I Married a Witch

Director: René Clair
Screenplay: Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly (based upon a story by Thorne Smith; story completion by Norman Matson)
Stars: Fredric March (Jonathan Wooley / Nathaniel Wooley / Samuel Wooley / Wallace Wooley), Veronica Lake (Jennifer), Robert Benchley (Dr. Dudley White), Susan Hayward (Estelle Masterson), Cecil Kellaway (Daniel), Elizabeth Patterson (Margaret), Robert Warwick (J.B. Masterson)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1942
Country: U.S.
I Married a Witch Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
I Married a WitchAn amusing trifle of a fantastical comedy, I Married a Witch was the second Hollywood film directed by René Clair, who had made his name with both silent-era surrealist experiments and mainstream social comedy at the dawn of the sound era in his native France before fleeing World War II and winding up working at Paramount under the mentorship of the great comedic hyphenate Preston Sturges. Clair and Sturges (who had been raised in France) shared a great deal in common, particular their acute sense of political humor, and it’s no wonder they wound up friends and collaborators. I Married a Witch found traction at a Hollywood studio primarily because Sturges convinced the executives that it would make a perfect vehicle for Veronica Lake, the coy, flaxen-haired beauty who had made such an impression in Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1942).

Lake’s character, Jenny, is a 270-year-old witch in a twentysomething body trying to avenge herself by seducing the descendent of the Puritan who burned her and her warlock father at the stake. She first appears as a sentient whiff of smoke that emerges, along with her similarly noncorporeal father (Cecil Kellaway), from the roots of an oak tree where she has been trapped in spirit since her burning and exorcism in 1672. Before going down in flames, she put a curse on her persecutor Jonathan Wooley that all his male descendents would be miserable in love.

When we fast-forward to the then-present day 1940s, we find that Jenny’s curse is working splendidly, as Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), an aspiring candidate for governor, is engaged to Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward), the humorless, controlling daughter of the wealthy benefactor bankrolling Wallace’s campaign. When Wallace rescues Jenny, who has now taken on the physical body supplied by Veronica Lake, from a burning hotel, she makes it her goal to seduce him and ruin his already complicated life. However, she meets with unexpected and constant resistance from the upright would-be governor, as he rebukes her supple charms, even when she is using said charms while lying seductively in his bed. To seal the deal she concocts a love potion, but then a turn of events finds her drinking it herself and falling in love with him, which turns the plot in another director entirely as she and Wallace get married and then face the inevitable issues involved when a mortal gets matrimonial with a witch (thus foreshadowing the weekly televised domestic disturbances of Bewitched two decades later).

The screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly was based on an unfinished novel called The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith (he died before its completion, so Norman Matson stepped in to finish it, and it was published in 1941, seven years after Smith’s death). As with Smith’s ghostly-comic Topper novels, The Passionate Witch trades heavily in alcohol and sex, most of which had to be scrapped in order to comply with Production Code norms. Still, Lake’s steamy presence in the film ensures a constant sexual charge, and the filmmakers get away with more than their share of innuendos and provocative staging. March and Lake, who reportedly loathed each other in real life, strike immediate chemistry, with her devil-may-care insouciance running headlong into his staid practicality (as the hotel burns down around them, she asks suggestively if he would prefer if she were a brunette). Lake is so impressive in her sexual evocation that it becomes easy to forget that she’s supposed to be exacting revenge on Wallace, whose only sin against her is being descended from her persecutors. March, who had by this time won two Oscars and two Tonys for his film and stage work, maintains an impressive comic balance as the straight man to Lake’s witchery without letting the character become a sap.

Like the great Ernst Lubitch, Clair had a special touch when it came to comedies of manners, and while I Married a Witch is not his greatest work—it doesn’t come close to the subtle charms and experimental use of sound in his French comedies Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) and À Nous la Liberté (1931)—it has a charm all of its own if you’re willing to go along with its patent silliness. Clair alternates between stilted staginess (especially in the opening 17th-century sequence) and dynamic action (the burning hotel, Jenny and Daniel riding a broom as wisps of smoke), which gives the film a decided unevenness. However, any rough spots are smoothed over by Lake and March’s considerable charms, which turn out to be this fantastical comedy’s best special effects.

I Married a Witch Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
I Married a Witch is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio interview with director René Clair
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 8, 2013

    I Married a Witch has been absent on home video for the past 20 years, a problem that Criterion rectifies nicely with a beautiful new high-definition transfer from the original nitrate 35mm negative and a nitrate 35mm composite fine-grain master. The resulting image is pleasantly clean, as digital restoration has removed most traces of age and wear but without unnaturally smoothing out the image (grain is still present throughout, especially in the shots featuring lower light levels). There is some variation in the sharpness, but nothing particularly noticeable, and overall I was impressed with how good the picture looked in terms of detail and contrast. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, sounds good for its age, with virtually no ambient hiss or aural artifacts.
    There are only two supplements included on the Blu-ray: an audio interview with director René Clair recorded in the late 1950s by film historian Gideon Bachmann for his groundbreaking radio show The Film Art, and an extremely scratchy and damaged theatrical trailer (which makes you appreciate just how good the film itself looks!). The insert booklet includes a delightfully verbose essay by filmmaker Guy Maddin and a reprint of a 1970 interview with Clair originally published in Film Quarterly.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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