By Mike Dub
A good screwball comedy is one of the most energetic, witty, and subversive pleasures cinema has to offer. At their peak, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra made films that spark with so much vitality, watching their films is like breathing pure oxygen. Unfortunately, Rene Clair’s 1942 domestic rom-com I Married a Witch does not crackle with even a hint of the fire that burns so brightly in the best screwball comedies. Rather, it is a flat relationship comedy in a screwball story, made watchable by its brevity and two fine supporting performances.
I Married a Witch seems to have all the ingredients of classic screwball: Jennifer (Veronica Lake), a witch burned at the Salem trials, hexes Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March), who accused her with a spell that will prevent him and his sons (and his sons’ sons and so on) from ever falling in love with the right woman. 250 years or so later, she is freed from a spiritual prison, just in time to find Wallace Wooley (also Frederic March), a candidate for governor who is about to marry a superficial socialite (Susan Hayward). Determined to cause as much havoc as possible, Jennifer hatches a plan to make Wooley fall in love with her.
After a surprisingly modern, Mel Brooks-like flourish in the opening scene – a vendor hocks popcorn during intermission of the Salem witch burnings – the film bogs down with predictable story structure and completely lifeless performances by March and Lake (rumor has it that they hated each other, and it seems to show). Jennifer’s adolescent poutiness lacks the charm she needs to pull it off, and March, who just a few years later gave an incredible performance as a quietly anguished veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives, feels sorely out of place in the goofy environment.
However, even though the two leads couldn’t muster any energy, the film is enlivened by two great comedic performances. Robert Benchley as Wooley’s best man provides the flair that is missing from March’s performance. In every scene, he manages to find the right note, effortlessly oozing charm next to March’s wooden shell. And Cecil Kellaway, as Jennifer’s warlock father, has a ball as an evil genius conflicted by his duty to his work and his love for his daughter. In an elongated bit that’s a welcome distraction to the romantic storyline, Kellaway acts with vaudevillian glee as a sour, unruly drunk, retaining the dignity only a sophisticated veteran can muster.
I Married a Witch is a pretty disappointing effort from Rene Clair, the Frenchman who made the terrific Chaplin-esque farce A nous la liberte before paddling over to Hollywood. Originally conceived by Preston Sturges, who wanted to cast Joel McCrea in the leading role, we can only dream about what might have been. Sturges’ cynical eye for relationships, and his reliability as a director who knew how to invoke energy in both the visuals and performances, seems to be exactly what this film is missing.