Rob Harmon’s recommendations 10/22/13

ROB HARMON’S RECOMMENDATIONS 10/22/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksI MARRIED A WITCH (dir. René Clair, 1942) — World War II-era movie audiences, perhaps weary from the life-or-death struggles swirling around them, seemed to embrace fantasy with fervor: take stories of the afterlife or angelic happenings like HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, and THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT as proof of the popularity of escape. Furthermore, few comedic fantasies, then or since, can approach the sheer, delicious gauziness of French émigré director René Clair’s I Married a Witch (its title a winking play on the 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical “I Married an Angel”), released in 1942 towards beginning of the war but at about the height of the popularity of its bombshell star, Veronica Lake.

The story begins in 17th century Salem where a witch about to be burned at the stake casts a spell on her Puritan accuser (a blond-wigged Fredric March!) that he and his descendants will be forever unlucky in love. A tree is then planted over the site of the fire in order to trap the spirits of the witch, Jennifer, and her devilish father Daniel—also burned—in its roots. A quick montage follows the hapless and hen-pecked Wooleys (all played by March) through the years up to the present, when a lightning bolt cuts through a tree limb and at last releases the two witches into the world, initially in the form of vapor-like essences with dissipated voices.

Recognizing the latest in the cursed line Wallace Wooley (March, once again), a weak-willed politician about to be married to his shrewish fiancée (Susan Hayward)—the daughter of the local newspaper magnate—as a publicity stunt on the eve of the upcoming election for governor, they decide to take physical form in order to better wreak havoc: Daniel as the roly-poly, velvet-voiced Cecil Kellaway and Jennifer as Veronica Lake, she of the peekaboo blond tresses! However, an errantly-applied love potion soon throws a wrench into their plans as Jennifer accidentally forces herself to fall in love with Wallace, ensuring that the traditionally goofy complications of “meeting-cute” screwball-style are compounded: this is one witch who will not be denied!

I Married a Witch is as delicate and effervescent a romantic comedy as there is. Fredric March was as reliable a leading man as Hollywood ever produced; Kellaway is fiendishly entertaining; Robert Benchley provides reliable comedic support as Dr. Dudley White, Wallace’s best friend; and Veronica Lake is an ideal screwball heroine: strong-headed, a little dizzy, sexy, and, yes, totally bewitching. If you ever wondered what Lake was like at the height of her powers this movie will give you a good idea. Edith Head’s gowns are gorgeous and the rest of the production is solid, ably crafting a totally fantastic and studio-constructed – as only Hollywood (Paramount, in this case) could do it – storybook version of New England.

Director Clair (who has his own section at Best Video) was a famed early innovator in sound and surreal comedy in his native France, heavily influencing Chaplin among others. His deft touch is evident everywhere in these fast-paced, zippy proceedings, which successfully manage to intermingle the paranormal and politics, the battle of the sexes and American history, love and witchcraft. If you are in the mood for a Halloween film which is fun (and does not feature chainsaws, machetes, or body counts) then look no further than this delightful comedic bonbon.