Sunday, November 15, 2020

Blonde Sunday


I MARRIED A WITCH

1942
Directed by Rene Clair
Written by Robert Pirosh, Mark Connelly, Dalton Trumbo, Andre Rigaud, and Rene Clair (based on the novel The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith and Norman H. Matson)

Spoiler alert: well, the title's a dead giveaway


I Married a Witch
 is a confectionary delight, and this is also perhaps its trouble; for, in its overriding unseriousness, it commits a number of sins, none of them greater than the moment right before the end where it surprises you with just how much emotional investment it's pulled out of you regardless, just taking your heart and attaching sixteen ton weights to it, only to wink ten seconds later, pull a lazy resolution directly out of its ass, and say, "kidding!"  It's a movie based on the last novel by Thorne Smithbest known for his Topper stories, The Passionate Witch representing much the same penchant for making light fantasy-comedy out of the stuff of supernatural horrorand it is not too shocking to learn that he died just before finishing it, insofar as its film adaptation certainly feels like a new author flailing around in search of an ending, and only doing an acceptable job of finding one.  It's even less shocking that somewhere between five and fifty screenwriters had their hands in their adaptation of it.  It's the kind of movie where key moments aren't quite set up, where the only reason the villain doesn't instantly triumph is because the writers don't want him to, and where it seems that not a single one of those writers could come up with a clever way to beat him, so they clung instead to the hope that nobody would mind if their movie had a finale sculpted out of happy Hollywood bullshit, just so long as it was sufficiently fun before it gets there.

To their credit, it's so much fun that its third act could be blank screen and I wouldn't hate it.  I probably make it sound like that third act is terrible, and it's not: it's merely sloppier, embodying the not-uncommon problem of a comedy that's accidentally solved its main conflict too early and obliged itself to invent a whole bunch of new silliness to take its place.  Even at this extreme, most of the new stuff is still funnyindeed, practically as light and fluffy and imaginative as everything elseit's just not quite as ecstatically exciting as it was, which isn't its fault.  It's just because it's been about fifty minutes since Veronica Lake was still being an evil succubus wreaking sexual vengeance, and no matter how much fun it might remain afterwards, this was obviously where the film was happiest.

We begin long ago, in the 17th century, in a New England that's been seized by a terror of the witches and warlocks in their midst, and, after opening up the credits with a bombastic homage to/rip-off of The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Roy Webb's Oscar-nominated score, the first five minutes offer yet another possible mode for the film, albeit one it doesn't really try afterward, namely giddy satire, as a festival crowd throngs around the killing field to enjoy the lightshow the witches are about to make, and a peddler hawks "hot maize" for a fast shilling.   In this alternate universe, however, it's not mass hysteria.  No, their demons are quite real.  Even so, local yokel Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March) is having some second thoughts about whether he ought to have accused Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Jennifer (Lake), presently about to be burned at the stake, particularly because on her way out Jennifer cursed him and all his progeny, and he's pretty sure she meant it.

She did, as we learn as we follow the Wooley Y-chromosome down through the generations, every one of them laid low as they attempt to woo a succession of women who either reject them or, worse, marry them and make them even more miserable.  This pattern has held up without interruption into the present day, where Wallace Wooley, gubernatorial candidate (likewise March), has reached his current station mostly due to his engagement to Estelle (Susan Hayward), the sneering, loveless daughter of the state's biggest newspaper magnate, J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick).  On the eve of their nuptials, lightning strikes the tree planted on the witches' graves (as New England aristocracy, the Wooleys appear not to have budged an inch since colonial times), releasing the spirits of Daniel and Jennifer.  They immediately begin to scheme anew against the Wooley clan, coming up with an even better idea than Jennifer's curse: have Jennifer take on an irresistible human body, seduce poor Wallace till the only woman in the world he could love is her, and then leave the stupid sap to rot for the rest of his natural life.  They manage this feat of conjuring with the help of a great fire, which they lure Wallace intohe becomes Jennifer's "rescuer"but when he doesn't, like, ejaculate at the mere sight of her (I'm not entirely sure what they were expecting, but hey, they have been wraiths trapped inside a tree for 250 years), Jennifer isn't about to just let him go on his way.  Wallace finds that he cannot escape this apparently insane woman for whom locked doors present no obstacle, but with his wedding in just a few hours, a woman strutting around his house in his pyjamas is a very awkward thing to have to explain to his friend Dudley (Robert Benchley) or his maid Margaret (Elizabeth Patterson)let alone his future in-laws.  He'd be in even worse trouble if he drank the love potion Jennifer fixed for him, but it's too badfor herthat she accidentally imbibes it herself, and the all-consuming love she expected to inflict upon Wallace descends upon her instead, with Wallace as the object of her hopeless affections.  Of course, as she's Veronica Lake, it might not be that hopeless.


Lake is, realistically-speaking, probably most famous for having great hair, and Witch was what began to secure her any lasting legacy for anything else.  She'd come to the public's attention the year before, but Witch was only her third starring role, coming off of Sullivan's Travels, and honestly it takes some special pleading to describe Sullivan's "The Girl" as a starring role, though it showcased a facility for comedy that fully flowers here.  (Not coincidentally, we find Preston Struges producing.)  I'm not sure if they ever had Lake headline another comedy again, but then, her career as a major star wasn't all that long in the first place: even before Witch, Lake had already developed a reputation for being difficultsometimes actors, even women, actually do earn such a reputationand it seems that practically every person she ever worked with despised her, the major exception being her most frequent co-star, Alan Ladd, who liked Lake mainly because he was short but she was shorter.  Then again, most of the people complaining about her also come off like assholes themselves.  This very much includes March, who put his best foot forward when he came onto the production by describing his co-star as "a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability."  In return, and besides other little petty vengeances, Lake put her best foot forward, into March's balls, in the middle of a take.  And who knows, maybe this hateful (and extremely unprofessional) relationship even worked out in Witch's favor, inasmuch as its best parts are about Jennifer hating the shit out of Wallace while she pretends to want to fuck him.

The irony of March's estimation of Lake, anyway, is that she blows his doors off here, so much so that it tends to confirm my suspicion that "good acting" meant something different in the old days ("not wasting film" was probably on the rubric), since if March is "good" in Witch, it's only as a collection of sputtering reactions to Lake's provocations.  She, by contrast, is practically great.  That's no mean feat considering that Witch's highest ambitions are as an avowed shallow pleasure, and Lake effectively has to play two entirely different characters, before and after the love potion, both of whom she vests with great comic timing and sometimes a downright surprising credibility of feeling (both Jennifers are a little confined to their one dominant emotion, but Lake varies it enough not to get stale).  On top of this, Lake had to deal with the requirement of spending another quarter or so of Witch in voiceover, before she ever gets a body.  It's remarkable that Lake finds any throughline for Jennifer, despite such an arbitrary character, while managing to make Jennifer so funny and so physical in any incarnation (which is maybe the throughline she found: for in both cases, Lake is damn near literally flinging her body directly at March, the distinction being that in the first instance she's leaning into the predatory connotations of her physicalityand the funny part is that this doesn't really work and she's amply confused as to whywhereas in the second instance it's an expression of vulnerability rather than aggression, which does work).  This is, of course, before we get to an even more basic appeal, and concede that a not-insignificant fraction of Lake's effectiveness is that Lake is also very hotbut hot in exactly the right way to play an ancient, otherworldly presence who's taken on the form of a petite blonde who has the most curious way of holding her gaze on things, like her eyes really could rearrange reality the way she preferred.  March, on the other hand, is not actually goodmore like "good enough," essentially just a big prop for Lake to use in the same way she uses Jennifer's broom, or Jennifer's chaliceand unfortunately March does not find a throughline, subtle or otherwise, and while it's hardly damaging, he's only ever playing the farcical surface of any given exchange, which expands to something like a medium-sized problem when he goes from evidently losing himself to a seductress to desperately trying to rid himself of a stalker, roughly ten seconds of screentime later.

Only a medium-sized problem, however.  The bigger problem we've already alluded to, which is that about thirty minutes before the movie ends it decides to reorient its stakes in a very big way without the slightest corresponding change in tone.  To this end, it refashions Daniel from somebody who exists solely for devilish father-daughter repartee into an active, legitimate antagonist, keen on putting an end to this cross-dimensional romance and disciplining his wayward daughter.  (It is best to not consider whether Daniel might have a point, since his daughter has basically roofied herself.  They're manifestations of cosmic malevolence, anyway.)  This doesn't quite reveal itself as a problem until it becomes obvious that they simply don't know what to do with an omnipotent warlock, and so Benchley's initial godlike menace gets downshifted pretty hard into drunkard comedy about a sorcerer who keeps forgetting the proper wording of his incantations.


It is still easy-going and, occasionally, still joyful: Jennifer's resurrection of Wallace's ruined political career with a magical working is cute, hilarious, and even conceptually-terrifying, considering what it says about his new bride's own omnipotencethe biggest single laugh of the movie even arrives in this segment, when Jennifer's holy ghost passes over a maternity ward full of newborns who begin to chant, "vote for Wooley!" But Witch does spin its wheels a bit, and, in sidelining Daniel, it's even harder not to notice that this movie kind-of finished a quarter hour ago, and when he does come off the sidelines and finally does something that actually threatens to give the film an unexpected (and welcome) heft, Witch can barely even let it settle in before it cheats its ass off to undo it.

Still: before this, it's been almost uniformly joyful, quick-witted in its dialogue, sprightly in its situations, and endlessly charming in its gestures toward the supernatural, with French director-in-exile René Clair lavishing special attention on the effects work, lo-fi even for 1942, with an aim toward tickling you with his dreamiest whimsies.  The opening stretch has a particularly wonderful feel (it's very proto-Star Trek), requiring us to spend a lot of time with a pair of optically-printed gaseous glows who ponder the civilization the mortals have built up around them in their time away.  But it's always adorable, from its brooms on wires to its burning, collapsing buildings (and Lake makes a great first impression in her embodied introduction here, as roofs cave in around an underdressed young woman who can barely be bothered to care).  Clair invites us to exult in the hoariest tricks of the movie magician, above all in a sequence where a cloud "goes into a bottle" because the film's been reversed, and Clair makes certain we can see the extras in the backgroundwhom I'm pretty sure he tasked with walking backwards, as part of the hard-sell of a very silly illusion.  Armed further with Lake's alien persona, it sets a mood that overlaps between the adorably chintzy and the legitimately ethereal (it does a lot to underline the loopy inhumanity of the power that Wallace is confronted with).  Which is exactly the right mood for it to strike.  It's no surprise that it was enough of a hit to inspire a TV show or two, not to mention however many subsequent movies about such romantically-inclined satanists (though maybe it is a little remarkable that something as risqué and faintly blasphemous as Witch somehow sailed right through the Production Code).  Ultimately, it may have no goal other than to endear itself to you by being a good time, but while there's maybe too much that's artificial about it to have ever landed as anything moreand it still comes closer than I think anybody involved even wanted it toit's certainly never anything less.

Score: 8/10

2 comments:

  1. I watched this last year as part of an annual Halloween movies exchange thing (think secret Santa crossed with a movie club, but with gore) and it's very, very charming. I probably would've liked it more if I saw it under pretty much any other circumstances though.

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    1. Yeah, it's "a Halloween movie" in the most attenuated sense possible. (I'm only calling it "horror" because it's at least implicitly about Satan--actually, I guess Daniel does invoke "Beezlebub" pretty frequently.) It is, anyway, much more of a dessert than a meal, though I guess that's fitting for Halloween in its own way--I think I might have diabetes by the time I'm done eating my way out of the overstocked candy we bought from a grocery store that had clearly not recognized this whole "global pandemic" might have suggested adjusting their holiday inventories a little.

      Anyway, I'd give it another spin, it's on the Criterion Channel right now--though, of course, who knows for how *long.* Other than the probably-foolhardy hope I'll eventually get around to the foreign art films that'll probably be permanent fixtures there, I'm not 100% sure it's a good investment for me, considering how frequently they pull shit. I'm livid over the Albert Brooks stuff only being there long enough for me to see it and miss a chance to finally rewatch Defending Your Life.

      Apologies, this grumble got long.

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