Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
In my mission statement for this column, I mention zeitgeist but don’t always talk about it when discussing the films I review. I’m going to commit a huge writing faux pas now and define it to clarify what I’m talking about when I delve into 1942’s I Married a Witch. Zeitgeist is “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.”
In 1941, a young Veronica Lake starred in I Wanted Wings and followed it up that same year with Sullivan’s Travels. She’d previously had some minor roles in a handful of films, but Wings put her on the map. Sullivan’s cemented her status: she burst into the zeitgeist of the time with her sheer presence. Her influence manifested itself in a hairstyle that dominated popular culture for the next couple of years (kind of like “The Rachel” ‘do from Friends). Lake’s “Peek-a-boo” became so popular, in fact, that during WWII, she shortened her hairstyle to encourage women in factories to do the same to prevent them from getting their hair caught in the machinery.
It was in this popularity context that Lake followed up in 1942 with the comedy, I Married a Witch. Playing a witch that gets burned at the stake with her father in Puritanical Salem, she puts a curse on Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), the man who accused her, ensuring that his descendants would always marry the wrong woman. The spirits of Jennifer (Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are imprisoned in a tree. Through them, we see snippets of scenes from the horrible marriages of Wooley’s descendants. Then, in 1942, a lightning bolt hits the tree and releases the spirits as smoke. Jennifer and Daniel discover that the most recent descendant lives nearby and is running for governor. Jennifer convinces her father to give her a body so that she can torment Wallace Wooley in the flesh. Amusing moments follow.
René Clair directs the film with a light touch. Every scene is fresh and breezy and floats there for the benefit of the audience. It’s not a laugh-out-loud comedy, but there are moments of smiling amusement: Jennifer needs to be reborn in flames, so her father decides to burn down the “Pilgrim Hotel.” Daniels enjoys his alcohol even as a cloud of smoke. Kellaway as the comic relief is fun to watch, and March—as the would-be love interest—plays the standard character role well. But the film belongs to Lake, from her peek-a-boo hair to her giddy enthusiasm for minor mischief. Even her voice portrays a hint of amusement. In a precursor to the, unfortunately, now-popular “vocal fry” technique, Lake walks the fine line of fry, earnestness, innocence, and sex appeal; definitely earning her place in the popular zeitgeist.
The special effects serve the plot well. They aren’t earth shattering, but they fit the mood and, for the 1940s, are even a cut above. Under Clair’s direction, even the smoke spirits feel lifelike and believable. There’s a certain childlike wonder that permeates the film. If this were remade today, the producer would probably make it a special effects horror film which would be a mistake: Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore. There’s a definite need for light and amusing films that don’t wink at the camera. I Married a Witch is a relic of a bygone earnest era and a certain style of storytelling. I highly recommend it. At a brisk 77 minutes, it will definitely leave you wanting just a bit more.
Sadly, too many parties and too much alcohol cause Lake to fall out of the limelight and good graces of Hollywood in the ’50s. Perhaps if the studio had protected her more, she might not have ended as a cautionary tale. Unfortunately, she never recaptured her glory from the 1940s and died of complications of alcoholism in 1973. But she will always have a place in the zeitgeist.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.