"BACK TO THE TREE!"
The newly-released Criterion dvd of the classic 1942 spooky romantic comedy "I MARRIED A WITCH" brings back some fond memories. We'll get to that in a moment. No doubt you're at least somewhat familiar with the Rene Clair frothy fairy tale starring Veronica Lake, Fredric March, a mischievous Cecil Kellaway, a young Susan Hayward and an avuncular Robert Benchley. "I MARRIED A WITCH", along with the later fifties gem "BELL, BOOK & CANDLE" are well-known "inspirations" for the TV series "BEWITCHED", of which I'm sure you're well-aware. The film is indeed a "comic confection" which is quite sweet owing to the sparkling performance of Lake (with the peekaboo hairdo which became all the rage) paired with the deliberately stodgy performance of March which produces quite a bit of sultry romantic heat. All this despite the fact that the two actors apparently loathed each other! This is what gives the film it's strong sexual tension. Veronica Lake's single object is to seduce Fredric March who constantly resists her advances. All this packaged into a gentle, sweetly-realized film done in such a style which I frankly think is impossible for anyone to pull off in the modern, cynical, overly-ironic era. The film manages to do this without being the least bit saccharine; in fact, it's quite cold-blooded in some of it's comedy situations i.e. the burning alive of witches is tossed off by the victims as a mere trifle.
March's pilgrim ancestor Wooley successfully accuses Lake and her father Kellaway of witchcraft and watches them burned at the stake (in the erroneous stereotyped fashion which never actually occurred in America, it must be said). An oak tree is planted over there ashes to imprison their satanic spirits for all eternity. However, Lake curses Wooley and all his descendants to always marry the wrong woman and to be unhappy in love. Flash forward to the early 1940's where modern-day gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (March, natch) is giving a pre-election party in his mansion; Wooley is also getting married to the overbearing Estelle (Susan Hayward) the following day. A lightning bolt strikes the tree and releases the smoky spirts of Lake and Kellaway who float over to Wooley's mansion to cause more mayhem.
Kellaway spirits his smoke-form into a rum bottle and drunkenly agrees to give Lake a new body; which can only be created through fire (as it had been destroyed). He burns down the conveniently-named Pilgrim Hotel and Wooley runs in to save a woman from the fire who turns out to be Veronica Lake. Lake weaves her romantic wiles on Wooley all night long in some rather sexier, comic scenes which were quite stronger than one expects for the time period of early 1940s Hollywood. She connives to create a love philter to cause the resistant March to fall in love with her but, after getting conked on the noggin by a falling portrait, ends up drinking the potion herself and falling madly in love with HIM! Patented Hollywood screwball romantic comedy! The angered Kellaway spends the rest of the film trying to break this up and punish his daughter; he first takes away Lake's magic powers and then tells her that at midnight she will go "back to the tree" to be imprisoned until the present race of men is extinguished. How this all turns out you'll have to watch for yourself.
But now I'd like to return to that earlier statement about the film conjuring up fond memories for me. For years I used to go over to the house of my friend Peg (who died in 2009 at the age of 76) every Monday where she'd cook her famous Italian dishes and we'd often watch movies. I used to bring over a stack of videotapes (this was in the 90's before DVDs, all know-nothing tots reading this), inside a huge Barnes & Noble paper shopping bag with handles they used to use in those days. We'd pick a movie to watch and have a fun afternoon. She would often bring up films she had seen years and years ago and, of course, I usually owned them and would bring them for her to watch. She didn't really use her living room but instead had her TV downstairs in a sort of TV room/den/second living room which had a fire place and two long couches set in a L-shape - this was where we always watched movies. In fact, usually after lunch when it was time to go watch a movie, she'd refer to going back to her seat downstairs as going "back to the tree"! One of many of her old favourite movies was of course "I MARRIED A WITCH" so she'd laugh and yell "BACK TO THE TREE" every time she'd be on her way to her TV-watching spot. I brought "I MARRIED A WITCH" over several times during the years before her death when she'd say, "Hey, why don't you bring that next week". So watching the new Criterion dvd of the film gave me a nice, warm, nostalgic feeling since I haven't seen it since the last time I watched it with her. Peg was like a second mother to me as well as a dear friend and I only wish she was still around to watch it with me. However, it's one of many films which I can fondly remember watching with her and, each time I see them again, I can reminisce for a little while about those wonderful Monday visits.
So, now for me it's "BACK TO THE TREE!!!" - as I re-watch "I MARRIED A WITCH".