“Love is stronger than witchcraft.” That is the theme behind Rene Clair’s 1942 supernatural comedy, “I Married a Witch”. The film opens in Colonial Salem, Massachusetts, as two accused witches (a young woman and her father) are being burned at the stake. Their accuser is Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), a well-respected puritan. As the fire rages in front of him, Jonathan explains to another woman that just before burning the young woman, she placed a curse upon him and all his descendants to be unlucky in marriage. Appropriately concerned, Jonathan buries their ashes and plants a tree above them, in an attempt to “imprison their evil spirits”.
While the tree might keep the spirits away, it does nothing to help with the curse, as each and every generation of Wooley men (always played by Fredric March) seem to be involved in the worst possible marriages. Finally, in 1942, there is a storm on the eve of another ill-advised Wooley marriage. This time the descendant, Wallace Wooley, is marrying Estelle (Susan Hayward), the daughter of his political backer (Robert Warwick). During the storm, lightning strikes the tree on the Wooley estate, releasing the witches’ spirits.
Now our two witches, Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and Daniel (Cecil Kellaway), have taken human form and are ready to exact revenge on the Wooley family once and for all. When Jennifer meets Wallace, however, she has a change of heart and decides to save him from marrying Estelle. She sets out to win his affections and love any way possible, but gets more than she bargained for when her father, still hell-bent on the destruction of the Wooley family, uses everything in his powers to keep them apart.
One of the original producers on “I Married a Witch” was Preston Sturges, although he ended up quitting and having his named removed, due to differences with director Rene Clair. His name might be gone, but his style remains. This feels like a Sturges film from beginning to end, with its original story, whimsical dialogue, and of course, a triumphant love story that defies all odds and logic.
Veronica Lake is perfect in this role. Even those who find her to be whiny and lacking of any acting talent, must see that this particular role only works because she seems so juvenile and immature. Even her co-star Fredric March called Lake, “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” In many ways he was right. Lake then responded by calling March a “pompous poseur.” Again, she may be right too. In an ironic way, the beauty of their relationship in the film and the chemistry between these characters is reliant on them acting exactly this way. A smart, sophisticated witch wouldn’t find herself in this situation. It’s because she acts like a child that we enjoy her so much. She’s a hopeless romantic witch, who actually believes in love at first sight.
March was not the original choice for this role, as Joel McCrea was initially in line. He chose to skip this film because working with Lake again, after “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), was more than he could bear. Fortunately this worked out for the best, as an actor with natural comic charm like McCrea wouldn’t have come off near as well as March. His character seems confused and disillusioned about his surroundings. It almost seems as if he’s not sure that he’s in the right movie. He doesn’t understand his own feelings toward Jennifer, and even seems surprised that he is attracted to her. It is March’s ability to be a “pompous poseur” that creates the humor of their relationship. I’m sorry they didn’t like each other, but am thrilled with the effect it had on their characters relationships in the film.
Often times movies that are plagued with so much off-screen turmoil, end up being easily forgettable. Somehow despite all the problems, “I Married a Witch” is an endearing classic that still delights, even today.