Rene Clair’s 1942 fantasy “I Married a Witch” has some distinguished artists among its fans. Jack Smith included it in the syllabus for a class he never ever came close to teaching; Guy Maddin writes a long appreciation for the new Criterion DVD, out in time for Halloween. But I’m afraid I can’t join the club.
I’d like to believe that, newly established in Hollywood, Clair might have been satirizing American puritanism but, based on a somewhat darker comic novel by Thorne Smith (the author of “Topper”), “I Married a Witch” is insipid film blanc. There’s actually a bit more to chew on in Clair’s labored post World War II version of “Faust,” “La Beauté du Diable.” “I Married a Witch” is a whimsy flimsical precursor to the ‘60s sitcom “Bewitched”—without Elizabeth Montgomery’s sex appeal and this despite star Veronica Lake being the movie’s main attraction. In his original review, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called her a “strange and beautiful illusion.”
Maddin is similarly smitten by Lake although, for him, the downhill trajectory of her tawdry post World War II career is part of her appeal. He writes that she and co-star Frederic March have “such spectacular chemistry in the movie” that “no one could suspect how much they loathed each other.” The antipathy seems pretty obvious to me but I must say that I’ve only been able to appreciate Lake when she’s matched with the equally diminutive Alan Ladd, two hardboiled Dresden dolls in “This Gun for Hire” and “The Blue Dahlia.” More entertaining than Lake’s dopey affection for March is her war with his fiancée, played by Susan Hayward—an unequal battle of two Brooklyn babes. Given its proudly unconvincing movie magic, I can sort of imagine a potential Maddin remake of “I Married a Witch,” a turgid swirl of alcohol fumes and ghost-ridden flashbacks, transposed from backlot New England to Winnipeg’s snowy wastes.
It’s harder to see what Jack Smith saw in the movie—although, throughout his life, he remained attached to the screen fantasies he saw in Wisconsin as a boy during World War II. Indeed, Smith’s notes for “Flaming Creatures” link the blond vampire (played by Joel Markman) whom most early commentators identified with Marilyn Monroe, to Lake: “A coffin on the set—Veronica Lake comes out—petals on lid disappear. She sucks Frankie Dry & the get up & two step together which turns into a production number.” That might be findable in a Guy Maddinized “Witch” as well.
Images: Criterion Collection