I Married a Witch (dir. René Clair): An Underrated Film
This excellent, underrated romantic comedy by the French master René Clair (1898-1981), one of his few English-language features, makes fine use of Veronica Lake (Jennifer), Frederick March (Wallace Wooley), Robert Benchley (Dr. Dudley White), Cecil Kellaway (Daniel), and Susan Hayward (Estelle Masterson). It was shot in six weeks (April-May 1942) on a small budget, which shows in some of the small gaffes in direction and cinematography that should have been re-takes: tops of heads tend to be cut off. But the film’s fineness minimizes these imperfections, and not just because of the cast. Its (uncredited) producer was the great Preston Sturges, who had just directed the masterpieces The Lady Eveand Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and who was in the middle of a third, The Palm Beach Story (1942). Much of the dialogue was written or repaired by Dalton Trumbo, the celebrated screenwriter who was later blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten by the McCarthyites. Disguised as a fantasy-trifle, Witch is a meditation on marriage, gender, and sexuality, especially critical of the way that men view and fear women, and try, as fathers and husbands, to control or stifle them. The keyword in the title describes what men secretly desire in a spouse or are afraid that they have contracted. As Daniel, Jennifer’s father says: “Every man who marries marries the wrong woman.” This plainly stated theme, in tandem with the wife-as-witch metaphor, epitomizes the masculinist view of woman as Other.
By legend, the film was the inspiration for the 1960’s tv series Bewitched. It is also part of the lore of the production, gleaned from anecdotes from the actors themselves in their biographies, that March and Lake battled continually during the six weeks of filming. Joel McCrea, who starred with her in Sullivan’s Travels, said that Clair’s film should be retitled I Married a Bitch in her honor. Perhaps the mental illness and alcoholism that would ruin Lake’s career and bedevil her until she died began at that point as she seemed to behave erratically. Perhaps she felt, like Jennifer the witch, controlled and stifled by the men in her life who undermined her professional self-confidence. They told her she was a terrible actress, only seemed to value her for her blonde hair and figure, and refused to accept her unless she conformed to their notions of feminine decorum. It is a tribute to her professionalism, however (and that of her male peers), that viewers would never guess how unhappy she was, or how angry the principals were with one another on the set. Her character’s desire for freedom, optimism, and demand to be loved on her own terms is consistently realized in her performance.
Thorne Smith’s novel The Passionate Witch, incomplete at his death in 1934, was finished by Norman Matson and published in 1941. Smith created the Topper character so beloved by moviegoers in the 1930’s. Most of his fiction concerned sex, the sexes, and the supernatural. (Six Degrees of Separation Alert: one of my professors in graduate school, the celebrated official biographer of Faulkner, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Smith’s fiction.) The screenwriters changed the plot radically, as well as many of the details in the novel, de-sexualizing Jennifer’s character, who spends a good deal of time clad in little besides Smith’s prose. Apparently, she is absolutely a natural brunette, unlike her Hollywood counterpart.
However, Clair’s sensibility, aesthetics, and sense of humor enabled him to work with the screenwriters and actors in order to infuse this conservative American film genre with several of the conventions of French cinematic sex comedy in spite of the puritanical strictures of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. One example is the heroine herself, often a somewhat forward young woman, coquettish, who keeps showing up where she’s not invited and working her magic on the man she wants, causing disorder and taking complete control of her environment, to the scandal of the sensible elders who disapprove of her. Clair also uses double entendre and veils sexual references in the witty banter between the characters. Jennifer’s first appearance, as the audience can infer, is au naturel, although she is wearing Wooley’s coat as he rescues her from the hotel that her father has set afire, and the hero carries her in the posture of a groom cradling his bride in his arms as they enter the bridal chamber. Later, she shows up in his bed wearing (absolutely nothing under) his pajamas on the last night of his bachelorhood while his future wife and her father wait downstairs, scandalizing the longtime nanny.
The soundtrack, by Roy Webb, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1943. It features two memorable songs appropriate to the themes in Witch, “You Came Along (Out of Nowhere),” the standard written by Johnny Green and Edward Heymann (1931) and recorded by countless jazzmen such as Charlie Parker, and the Johnny Mercer favorite “I Remember You” (1942).
The film is literary in its use of motifs and symbols, although not intrusively or self-consciously so. The cycles of history, the sacredness of trees, the healing power of women, and the foregoing of revenge in favor of renewal, rebirth, and fertility are all commonplaces in mythology and poetical narrative. Its structure and movement are tripartite, and to mark these divisions Clair features a tree in three spots: the beginning, where the witches are burned and the ashes scattered beneath it and the souls of Jennifer and Daniel are imprisoned; a bit later, on the night of the rally for the Wooley governorship, when the lightning bolt hits the same oak so that the heroine and her father are released; and then at the end, when the taxicab that the father is improbably driving through the air crashes into the very tree to which the father says they should return after enjoying their revenge on their persecutors. Jennifer at times resembles a pagan or even Pelagian concept of Eve, in accordance with this unifying arboreal device..The film has many memorable lines, but one epitomizes the film itself, the heroine, and the actress playing her. It is ironically uttered by the father who wishes to repress her natural impulses to be independent of him, to choose her own mate and to multiply as she sees fit: “Be a bad girl, Jennifer!” One can only be glad indeed that this advice informed film, heroine, and actress in I Married a Witch.
This fine film is FINALLY on DVD and Blu-Ray, from the Criterion Collection. A cause for celebration!
Here is a film clip. Criterion did not include many extras on the disc, but the accompanying booklet is useful. Turner Classic Movies has a terrific short essay on Witch. Here is another I recommend.