‘I Married a Witch’ review

21 10 2010

[written by author, Ruth Merriam]

It’s 30 October 1942. The film I Married a Witch, starring Veronica Lake and Frederic March, has its release. Is it a story about witchcraft? A romantic comedy? A ghost story? Why yes, yes it is. Because it’s rather predictable in outcome, I’m going to go through the entire plot. Bear with me. There will be a point to this eventually.

“Love is stronger than witchcraft.”

The story begins in the late 17th century in the little town of Roxford, Massachusetts.  Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March) has accused Jennifer and her father, Daniel, of witchcraft. Jennifer has just been burned at the stake and Daniel is headed toward the pyre. Jonathan is telling his mother his reasons for the accusation and relates how Jennifer had lured him into a hayloft. Of her, he says, “She was young and beautifully fair, fairer than all the women that ever were.” Then he relates her curse:

“Jonathan Wooley – thou hast denounced me as a witch. For that, thou shalt be accursed. Thou and thy children and thy children’s children all will be under the same curse.”

He describes the curse. “I and all my descendents will be unhappy in love. The marriages we make will be disastrous until . . . it’s too wicked to tell you, Mother!”

With that, the townspeople bring an oak sapling to plant over the ashes of the now-dead witches. Jonathan says, “Look! The oak tree! It will be planted over their ashes.” “Why?” asks his mother. “To hold their evil spirits, sshhhhhh!, prisoner in its roots, thus keeping their wicked powers from surviving . . . I hope.”

Fast forward century by century through vignettes of “wedded bliss.”

This is most definitely shaping up to be a romantic comedy.

In the present day, Jonathan’s descendent Wallace Wooley (also played by Frederic March)  is running for governor of Massachusetts. His future father-in-law is a newspaper and radio magnate who’s arranged for a pre-nuptial party on the eve of the election, an election due to take place the day after the wedding. Jonathan’s fiancé, the shrewish and demanding Estelle (played with perfection by Susan Hayward), is busily arguing with Wallace over everything under the sun. Wallace is obviously miserable about his circumstances and shares his worries with his best friend, Dudley, a physician who has a bet riding on the outcome of the election.

During the party, a thunderstorm sweeps in and lightning strikes the old oak tree, releasing the spirits of Jennifer and Daniel.

A-ha! Ghosts at last! Well, no, not really. These aren’t ghosts in the traditional sense, but rather spirits (we later learn that Daniel is several thousand years old) that take human form again and again. Their purpose is wreak havoc upon the human condition.

The smoky wraiths move across the changed landscape (it’s been 270 years since they were burnt) and are drawn to the bright lights inside the house. The disembodied voices chat and Jennifer asks Daniel what they are. “We are smoke, Jennifer. Witch’s smoke.” As they drift up to the house they can see people dancing through French doors, and a couple kissing just beyond a window.

Jennifer muses, “It would be nice to have lips. Lips to whisper lies, lips to kiss man, make him suffer. Father, why cannot I have lips and eyes and hair?”

To get a bit closer to the action, the two plumes decide to inhabit a couple of bottles that had been left on the veranda. The witch powers are in no way diminished by the witches’ insubstantial nature!

At this point, we learn that Daniel has a taste for liquor. The two witches now discuss Jennifer’s curse.

“Each Wooley must marry the wrong woman.”

“Ha! What a curse! Every man who marries, marries the wrong woman. True suffering cometh when a man is in love with a woman he cannot marry.”

“Father . . . suppose a man were in love with a witch! With me? I would not marry him.”

Our stage is set.

The ghosts commandeer a broom from the kitchen and take off across the skies. Jennifer again asks Daniel to give her a body, which he obligingly does via setting fire to the Pilgrim Hotel as they must take form through fire as fire took their forms during the last incarnation.

Wallace, Dudley, and Estelle are driving home from the party when they come across the blaze. Wallace, as a big name candidate and a very well-known local figure, gets out of the car to see if he can help. He hears a voice from inside the blazing building and rushes in to save whomever it might be.

We, and Wallace, get our first glimpse of Jennifer.

This is the 19-year-old Veronica Lake. She’s diminutive and child-like yet sensual and vibrant.

They get out of the building, confusion ensues, a trip to a hospital follows, and before you can say “Holy smoke!” Jennifer is somehow in Wallace’s bed, wearing his pajamas. This comes as a complete surprise to Wallace who thought he’d left her in the hospital and who’s due to be married the next day.

The expected chase occurs but when Jennifer doesn’t manage to snare Wally right off the bat and he leaves the house the following morning for a press conference, she has to think of some way to get to him. The broom (What broom? Why, the broom she used to escape from the hospital, of course.) offers its help, but she impatiently tells it she’s not interested.

Then Daniel shows up in the fireplace. He asks if her love filter worked to which she replies that she thought she could do the job bare-handed. Jennifer goes about making a potion for Wally to drink.

Meanwhile, Daniel decides he wants a body as well and drifts off to find a building to set on fire. Wally returns early from the press conference because as luck would have it, the building he was in had had an explosion on the roof and had caught fire. Jennifer tries to get him to drink the goblet of potion. Instead, she winds up drinking it and falls madly in love. However, the wedding is still on. Wally and Dudley leave the house just as Daniel makes an appearance by way of an ambulance rushing from the aforementioned burning building.

Jennifer enlists Daniel’s help in stopping Wally from marrying Estelle. At this point, we get a real idea of how Daniel (played with understated menace and to perfection by Cecil Kellaway) feels about Jennifer’s change of heart and goals.

At the place where the wedding is to occur, Daniel at last meets Wallace face-to-face. His plan is simple: Wallace will shoot him (Daniel) and will burn as Wallace’s ancestor once had Daniel burned. The methods will be different but the result will be the same. “Amusing invention, the electric chair. What will they think of next?”

Daniel casts a spell upon a revolver he’s taken from Wallace’s house and has it shoot him while Wallace and Jennifer watch.

Meanwhile, the wedding (remember the wedding?) is still sort of progressing downstairs. There’s mayhem of every sort. Jennifer is infuriated with her father and his plan and they discuss it.

Yes, they discuss it after the shooting. Witch’s smoke, remember?

After being certain that Wallace thought himself a murderer after Dudley examined the body, Daniel goes back into the body as Wallace and Dudley stagger toward the altar. Jennifer appears at the top of the stairs, Estelle storms off, and there’s chaos everywhere.

Daniel decides to amuse himself by having a drink, and then another, and in no time has fallen over a railing and is in the hands of the police as he’s too drunk to remember any spells. He winds up cooling his heels in a county cell and spends the night muttering half-spells and making loud claims. Jennifer and Wally flee in a car and wind up at a small inn out somewhere in the fog-shrouded countryside.

Well, this is 1942 and a couple showing up at night at an inn like a couple of lovebirds on the lam has to get married . . . right?

After the ceremony, Jennifer tries to explain to Wally what she is.

“My family dates back to the days of Pompeii.”

“Were you mixed up in that?”

“My father was. Ever hear of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? That was our crowd.”

Wally has some trouble believing her, so in the morning – election day – she fixes the election using her witchcraft. It’s a landslide! During the day, Wally goes to see Daniel in jail and tries to get him released while Daniel, for his part, is still trying to sober up and is none too happy to hear that his daughter has betrayed her kind. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s witchcraft is having its way with every Massachusetts resident, even the other guys in jail.

That night, Wallace and Dudley are discussing Wallace’s predicament and Dudley decides it’s a fine time to leave. While Wallace makes a speech to a crowd waiting outside his house, Daniel reappears so he can punish Jennifer for disobedience.

Daniel strips Jennifer of her witch powers and tells her that at midnight she’s to return to the oak tree to be reimprisoned. She and Wally attempt an escape but Daniel has commandeered the cab they’re in and takes to the air with it, eventually crashing it into the tree. Jennifer’s spirit leaves her body and drifts off with Daniel’s spirit, leaving Wally with her lifeless body. Jennifer’s spirit claims she’ll always remember the love she bore Wally but Daniel informs her that he plans to strip her of that as well. As for Wally, Daniel says, “He’ll remember. That will be his torture.”

Just before they re-enter the tree (Daniel has tired of this generation of mankind), Jennifer coyly asks Daniel if they can drift over to the house to watch Wally as he tries to get help for Jennifer’s former body. Daniel wants to know why, so she tells him, “To watch him suffer!” Daniel is so tickled that his little girl has come to her senses that he returns her witch powers to her.

Meanwhile, Wally is holding and tenderly kissing the limp body of his wife. Daniel’s wraith decides to pop into a bottle of bourbon that’s been left open on the veranda and Jennifer takes advantage of that moment to go back into her body. She shushes Wally and quickly opens a window and corks the bottle.

Fast forward several years. We see the happy family unit: Wally, Jennifer, and two young boys. Their housekeeper comes in complaining about their daughter. Wally can’t imagine what the problem could be . . . and in comes seven-year-old little Jennifer riding a broom like a hobby horse.

Daddy’s indulgent, but Mother cautions, “I’m afraid we’re going to have trouble with her some day.”

Up on the wall we see – safely tucked away behind padlocks, a steel grid, and some device designed to keep the cork in place, the bottle containing Daniel, who’s merrily singing a drunken tune.

The End.

So why include this film in Ghost Appreciation Month? Well, there are ghosts in it. Sort of. And the young Veronica Lake is full of an untamed energy that occasionally bursts out of the script. But there are witches! Witches and curses! Witches and curses and a fabulous supporting cast! And it’s nearly Hallowe’en!

Of all the films I might have picked, why this one? Because of the sub-plot. Because of Daniel.

Cecil Kellaway is an extraordinary actor. The character of Daniel is at once jovially smiling and speaking of destroying someone’s life. He’s a doting father and an intractable evil-doer. He’s seen the ages pass by and cares nothing at all for humanity. He could have simply been a comic foil like Dudley, but instead there is a dissonant chord that sounds from his dialogue. All will come to an end in time, and all will end in fire.

Daniel, like the devils whose names he invokes on occasion, knows he has only to wait and his time will come again. Is he a witch or a spirit? He is, as he tells Jennifer early on, witch’s smoke – and where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

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