If there’s anything more delightful in cinema than Veronica Lake sliding down the banisters in someone else’s pyjamas, it’s Veronica Lake sliding up the banisters in someone else’s pyjamas. And we’re blessed with both options in Rene Clair’s 1942 screwball classic, in which Cecil Kellaway and Lake star as Daniel and Jennifer — father and daughter — burned at the stake as witches in 1672 by the merciless Puritan Jonathan Wooley, thereby imprisoning their souls in the roots of a nearby oak tree. Their punishment was for placing a curse on the Wooley family, dooming them to unhappy marriages, and when, 250 years later, the tree is felled by a storm, they are freed to wreak a terrible revenge upon the Wooley family once more.
The current Wooley is Wallace (Fredric March), an ambitious young politician on the brink of getting married, entirely un-coincidentally on the eve of an election. Daniel and Jennifer seize the opportunity to destroy both his wedding and his political prospects by delivering Jennifer literally into his arms, when he rescues her from a magically-delivered hotel fire. But can her resolve to destroy him survive the romantic spark between them … ?
There’s a lot to love about I Married A Witch: sparky writing, gorgeous effects work and above all the effervescent Lake, who is enchanting even without the power of magic. But although it’s a film that’s beloved by many people (here’s a terrific piece about the film and its director Rene Clair by Guy Maddin) it doesn’t quite work for me. The main problem is Fredric March. Not his performance, particularly, but his character. He doesn’t have one. When we meet him he’s about to get married to a woman that he clearly doesn’t much care for (she barely speaks in the film, except to berate him), partly in order to win an election that he doesn’t seem to care about either. He’s personable enough, but there’s no spark to him that makes us believe that Jennifer might love him — and indeed it takes a misplaced love potion to make her do so. As a result, his happiness means very little to us: the film hopes that Lake’s charm will carry the day — which it very nearly does — without creating any sense of what his actual political ambitions might be.
The other problem is also a motivational one: if Daniel and Jennifer really want to destroy Wallace, they could do so, particularly given their spectacular powers (which are ill-explained: the story would work better if we knew what they could and couldn’t achieve). Given 250 years of torment, it’s a very half-hearted plan. But again this comes back to the character of Wallace: if they came to sympathise with him, and to see that he is not the same as the cruel Wooleys of the past, it would make sense to rethink their plan for revenge.
It’s a real demonstration of the importance of equal characters in romantic comedy: the genre works much better when you can see the story from both points of view, and when the central character is not, in fact, either of the people, but the relationship itself. What’s frustrating, for me, about I Married A Witch is that it’s so close to being brilliant; everything that doesn’t quite work could be fixed, and that would make it truly magical.