You know, this is sort of the perfect Halloween movie, if you’re not into hardcore scary stuff. Its touch is light, its outlook humorous, it’s well-made and imaginative; it is the very definition of a frothy confection.
So why does it leave me so cold?
There’s a good old-fashioned Puritan witch-burning at the beginning (though yes, I know, the Puritans never burned a witch, they hanged them), interrupted for an intermission so a hawker can sell bags of popcorn with an anti-witch charm in each bag. That’s funny stuff right there. Nathaniel Wooley (Frederic March) reveals that the condemned witch Jennifer (Veronica Lake, eventually) has cursed him and his descendants to rotten marriages for eternity. Thereafter, we have a montage of Wooley’s descendants and the various forms of marital hell, including one who enlists in the Civil War to avoid his vase-throwing wife (“Running off to war – like a coward!”). This is also funny stuff.
I’m still not laughing. This mystifies me.
The oak tree planted over the ashes of Jennifer and her sorcerer father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway – again, eventually) is struck by lightning, releasing their spirits to commit mischief once again, though only as two plumes of smoke, for the moment. Daniel absently criticizes Jennifer’s curse, stating, “Marrying the wrong woman is painful – but more painful is falling in love with the right woman he cannot have.” Jennifer then proceeds to incarnate herself again and make sure the current Wooley (March again) falls in love with her. That shouldn’t be too hard, given the implication in the opening scenes that Lake is naked under that mink coat she keeps losing, and Wooley’s current fiancee is harridan-in-training Estelle (Susan Hayward, magnificent as usual). Wooley is a leading gubernatorial candidate, and has lots and lots to lose.
The plot complicates from there, with spells flying everywhere, Jennifer accidentally drinking the love potion meant for Wooley, and her sudden love for the object of her curse drawing her into conflict with her father, who is still rather peeved about that whole execution thing.
I think my mood was all wrong the night I watched this. It’s well-made, it’s fun. I just couldn’t get into it.
Maybe, like doomed individuals in more serious movies, I know too much. Frederic March and Veronica Lake hated each other, though it never really shows onscreen. Some place the blame for this squarely in March’s court, but Lake arrived on set with her own set of baggage – Joel McCrea was up for the lead, but turned it down because he didn’t want to work with her again after Sullivan’s Travels.
Maybe the movie is as cursed as it hero – producer Preston Sturges (whose touch is still evident, I feel) quit because of “creative differences” with director Rene Clair. Co-star Robert Benchley, who plays Wooley’s best friend Dudley (who also seems to be in charge of finishing his distracted friend’s drinks) would be dead in three years of cirrhosis of the liver. Lake’s marquee value wouldn’t last much longer than that.
But no, I don’t think it’s any of that. I think the circumstances of life – both my own and the growing garbage fire that is the world at large as I write this in mid-July – I think that is why I couldn’t slip into the comforting, charming world of I Married a Witch. May your experience with it be better.
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