I Married a Witch (1942)

"I Married a Witch" (1942) featured image

I Married a Witch (1942). 77 minutes. Directed by René Clair.  Starring Fredric March (as Wallace Wooley), Veronica Lake (as Jennifer), Cecil Kellaway (as Daniel), Susan Hayward (as Estelle Masterson), and Robert Warwick (as J. B. Masterson).

As a supernatural comedy that also has a political subplot, I Married a Witch is both a good Halloween movie and a good election-year movie.  Possibly it is familiar to you as one of the inspirations for the television series Bewitched.  The movie tells the story of the witches Daniel and Jennifer, a father and daughter pair who were found guilty of sorcery and burned in seventeenth-century New England at the instigation of Puritan Jonathan Wooley.  Just before her execution, Jennifer curses the Wooley men, condemning them all to unsatisfying love lives until the end of time.  Daniel and Jennifer’s ashes are buried under an old tree, where their spirits remain until 1942, at which point, thanks to some stray lightning, their spirits are dislodged from their resting place and take the form of two columns of smoke.  The Wooleys still live nearby, and Jennifer and Daniel observe the latest Wooley descendant, young politician Wallace Wooley, entertaining guests with his fiancée.  The two witches decide to make his life hell: Jennifer will take on a human body and cause him to fall in love with her, but because she will never love him, she will ensure that he will be as miserable as possible.  What she finds, however, is that she comes to love him and in fact wants to marry him.  The two do get married, but she has trouble explaining the matter of her witchcraft to him.  Jennifer swears to herself that she will be a good housewife and do without sorcery, but in the meantime his political campaign falters, and she is tempted to use her powers to benefit her spouse.

You may have already spotted the unfortunate assumptions that this film is based on: first, that witches were burned in the colonies; second, that the men and women on trial in New England for witchcraft were actually witches.  If you can get over the movie’s irritating reliance on those two points, you might actually enjoy this silly story.  The first reason to like I Married a Witch is cute, petite Veronica Lake as Jennifer, whose wavy, long, peekaboo hair is always perfect and who wears a beautiful Edith Head-designed outfit in every scene.  Lake seems very young, but her facial expressions are understated and mature.  Her voice is similarly restrained; she whispers a great deal whenever she appears as a column of smoke with her father, but she conveys a great deal of character through her delicate vocalizations.  Costar Fredric March notoriously criticized Lake for being brainless, but clearly she is capable of producing a performance that is both thoughtful and cute.  Another reason to see this movie is Cecil Kellaway as Daniel, Jennifer’s father, a witch whose desire for revenge against the Wooleys proves stronger than his daughter’s.  Daniel’s habit of hiding as a smoke column in bottles of alcohol results in his being tipsy and discombobulated for some of the film; but otherwise he is feisty and clever, with an elegant voice like Sidney Greenstreet’s and a habit of speaking in rich colonial English.  His need to see Wallace Wooley suffer for the horrible crimes of his Puritan ancestor brings a revenge element to the story that is mildly distasteful. Given, however, that half of the time that Daniel “appears” on screen he is merely a cackling disembodied voice that takes delight in malfeasance, his campaign of vengeance actually contributes punch and spirit to an otherwise light script.

There is an odd political dimension to this film.  Wooley is running for governor when he meets Jennifer, and the election is only days away.  He looks like a shoe-in until he spoils his wedding to Estelle Masterson, whose father J. B. Masterson exerts tremendous political influence.  When Jennifer marries Wooley later that night and sees that his chances of winning the office are slim, she uses her witchcraft to cast a spell over the voting public.  On election night Wooley finds himself a landslide winner, with not a single vote cast for his opposition.  The movie is correct that witchcraft is one way to ensure that the vote is united 100% behind one candidate; another way is a non-supernatural, corrupt government.  I Married a Witch wants us to think that the landslide trick is cute, and it is very silly, but there is a slightly creepy undertone to Jennifer’s spell that the movie never fully reverses.  Consider what happens after the polls close: first, we see Daniel take the couple hostage.  He revokes Jennifer’s powers, transforming both father and daughter into columns of smoke again, leaving her body seemingly dead.  Yet enough of her powers remain, and she reenters and revivifies her body, seals her father’s smoke column in yet another bottle of liquor, and goes on living. The next we see of her is seven years in the future, when she and Wooley have a house full of children.  Has he accepted the results of the rigged election?  Is he in fact governor?  If he is, what are we to think of him?  It could be that we are meant to be amused; but if he stays in office after Jennifer’s trick, isn’t he just as deficient as his Puritan ancestors?  In that case, why should we be happy for him or the other characters, whom he governs?

I Married a Witch is not particularly interested in unraveling this complication, which it is not really equipped to solve, and so I cannot maintain that it is a very serious political comedy—rather a comedy that is slightly political.  It is primarily concerned with special effects and screwball situations.  I must admit I like the Invisible Man movies (yes, even the sequels), so I cannot be surprised that I enjoyed seeing Daniel and Jennifer invisibly picking up broomsticks, slamming doors, and knocking over old ladies—not surprised, but maybe a little embarrassed.  In closing I must ask what we are to make of the fact that this film, which inspired Bewitched, has so many shots of the two main characters as talking smoke trapped in bottles? That reminds me of I Dream of Jeannie, another supernatural sitcom and contemporary of Bewitched.  It is interesting to think that I Married a Witch could have exerted not just the thematic influence of the witch-marriage story on the television of the 1960s but also the influence of a possible visual/special-effects motif as well.