Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Married a Witch (1942)

In Puritan times, a witch and her father are burned at the stake in a New England town. Before her execution, however, the witch placed a spell on Johnathan Wooley (Fredric March), the man who accused her, cursing him and all his decedents to be stuck in miserable marriages. Fast-forward to the present, and the newest Wooley (again Fredric March) is running for governor and is due to be married to a shrewish woman (Susan Hayward) the next day. As (bad) luck would have it, the witch is resurrected in the form of Veronica Lake, and she plans to continue messing with the Wooley family by having March fall in love with her.

I have a special nostalgic place in my heart for this movie. It was one of the first old films I ever watched multiple times as a child, and it was my introduction to director RenĂ© Clair and stars Veronica Lake and Fredric March, the latter who has and will always be one of my favorite actors. Therefore, it's completely reasonable that I should herald this film as an under-seen comedic masterpiece. Which it is. It's funny,  charming,  witty, well-acted, smartly filmed, and contains some marvelous special effects for the time. What more can I say?

Well, Lake gives one of her best performances as the witch of the title, being at times beguiling, conniving, and a little goofy. She pouts when things don't go as planned, but recovers herself by sliding up a banister in order to give March a love potion. March himself is also enjoyable, trying unsuccessfully to hide his attraction to Lake through briskness, only for his voice to squeak whenever she gives him reason to panic. Together they make a cute pair; I'm particularly fond of the sequence when March spends literally all night explaining to Lake why she can't be in love with him, only to end up stroking her hair and laughing at her gobble up his breakfast waffles.

Director René Clair was a master craftsman when it came to moviemaking, and despite being overshadowed by his earlier and more well-regarded French musicals (Le Million for example), I Married a Witch is just as visually stunning as its predecessors. The special effects are deceptively simple, with miniatures, wires, and plenty of smoke to go around. Lake's costumes, designed by Edith Head are gorgeous. And the comedic sequences are golden, especially March's chaotic wedding to Hayward, which is continually interrupted, at first by Lake and her devious spell casting father (Cecil Kellaway), then by March as Lake's influences take their toll on him.

The total effect is nothing short of hilarious; it's the type of film that not only leaves you smiling and maybe a little moved, but will also prevent you from hearing the song "I Love You Truly" the same way ever again.

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