i married a witch (1942)

After a series of visual masterworks in France in the 1930's, Rene Clair's second Hollywood effort turns up gold. It shares a lot of similarities with another gem from the same year, The Palm Beach Story, for the height of early 40's screwball comedy (Sturges, oddly enough, produced the picture only to later clash so bitterly with Clair that he asked his credit be removed). Though Clair's picture pales by comparison to Sturges', it becomes satisfying in its own way thanks to its absurdity and surrealism. The imagery that Clair invokes calls upon the best elements of the gothic horror of the 1930's with a lightness that keeps us planted in comedy. He's able to deftly conjure special effects like the clouds of smoke that Lake's and Kellaway's witches travel around as for the opening portions of the film.

The charm of the entire picture, and the glue that sticks it all together, is Lake's sexpot witch character that jumps off the pages of a pin-up magazine (and the film's cheesy production stills give a good idea of what that might look like) and runs a free reign of terror all over the movie. Like any comedy film employing the foil character of non-mortal allure, the eternally stuffy, scared and petty mortal characters are counter-balanced by her ability to bend the rules that govern their sorry existences to her will. What makes her different from the average manic, satanic dream girl is her position of power as the controller of all things in the film (occasionally, of course, superseded by her father in the moments when the character is sober). An amusing interplay of falling under spells takes place as March's characters falls under Lake's, Lake falls under her own and Kellaway falls under the influence of alcohol. That the screenplay is able to add the groupthink of political candidates' bases into this equation adds to its deft comedic touches and flurries. All the Earthly charms are on display as Clair is ale to take what worked best about his silent French films and weave in the originality of the Hollywood effects work. The flames of the fire seem to dance, the broomsticks, the brimstone, his visual sense is difficult to match. At a taut runtime there isn't much fat on the picture as it speeds toward a conclusion that manages to be heartwarming beyond all of the screwball antics. There's a light sense in the whole film that sidesteps any notion that its effervescent charms are going to wear thin, just as the picture seems to lose speed, Clair invents his way out of any corner by allowing imagination to take over where story sense demands he turn right. It's for this simple reason that the picture never lets up and we're treated to endless new developments. Something that succeeds on style and cleverness alone, I Married a Witch refuses to become simple sitcom fodder. It plays, at all times, more like a campfire tale of revenge that gives way to the intoxicating effects of falling head over heels for someone, even if it's spurred on by a magic potion. Rene Clair would not go on to many heights after the picture, but the perfect storm of classic Hollywood filmmaking that assembles here takes it up a notch.

The peak of many careers occurred around this time and I Married a Witch is a perfect reminder of the fantastical and imaginative fantasies that Hollywood once wove so well. Much like The Devil and Daniel Webster, released one year earlier, it tells the tale of mortal man plagued by supernatural forces in a way that is somehow life affirming. Add to that Clair's way of floating us through with a steady hand on the camera and the film is a textbook on light, airy cinema that need not take itself too seriously to have an impact on its audience.