Saturday, March 3, 2012

I Married a Witch

I Married a Witch (René Clair, 1942) A Preston Sturges production (that he quit over differences with the director) partially written by Dalton Trumbo (who quit over his differences with Preston Sturges—maybe he should have waited), this is one troubled flick, and, sadly, it shows.  Where it should be charming, it's merely cloying.  And the off-screen wrangling has an effect among the actors, too.  Joel McCrea (who would have been a better match here) passed on the starring role after his difficulties with Veronica Lake on Sullivan's Travels ("Life's too short..." was his comment) and Frederic March—a better actor and no slouch at comedy (see Nothing Sacred) was inserted.  But, his efforts comes off forced and flat, and Lake's antics off-screen soured any chemistry when the two were photographed together. 

And yet, Lake is great.  She didn't take any of this too seriouslyit's a fantasy, after all—and she's that perfect combination of alluring and goofy.*  Her character, a witch named Jennifer burned at the stake during the witch-trials by one of the ancestors of March's character, places a curse on the male family-line to always marry the wrong woman.  By the time, lightning strikes a gnarled tree which frees the spirits (in smoke form), the latest of the Wooley clan is a scion running for political position and on the eve of marrying the starchy daughter (Susan Hayward) of his chief supporter, a newspaper publisher (Robert Warwick).  Everything seems well-orchestrated and on-schedule, prim and proper and corrupt.  What's needed is a little black magic.

And where there's smoke, there's fire.  Wooley and Jennifer "meet cute" a burning building—whatever the merits of the film, you can't say it's "formula"—and Jennifer's witch starts popping up everywhere, most notably in Wooley's pajamas in his bed, which makes things...complicated.  Now, that formula we mentioned earlier comes to the fore, when the witch decides to seal the deal with a love potion to ensure Wooley's love for her.  Guess who drinks it?  You don't need magic powers to guess.

Where the film picks up (and actually does catch fire) is in the drawn-out wedding sequence, where Jennifer's manipulations (along with her father's, played in corporeal form by Cecil Kellaway) manage to derail the most staged of political-social weddings and does so four times.**  The wedding singer sings "I Love You Truly," the wedding march begins, and then (boom) something happens and everything gets pushed back to the starting point—"I Love You Truly."  Having to pick up the pieces and re-stage something so elaborate that many times is comedy gold, and Clair and the writers (including Robert Benchley who has a prominent role) keep ramping up the stakes when returning to the ritual, leading to a fine capper involving the ceremony's stodgy wedding singer.

But, then, things turn "charming" again, undercutting the satire and the basic push-pull of organization and chaos.  But, for a brief time, anarchy reigns supreme, turning the greased gears of prominence and political glad-handing into a thudding, shuddering mess, seeing a processional and wanting to pull the rug out from under it.  No wonder Sturges wanted to do it.  And Trumbo?  He knew a lot about witch-trials (but not as much as he would).  Benchley is nicely droll throughout, light on the irony, heavy on the farce.  There's a constant battle between the wisenheimer and the twee and the result is rather milquetoast.  What should have bubbled like a cauldron comes across as rather tepid.

But that wedding section.  It's crashingly good. 

"that perfect combination of alluring and goofy"

* What is it with blondes and comedy?  As much as Hollywood tries to shoe-horn gorgeous blonde-types into drama, some of the most alluring women are at their best doing comedy—Carole Lombard, Grace Kelly, Kim Basinger, Cybill Shepherd, Charlize Theron (all serenely beautiful) were at their best (in my opinion) when they were sly and antic, as if there was something in their DNA (or peroxide) that compelled them to find the "funny" in a situation, especially their own, and blow it up.  One of those little mysteries that occupy my brain in stray moments.

** The bride is played by pre-stardom/America's sweetheart Susan Hayward, who's character is such a straight-laced sour-puss that she has to be reminded by her newpaper-editor of a father to smile at her own wedding, which she manages to do only the first three times.  It's among the collection of running gags in the extended sequence that builds to a satisfyingly disruptive conclusion.


Unknown said...

First time I saw this I was about nine, and fell in love with Veronica. And the film. Must have seen it again 20 or 30 times. Not to be snarky; but you may be a bit too hip to see the warm, corny beauty of this story born from Thorne Smith's heart.

Unknown said...

That's exactly right, Mr.Unknown !

Yojimbo_5 said...

Oh, the safety of Unknowability! I doubt it's hipness that's my problem, but more the deep-rooted cynicism that tells me where you see warm and corny, I see cold and contrived. She falls in love with the object of her torture because of a "love potion!" !...? How warm and of the heart is that? But, we can agree on one thing: Veronica Lake. *sigh* She's the best thing about this movie, although her fellow actors thought she was a pain. It never came across on-screen, and, if it did, it showed itself as a mature puckishness that didn't settle for the status quo or "good enough." She might have liked to kick her fellow actors in the shins, but she always kick me square in the heart.

Thanks for reading and commenting.