Sunday, October 13, 2013

I MARRIED A WITCH (Blu-ray) - #676

Like many cinephiles, I've been indulging in my fair share of spooky films for the Halloween season. We're only a couple of weeks in, and I could end up either overdosing or becoming immune to bumps in the night.

René Clair's 1942 comedy I Married a Witch is a nice antidote, fitting thematically with the horror holiday, but providing quite a few laughs to ease the tension.

Veronica Lake stars as the movie's title witch, Jennifer. In the amusing prologue, we learn that Jennifer and her sorcerer father (Cecil Kellaway) date back more than 200 years, when Jennifer was burned at the stake for seducing a mama's-boy pilgrim. As revenge, the man's family has been cursed to always be unlucky in love. With each successive generation, things go wrong for the men of the Wooley clan, leading up to the 20th Century and Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), a politician running for mayor and set to be married to a wealthy heiress (Susan Hayward).

Sensing it's time once again to throw a spanner in the works, Jennifer convinces her father to let her ditch her spectral form and take on a new human body that she can use to seduce Jonathan. The old warlock agrees, knowing that the only thing more torturous than marriage itself is to not be able to marry the woman you really want. They contrive for Wooley to save Jennifer, now a blonde of some va-va and vavoom, from a burning hotel. As planned, once their paths have crossed, she invades his life with designs on invading his heart. This flirtation causes Wooley much distress, since, if he's found with her on the eve of his nuptials, there will be no way to avoid a scandal. Hell, for the first portion of the movie, post-fire, Jennifer is naked except for a fur coat--her father forgot how to cast the spell to generate clothes--and so she's difficult not to notice. The ribald jokes that rise out of this scenario alone are worth the price of the disc. I Married a Witch isn't exactly a sex comedy, but for 1942, it's certainly not afraid to be sexy.

Clair does well with the snappy, screwball pace of I Married a Witch. The style of comedy ends up closely resembling that of its producer, Preston Sturges, even if he did remove his name from the picture following creative differences with his director. The script relies on smart dialogue and an endless string of complications--including a few that you won't see coming. March is good as the man being buried in romance and innuendo, and he's ably backed up by Algonquin Round Table-alum Robert Benchley, a master wit in his own right, playing Wooley's closest advisor.

Both are eclipsed scene by scene by Veronica Lake, who I don't recall ever being funnier. The blonde beauty may best be known for playing the female lead in Alan Ladd noir vehicles, but I Married a Witch makes me want to explore more of her light comedies. Lake, of course, proved she could trade quips and barbs in Sullivan's Travels [review], but Jennifer provides a more dynamic role. The actress gets to be more active and drive the plot, much like Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve [review]. She's charming and tenacious and possessed of an excellent comic timing. She also handles the switch-up well, showing an ability to adapt that is essential to this kind of comedy. To put it simply, you can believe the bad girl fell in love.

Apparently I Married a Witch was a major inspiration for Bewitched, particularly for the domestic element. Indeed, Bewitched could practically be the sequel. Jennifer is not supposed to alert mortals to her existence, and so when she confesses to Wooley, dear ol' dad has to take punitive actions. The magic stuff is clever and actually quite funny, including gags involving a witch's broom and Jennifer's old man, while still a spirit, hiding out in a liquor bottle, becoming imbibed with spirits of another kind.

The Blu-Ray restoration of I Married a Witch looks fantastic, with an excellent level of detail and nice balance between light and shadow. It's a great way to see the movie, and I imagine even moreso for fans of the film, who I assume are used to seeing it more lo-fi, in a different format, via older prints. This was my first time, and I was impressed. I Married a Witch is fun, buoyant entertainment and will likely become my new Halloween tradition.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for review.

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