Sometimes a fluffy romantic comedy isn’t just a fluffy romantic comedy. René Clair’s I Married a Witch (Criterion Collection)is a beautiful confection, shimmering with trick photography, Veronica Lake’s golden tresses, and the now lighthearted, now tormented words of love. The movie works as a clever comedy of love denied and finally returned. But this superficial entertainment has a dark, even subversive undercurrent, and not coincidentally, a recurring theme of burning destruction.
The movie begins in the 17th century. A woman is burned at the stake for witchcraft, and puts a curse on the family that condemned her. The male descendants of the Wooley family are doomed to be unhappy in love, while the witches’ spirits are trapped in an old tree on the Wooley estate. The curse continues to the present day, which in the context of the film is 1942. A lightning bolt severs a tree branch that releases a pair of smoky wisps that travel the countryside in search of a centuries’ old revenge.
I Married a Witch is full of such inventive visuals as the pair of walking, talking smoke trails. Director René Clair came to Hollywood from the French avant-garde, which seems an unlikely pairing. But somehow, despite the shackles of a studio system where producers had final creative control, Clair brought an unmistakable personal touch to his adaptation of a novel titled The Passionate Witch. In the source material, the witch used sex, not spells, to get her way. But even in Hays code Hollywood, Clair, thanks in great part to kittenish lead Veronica Lake, got away with a film that’s sexy despite the plot change and censor’s watchful eyes.
If smoke and flame represent the sexuality the camera couldn’t show, the film is less subtle about politics. Clair’s view of the American system is clear and perhaps prescient. The present-day Wooley (Frederic March) is running for governor, and is engaged to his campaign backer’s daughter (Susan Hayward). I don’t want to spoil a plot twist, but even if you can see it coming, the director pulls of a bitter satire of the political system in the guise of a Hollywood bauble.
Criterion’s DVD edition of the film is short on extras, with just an audio interview with the director and trailers. But the package is worth picking up for the artwork and a brilliant essay by filmmaker Guy Maddin, who revels in the varied histories of the film’s cast and crew.