someone’s attention. Where’s the nearest recruiting office! he yells, and he pulls it off. But there are lines in there which cry out for a McCrea or a Grant or a Gable. In their first scene together, Jennifer (Lake) lures Wally into a burning building as a memorable way for the two of them to meet. Wally thinks that he’s part of a desperate rescue attempt, and so he is not adequately distracted by the nude woman asking him if she isn’t pretty. “Who cares?” he cries, and the movie crumples at the edges a little bit.
I Married a Witch isn’t sure how to deploy Fredric March to full effect. I’m not sure the movie would have been allowed to deploy Veronica Lake to full effect. At the end of the movie, a few years after Jennifer has magicked Wally into the governor’s office, the two of them have three children. The two boys seem to take after their father, but their broom-riding daughter is obviously her mother in miniature. What stands out in that scene to me is not the punchline so much as Lake’s hair, now done in a much more matronly fashion. It ill-suits her in much the same way that her own time seems to ill-suit her.
There is a prurience in Lake’s screen presence which would have made her a pleasure to dub in an Italian movie two decades later, or which wouldn’t have been out of place in America’s miraculous seventies. Sadly, there’s not much more to go on than how shamelessly pretty she is. Personally, I don’t much care for her voice, which is thin and whiny; there’s too much of the toy-seeking toddler at the mall in her dialogue. She’s not very funny, really, and for an experienced witch who has spent the last few centuries trapped in a tree, Jennifer is much too easily and repeatedly defeated; one doesn’t get a good sense of what makes Jennifer kind of a ditz other than the fact that the plot needs her to take the potion meant for Wally. (If they had waited two or three years, Lauren Bacall and her own copycatted peekaboo coif might have theoretically been on the table, and that would have been its own reward.) Jennifer may get into the business of seducing Wally Wooley in order to avenge her arboreal imprisonment, but it doesn’t take long to find out that she’s a basically guileless person. Her efforts to keep Wally around before she is hoisted on her own petard feel oddly similar to what she does afterwards. It’s all showing up unexpectedly, all appeals to her beauty, all offhanded unconcern. In one scene, she appears in an evening gown after draping herself in a series of sheets, jackets, and men’s wear; she’s lovely, but perhaps falling in love has more to it than realizing how nicely someone cleans up. Meanwhile, the lore of this film presents Lake as someone who would never have left anything up to her looks. By all reports, she appears to have tormented March with the same annoying relish that she tormented McCrea during Sullivan’s Travels, making herself unpopular but also making it clear that she was not a teenager not to be taken advantage of. It’s typical overcompensation, but all the same it appears to have worked even too well. It would have been nice to have a little more mischief in Jennifer, just as there was plenty for Lake to fall back on in her own personality.
What saves this movie is Clair’s deft direction, I think, and in particular his command of special effects. Jennifer and her father, Daniel (Kellaway) don’t find bodies for a little while, and so they run around as a pair of plumes of smoke. Daniel is about twice the size of Jennifer, which is certainly helpful. They find themselves in bizarre circumstances. They like to hide in bottles, which causes no small amount of trouble for Daniel, who discovers a taste for whiskey. In one shot, which sort of sums up whether or not you’ll be able to enjoy this movie, the two smokes ride on a broomstick. Why smoke needs to ride on a broomstick is entirely beside the point, because it is a miraculously funny sight gag. The people and the images don’t always make sense in I Married a Witch, but with Clair’s historically Surrealist hand on the wheel, at the very least the images come out right. When there’s smoke, Clair knows, there’s fire.