Veronica Lake @ 100: “I married a witch” – Blog

by Claudio Alves

“I married a witch” | © United Artists

Silky blonde tresses fall over one eye, a face masked in spun gold accented with spider lashes and a splash of scarlet lipstick. Struggling to promote Veronica Lake’s early films as a movie star in her own right, that’s the image distributors found, scrubbing her commercial value into a flat facsimile of her beauty. Whether it’s Paramount’s poster for Sullivan’s Travels or main art for United Artist’s I married a witch, it seemed Lake was hair first, actress second. Legend has it that once, while filming 1941’s I wanted wings, the young woman struggled with a lock of hair falling over her right eye. For the budding starlet, it was an irritation. For studio executives who coveted the teenager, it was the look of a big-screen goddess, the magic of instant cinema. The rest, as they say, is history…

Although her popularity was cemented with this aviation-themed film, neither Paramount nor Lake herself were sure an acting career was viable or, at least, a good long-term investment. The starlet once known as Constance Keane always wanted to be a surgeon, even though those dreams would never come true. Its cinematic legacy, however, lives on and it’s easy to see why. The camera loved Veronica Lake, who always made a striking image, her petite figure almost as attractive as those golden locks. But, unfortunately, like many actresses whose beauty becomes their calling card, Lake was not respected as a performer.

The above Sullivan’s Travels marked the moment when filmmakers and audiences began to see her as a real actress. Part of that impression comes from the way director Preston Sturges stylized his nameless character, fitting a hobo costume to hide the actress’ pregnancy. Dressed in a baggy, masculine outfit, her hair hidden behind a hat to make her look like a wandering boy, Veronica Lake was seemingly stripped of her most essential facets as Hollywood merchandise. Yet even under such conditions, she proved her worth with sharp comedic skills, an innate ability to negotiate opposing ideas of naivety and street smarts, youthfulness and wisdom.

Paramount’s subsequent projects would stray from those fun films, positioning Lake as a black heroine who looked like a femme fatale while hiding a heart of gold. Yet her former director remembered how she dazzled him as an actress, despite the new blackish image and unprofessional reputation. So when did it come time to play the female lead in the Sturges-produced film? I married a witch, Veronica Lake quickly emerged as the perfect fit for the wizarding part. Indeed, at the start of pre-production, the fantasy madness was envisioned as a reunion between the actress and Joel McCrea, her costar in Sullivan’s Travels.

However, this comedian was less in love with Lake than Sturges. He is quoted as saying “life is too short for two movies starring Veronica Lake” as the reason for his withdrawal from the project. If possible, however, the actor chosen to replace McCrea hated his leading lady even more. In retrospect, Fredric March would call the comedy I Married a female dog, scorning the colleague he considered talentless, overwhelmed by childish antics and a propensity for pranks. The dislike was mutual. For her part, she called him a pompous poser and would later state, in a ghost-written memoir, that March’s animosity stemmed from her rejecting his sexual advances.

So it’s fair to say that shoot I married a witch was hell for everyone involved, going beyond star rivals. Sturges dropped the project due to creative differences with French director René Clair while screenwriter Dalton Trumbo quit because he couldn’t see eye-to-eye with Sturges in the first place. It is also a question of collision between aesthetics and schools of thought on cinema, acting, art in general. European flair dances a dangerous waltz with Hollywood glitter, movie star instincts at odds with classic technique. One can feel the tension of Gallic romanticism warping the slapstick, fantastical elements forcing complicated effects in an absurd love story.

Read on I married a witchThe behind-the-scenes drama of brings images of unbridled pandemonium and celluloid dysfunction, dripping with the tortured sweat of its wretched creators. I’m happy to report that the finished product is nothing like it. Indeed, I count this 1942 classic among my favorite rom-coms, a central part of its appeal being Lake and March’s chemistry. Everything that happened off-screen is kept out of the view of the camera, though the sting of antagonism still strikes. Only he is transformed, adapted by circumstances into the dynamic of an evil witch and the mortal man she strives to conquer.

Directed with slinky elegance by Clair, the film is about a convoluted lark, clocked in at a brisk 77 minutes. It’s crazy how much plot is crammed into it, starting with a century-long prologue that details how, in 17th-century Salem, the Puritans condemned two witches to be burned at the stake. The unlucky couple consists of Jennifer and her doting dad, Daniel, their magical liaisons discovered after Jonathan Wooley exposed them. His actions would trigger a grudge destined to live beyond the bounds of death. He is cursed by those his testimony has doomed, the Wooley line doomed to despair in unhappy marriages forever.

All this is observed by the spirits of the witches, trapped inside the tree under whose roots their ashes were buried. After centuries of expressing themselves only through fluttering branches and incorporeal laughter, their immortal souls are finally set free when, in 1942, lightning strikes, splitting the arboreal prison. Two clouds of talking smoke rise from broken branches, drawn by the modern lights of a nearby party. And so on, floating among revelers, hiding in wine bottles and the like. One thing is certain, Jennifer and Daniel are eager to get into some mischief. Oh, but who are they spotting?

It’s Wallace Wooley, of course. He is the youngest descendant of Jonathan and the man who is currently engaged to the beautiful Estelle Masterson while also running for governor. With his wedding and election approaching, he proves to be the perfect target for Jennifer’s bad manners. The witch intends to torment him out of love, to make the bastard fall in love with her. Magically lifting a body from the fire, the smoke becomes a beautiful woman, and Wallace’s fate is turned upside down. Not that Jennifer’s schemes work, mind you. Following a stupid accident, she ends up drinking the love potion intended for Wooley’s descendant, falling hopelessly in love with a man her father wants to see fried in the electric chair. Chaos ensues.

Believe it or not, this only covers I married a witch‘s first half, because there’s still a wedding to sabotage and an election to rob, murder and resurrect galore. It’s amazing, a riot of laughter from start to finish, endlessly frothy as both heightened farce and performance showcase. March has never been so funny, articulating Wallace’s mounting confusion through deadpan, playing shattered nerves bleeding in giddy passion. Cecil Kellaway kills him as Daniel, whether he’s trying to get himself killed or raving like a madman behind bars. Susan Hayward is also charming, a remarkable comedic asset in an early supporting role as Wallace’s unlucky fiancée.

But of course, we’re here to celebrate Veronica Lake, who Hollywood kept trying to force into dramatic roles when silliness was her forte. In I married a witch, she is a revelation, balancing the otherworldly and the mundane, thereby breathing life into an immortal impossibility with divine powers and the disposition of a trickster pixie. Lake embodies the film’s playful nature, counterbalancing March’s deliberate stiffness with effortless grace. Delivering one-liners like a pro, she extracts every ounce of charm from text that could easily descend into misogyny, making the film the unlikely triumph we find before us today. Without his good humor, the story collapses, sweetness sours in cruelty, foam turns into lead. In other words, in this tale of sorcery and sorcery, mad love and adorable madness, star power is the greatest magic of all.

I married a witch airs on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel. Indeed, the latter has a whole collection of Veronica Lake films to celebrate its centenary.

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