THE DVD SHELF: The Delightful "I Married a Witch," the Epic "From Here to Eternity" and the Charming "Before Midnight"

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20 Oct 2013

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This month's column looks at the bubbly René Clair fantasy "I Married a Witch," the World War II epic "From Here to Eternity," and the Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy charmer "Before Midnight."


What kind of a title is "I Married a Witch"? It doesn't sound like a whimsically fantastical romantic comedy brimming with sly good-nature, does it? But that's precisely what this 1942 film is. The studio presumably was influenced by Rodgers and Hart's 1938 Broadway hit I Married an Angel, the M-G-M film version of which was released four months before "I Married a Witch" [Criterion].

The hidden credits of the film might help explain why it turned out to be so delightful. Director René Clair was new to Hollywood, but he was a giant of the French cinema with a string of innovative masterpieces to his credit (including "Sous les toits de Paris" and "À Nous la Liberté"). Clair came upon "The Passionate Witch," a posthumously-published novel by Thorne Smith. Smith is the first tip off; this is the same imagination that came up with Topper. (Topper is a conservative banker who is more or less adopted by two alcoholic ghosts, former clients who died in a car crash. The two novels were made into a delightfully screwball 1937 movie — with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the ghosts — and two sequels. There was later a popular sitcom version, starting in 1953.)

Clair brought the property to producer Preston Sturges at Paramount. Thus, the film has something of the Sturges touch and is filled with faces familiar from the so-called Sturges stock company. In fact, Sturges intended to rematch Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, from his 1941 classic "Sullivan's Travels." McCrea refused to work with Lake again, so the male lead went to Fredric March. Sturges, for his part, turned out not to get along with Clair and left the film during production. By the time it was released, Paramount had sold it to United Artists.

The plot, not unexpectedly, tells of a man who marries a witch. But it is all in fun. In colonial New England, Jennifer (Lake) and her father (Cecil Kellaway) are burned at the stake, having been denounced by Woodley (who had been seduced by the exotically beautiful witch). Jennifer puts a curse on Woodley and his ancestors, fating them to centuries of unhappy marriages. Three hundred years later, the spirits of the two witches escape and return to wreak revenge on the current-day Woodley, who is running for governor. Jennifer tries to seduce him, but a magical potion backfires, and she ends up falling for him. Woodley's intended wedding is disrupted — there's an hysterical Sturges-like running joke in which a matronly wedding singer tries and tries to get through "I Love You, Truly" — and everything works out niftily. The film is a breezy 77 minutes and delightful throughout.

Lake became a star in "Sullivan's Travels" and was a popular World War II pin-up, noted for that peekaboo bang. After five or six years, though, alcohol took over and she soon washed out. She is altogether fine in "I Married a Witch," with something exotic about her performance. (She was born in Brooklyn.)


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