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Saturday, October 22, 2016

I Married a Witch

Two years it was Frankenstein, last year it was Dracula. For this year's Halloween season I'm going to be taking a look at everything witches, a Halloween decoration/costume staple. They have been represented in films and literature for centuries.

There is really no definitive "witch" film, as Universal Studios chose not to do one like their other monster series. I think if anyone my age thinks of witches, they will either conjure up The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz or Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched, the opposite poles of our attitudes about witches. The kernel of the idea for Bewitched may lie in the 1942 film, I Married a Witch.

Directed by Rene Clair, the film is mostly a romantic comedy, but with a nice, sinister edge. In Puritan New England (pointedly not Salem), two witches, a father and daughter, are burned to death. On their ashes is planted an oak tree, so their spirits will be captured forever. The daughter, later to be seen as Veronica Lake, curses the family of the man (Fredric March) who accused her, so that all the men will marry the wrong women.

Almost three-hundred years later, a lightning strike frees the two witches. March, the latest descendant of the family, is running for governor, and about to marry a horrible woman (Susan Hayward), so Lake decides to try to seduce him. But things, as they always do in romantic comedies, go awry.

I Married a Witch is a charming comedy, and at only 76 minutes doesn't take a lot of time out of your life. Lake, as regular readers of mine may know, is one of my favorite classic film actresses, although she was hated by most of her co-stars and died a sad death at 50 due to alcoholism. Joel McCrea, who was to be the lead in this film, said that "life is too short to make two pictures with Veronica Lake." But she was a great presence in some very good films of the 1940s, and for a woman who was only twenty years old, she had great command on screen.

March plays a great befuddled character. The best scene is the aborted wedding between he and Hayward, when Lake and her father (a terrifically charming and evil Cecil Kellaway) are in an upstairs room. There's a great gag where a woman, whenever there's an interruption, breaks into song.

As I make my cultural journey through witches, the sad thing to remember is that the very idea of them was an attempt (and for many centuries, a very successful one) to keep women in their place. Thousands of women, and more than a few men, were killed for being suspected of being witches, when it was another reason entirely that they frightened civic and religious officials. In I Married a Witch, at least we don't get the stereotype of witches being hags, though they do fly on brooms and enjoy burning down cornfields.

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