Really, Fredric March, it took witchcraft for you to fall in love with Jennifer, the mischievous, coquettish beauty who's fallen into your life in the form of Veronica Lake? Oh sure, she's out to harm you at first, and best keep your eyes peeled on her old man, a devilish Cecil Kellaway, but even she, a girl off the grid for 270 years, can see that your fiancee, Estelle (Susan Hayward), "has the look of a shrew," and will only lead to a miserable future for another generation of Wooleys. Though that was the original plan.
"Long, long ago, when people still believed in witches," Fredric March dressed as a pilgrim and kept his Puritan reputation squeaky clean when he pointed the finger at Jennifer who chased him into a hayloft and cursed him and all descendants to be forever unhappy in love and marriage. Jennifer and her father, Daniel, were burned at the stake, their ashes buried with an oak tree planted over top to keep their evil spirits in place through all eternity. From there they amused themselves in watching Jennifer's curse take effect over generations of Wooley men throughout time.
We see the curse at work as a Wooley from 1770, the spitting image of George Washington, enters his vows under the oak tree amidst Jennifer's giggles. A Wooley from 1861, Lincoln's twin, of course, dodges projectiles from his wife, and an old timer in 1904 gets chewed out by his missus, their carriage sporting a sign announcing "Just Married" as she henpecks away.
Fast forward to then present time and Wallace Wooley, played by Fredric March just like all of his historical Wooley predecessors, is a gubernatorial candidate saddled with the newspaper publisher's daughter. His intended, Estelle, is played by the very young and beautiful, though yes, quite shrewish, Susan Hayward, who's continuously forced to smile for the cameras by her publicity minded father (Robert Warwick).
When lightning strikes the oak tree, still planted on what is Wooley property, the spirits of Jennifer and Daniel are released and drift about as witch's smoke for a time taking in the modern sights and sounds. Peering into the Wooley window as a pre-election party takes place, Jennifer, ignorant of electricity, asks her father if the the brightened household is on fire. "Not yet," replies Daniel, followed by gusts of laughter.
Jennifer and Daniel see Wallace and Estelle together, their wedding planned for tomorrow, just before the election, and Jennifer takes pleasure in seeing that their curse still holds. The latest in the long line of Wooley nuptials we've been witness to will no doubt bring great misery just as the others before had. Though Daniel, always looking at the dark side, remarks that true suffering would actually be to be in love with one whom they could not marry.
Jennifer decides to make this happen, but not without many curves along the way. March as Wooley, initially swayed towards Jennifer by magic, fights himself throughout believing he should marry Estelle, but falling deeper and deeper for Jennifer along the way. When Jennifer begins to have real feelings for Wally, Cecil Kellaway's Daniel does all he can to stop her from winning him leaving Jennifer to wonder, is love stronger than witchcraft?
Veronica Lake was quite the sensation by the time of I Married a Witch. After her first screen success in I Wanted Wings (1941), Lake, and her hair, shot to further prominence in a November 1941 Life Magazine article titled "Veronica Lake's Hair." Life marked the 49th minute of I Wanted Wings as one of the "historic moments of the cinema" as the then unknown Lake "walked into camera range and waggled a head of long blonde hair at a suddenly enchanted public." That Life article referred to Lake's hair as the "strip-tease style," the "sheep-dog style," and the "bad-girl style," but we remember it now as the peekaboo style, featuring Lake's long, soft blonde hair cascading over and sometimes completely obscuring her right eye.
But Lake soon showed there was more to her than her hair and general image when she held her own in the classic Preston Sturges screwball comedy, Sullivan's Travels, co-starring with Joel McCrea. Then 1942 would see Lake seemingly cement herself as the hard-boiled girl alongside Alan Ladd in a classic pair of crime noir films, This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key.
With talent shining through this run of successful pictures, all on top of her glamor image, you'd think Lake would automatically be rewarded with whatever she wanted from Paramount. In the case of her career at this point that would have been the role of the witch in I Married a Witch. But director Rene Clair had other ideas and told the original producer of the film, Preston Sturges, that Lake, coming off the crime films, wouldn't be any good in a comedy. Sturges, who had a good relationship with Lake from Sullivan's Travels, obviously knew otherwise.
Sturges got Clair to relent and Clair was soon pleasantly surprised. Despite Veronica Lake's reputation for being very difficult to work with she'd win Clair over and according to Lake in her autobiography, Veronica, Clair came up to her one day and said, "I'm here to apologize, Ronnie. Preston was right. You're a hell of a good comedienne. I'm sorry." Lake wrote that she "loved Rene for that." Her next sentence was "And I hated Fredric March."
March, well in between his two Oscars at the time, besides being recognized as a top star had managed to earn himself quite the reputation as a womanizer and by Lake's accounts he really walloped her with verbal abuse throughout production. She got back at him with a couple of now legendary bits of revenge, one involving a 40-pound weight added to Veronica's slim 98-pound figure during a scene in which March had to carry her; the other featuring a strategically placed foot during a scene shot from the waist up.
Despite their adversarial relationship March and Lake both shine in I Married a Witch. March as Wooley is a good guy running for office, railroaded into an engagement that makes no sense beyond Jennifer's curse. Wooley comes across as honest and kind, the kind of guy that might actually run into a burning building to save a woman screaming for help. Lake is all winks and youthful ignorance, so casually tossing in the occasional reference to witchcraft that March doesn't even bat an eye. While all accounts mention their lousy personal relationship, you'd never think it if you just watch them with each other on screen.
Cecil Kellaway is fantastic as Lake's father, spending half his time in the movie drunk failing to remember the last line of the spells he wishes to cast. He's fun, yet completely evil, hellbent on keeping the Wooley curse in place at all costs. His Daniel always has an unkind word and nasty idea on the tip of his tongue, but he has a way of winding up hiding inside liquor bottles that forestall his causing complete calamity.
Young Susan Hayward only has one brief scene where the smile her character wears isn't forced. I Married a Witch is pretty much all March and Lake with a touch of Kellaway, and so Hayward isn't given much room to stand out at all. Robert Warwick plays Hayward's father and gives his usual professional performance.
Robert Benchley is on the scene as Dr. Dudley White, basically playing his usual Robert Benchley routine which I'm a big fan of, though be warned Bosley Crowther in his 1942 New York Times review only takes time to refer to Benchley as "pitching bad gags and desperate groans." I can see his point, but I like the Benchley corn. I got a chuckle out of him taking a sample sip out of every glass that comes within a few feet of him.
Also on the billing is Elizabeth Patterson, who I always remember as Mrs. Trumbull on I Love Lucy, playing March's maid. She's allowed to shine in a scene where she does a double-take at finding Jennifer wearing Wooley's pajamas, in Wooley's room, with Wooley, first thing in the morning. Correctly suspicious of Jennifer, Patterson's Margaret has a spell cast on her that puts her to sleep standing up and pretty much takes her out of the action.
I Married a Witch features black humor courtesy of our witches throughout. The film opens in colonial times in a scene initially so dark that it appears to be a horror film, but just as a priest pulls out the Book of Exorcism he calls for a short intermission and any tension is broken by a vendor hawking "popped maize" to the spectators on hand for the burning. Sometimes the humor pushed a little too hard for my liking, such as a hospital ward full of newborns chanting "Vote for Wooley," but others, such as Helen St. Raynor's repeated starting and stopping her singing of "I Love You Truly" during the wedding scene are absolutely hilarious.
I Married a Witch was filmed by Paramount at a time when they had excess product on hand, and so was distributed by United Artists, who were lacking their own movies to market at that same time. It was in production mid-April through the end of May 1942 and opened in the US, appropriately, on October 30 of that same year.
Crowther called it a "whimsical film" in his New York Times review, that was "quaint and agreeable nonsense." He added that "Old friends of Topper will immediately recognize the spirit and style" of I Married a Witch, though all these decades later Topper didn't flash to my mind as much as the television series Bewitched did. Bewitched creator Sol Saks is on record as acknowledging I Married a Witch as one of his influences for the successful 1960's sit-com.
A genre crossing classic with equal portions comedy, romance and fantasy, I Married a Witch is a highly recommended good time for all and every bit as much family viewing as that later television series.
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- Crowther, Bosley. "I Married a Witch (1942)." The New York Times 20 November 1942.
- Lake, Veronica and Donald Bain. Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake. Bantam edition. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
- "Veronica Lake's Hair." Life Magazine 24 November 1941: 59.