The strange collision of talent that created “I Married a Witch” makes for as compellingly off-kilter a vision as the film itself, if not more so. Recruiting Preston Sturges as a producer, director René Clair ended up butting heads with his chosen partner to the point that Sturges left, but not before helping secure Veronica Lake for the project and driving away writer Dalton Trumbo. Lake’s presence kept Joel McCrea at bay and may ultimately have made Fredric March wish he’d done the same, as the two routinely clashed on-set.
It would be a lie to say that these internal tensions cannot be seen in the finished product, but the nature of the story allows Clair to incorporate them into the film. “I Married a Witch” begins during Puritan times, as a young witch, Jennifer (Lake), and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are put to the stake on the condemnation of Jonathan Wooley (March). The camera turns from the severe sight of roaring fires to focus on Wooley as a kind of fear settles into March’s stentorian proclamations, his puritan remove shot through with a numbed anxiety over the curse he relates being placed upon him and his descendants, for the men of the Wooley line to be forever put with the wrong women, a spell that can only be reversed when the witches’ souls are set free in the present day. Put back into the world, Jennifer soon materializes from smoke into Veronica Lake, eager to use her new vessel to carry out yet more revenge against the Wooleys by targeting the latest scion, Wallace (March again), to seduce and leave him, thus scuppering his burgeoning political career.
That undercurrent of animosity allows Lake and March to retain some of the edge they might have shown each other off-camera. Lake re-enters the film literally smoldering, standing without concern among the smoking room of a hotel Daniel set ablaze, and though Jennifer does so to lure Wallace in to rescue her, she proves quite willing to let him stand there and burn when arrives. Lake, only just butting up against 20, already looks like she knows exactly how to destroy a man, constantly angling her face so it locks like a jigsaw piece against March’s chest, or tilting back at a perfect angle to regard him with doe-eyed solicitation. Wallace, for his part, ducks Jennifer’s “affections” as long as he may, preferring even the company of the shrewish fiancée (Susan Hayward) to whom he has been accursedly engaged.
Yet their frosty attitude toward one another makes the elegance with which Clair unites them all the more beguiling. The turning point of the film, in which Jennifer prepares a love potion to ensnare Wallace, only to accidentally ingest it herself, delicately finds a solution to their antagonistic charms, permitting Jennifer to fall head over heels for Wallace while being vaguely cognizant of how much this development infuriates her. That wit, devilish but also place at a subtle remove, pervades other scenes, as when Wallace is visited by his fiancée that is shaded in by the awareness that Jennifer is lounging upstairs in his bed. When Hayward talks of hanging around the house while Wallace leaves, no rising music nor even facial expressions betray Wallace’s panic, and only the increased deliberation in March’s voice as he beckons Hayward to come with him betrays his careful maneuvering.
Clair, well established by 1942 as a master of comic fantasy, displays a deft hand with the film’s effects, be it the manner in which Jennifer and Daniel’s liberated spirits manifest as columns of smoke that rove around a home that has changed drastically over the centuries to the manner in which a broom zips after Jennifer at her command. Yet the focus never settles on these tricks, and many of the technical moments are easily discerned, as shots of Jennifer sliding up a staircase banister that are clearly shots of her going down the stairs played backwards. The displays of magic instead serve as whimsical additions to a story that could have worked no differently without them, a means of dressing up the film’s odd tone.
Shadows and gloom dominate the visual palette from the grim opening shots, but Clair always finds a way to add a peevish glint of light among the darkness that points to the film’s softer aims. Unfussy frames nevertheless display a precise control that hides visual gags in plain sight. This is especially true about Jennifer’s various inconvenient entrances, in which she tends to simply manifest in the background whenever Wallace thinks he has a moment alone, making her torment less a matter of constant attack than a simple fact of existence. Among the many jokes of this pleasing picture is her increasingly earnest seduction, and the knowledge that a man may finally break his family’s curse of tyrannically headstrong women by marrying the most independent and fearsome of them all.