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."

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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.)

March is his reliable self here, midway between his two Oscars. (He was the first actor to win two Oscars and two Tonys. Helen Hayes also did it, with one of her Oscars as Supporting Actress, although it took her 40 years, compared to March's 26.) The man's range was remarkable. He went from the doomed Dr. Jekyll (and his alter-ego, Hyde) and the noble Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables" to the washed-up Norman Maine walking to his death in the ocean (in the first "A Star Is Born") and the satirically perfect Wally Cook in "Nothing Sacred." All this within seven years. He makes a perfect straight man in "I Married a Witch," which was soon followed by his portrayal of returning sergeant (and ex-banker) Al Stephenson in "The Best Years of Our Lives." And that's to say nothing of his stage career, which was capped by James Tyrone in the original Broadway production of Long Day's Journey Into Night.

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The big, big movie of the year, 60 years ago, was Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity" [Columbia/Sony]. Based upon the best-selling novel by James Jones, it tells of a group of soldiers stationed at Schofield Barracks on Oahu just before and during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Columbia assembled a high-voltage cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra. All five were nominated for Oscars, with Reed and Sinatra winning in the Best Featured category.

Oscar Night was a bonanza: The film garnered eight awards, making it the first to match the record set in 1939 by "Gone with the Wind." "From Here to Eternity" took home Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing and Sound, plus the two performance awards. It was also a box-office winner, one of the ten highest-grossing films of the decade.

Columbia has given us a meticulous new restoration, which brings out the black-and-white camerawork. (The film includes one of Hollywood's iconic scenes — Burt and Deborah wrapped in each other's arms, as the surf washes over them — and it truly looks stunning here, although one wonders just how Zinnemann, his cameraman and his actors managed to get the ocean to cooperate.)

The conflicted Clift does wonderfully well as the newly-transferred soldier who refuses to get into the boxing ring. (That's the old plotline about a fighter who refuses to get into the ring, having in the past seriously injured an opponent.) Zinnemann insisted on Clift against studio objections; the actor had starred in the director's first Hollywood success, the sensitive 1948 post-War drama "The Search." The surprise of the movie was Sinatra, who — at a low ebb in his career — pleaded for the job. It is said that Frankie, who had earned as much as $130,000 for his earlier appearances, took the role for a mere $8,000. The move paid off; Sinatra is extraordinarily good as the stubborn-but-loyal Italian-American private Angelo Maggio. He gets to die onscreen, and his performance combined with his Oscar instantly launched him back into first-rank celebrity.

Looked at today, after 60 years, the film remains powerful and highly entertaining. It does not, however, overwhelm us in the way that certain similarly-successful films of the past do (like the seven-Oscar winner from 1946, "The Best Years of Our Lives," or the eight-Oscar winner from 1954, "On the Waterfront"). I would expect that this has to do with the shared audience experience: The sequence showing the bombing of Pearl Harbor — which seems to incorporate some documentary footage — must have been absolutely shattering to a 1953 audience that included millions of servicemen and their families who had lived through it 12 years before.

The next step for "From Here to Eternity" comes Oct. 23, when a new musical, with Tim Rice leading the creative team, opens in London at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

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Once upon a time, back in 1995, director Richard Linklater joined with stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for "Before Sunrise," the story of a twenty-something couple — an American writer and a French environmentalist — who meet on a train and spend the night walking around Vienna. The film was so successful that the trio reconvened in 2004 for "Before Sunset," in which the characters, who haven't seen each other in the interim, meet nine years later in Paris. He is on a book tour, having written a bestselling fictionalization of that magical night in Vienna, and over a magical Parisian afternoon, they realize that they are still in love.

Here we are, nine years later, and Linklater, Hawke and Delpy return with "Before Midnight" [Sony]. This time they take us to the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece (and the cinematography is enough to make you want to travel there, now). They are vacationing with their eight-year-old twin daughters and the fifteen-year-old son he lost custody of when he left his wife, just after the events in the second installment.

"The course of true love never did run smooth," as Shakespeare used to say, and that pretty much applies to these idyllic lovers. The realities that intrude on the middle-aged couple in "Before Midnight" are harsh and threatening, but true-to-life; it seems like we've sat around the dinner table and heard these conversations before. Hawke and Delpy collaborated with Linklater on the screenplay, which might be why it all seems so human. Their characters are so charming and likable and real that they draw us right in. (Hawke, meanwhile, has moved on to Lincoln Center Theater's Macbeth, which starts previews Oct. 24 at the Vivian Beaumont.)

In the writing and the assortment of characters, "Before Midnight" is not unlike a mid-period Woody Allen film. But the accomplished Allen seems to work off the cuff, assembling intriguing groups of characters/actors and dashing off another entertainment every year even when he doesn't have much to say. Linklater and his characters — Jesse and Celine — have given us three installments over 18 years, and they have plenty to say. All talk (and no, or little, action) turns out to be perfectly fine when the talk is so enchanting and true. Look for Hawke and Delpy to return in 2021, with the son running a startup and the girls in college. "Before Medicare," maybe?

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)