After roles in classics like Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun For Hire, Veronica Lake closed out her first and best year as a leading actress with René Clair’s supernatural screwball comedy I Married a Witch. The French director debuted in Hollywood a year earlier at Universal with the poorly received The Flame of New Orleans, but moving to Paramount returned Clair to his comfort zone, allowing him to craft one of the funniest and most inventive films of the year.
Lake plays a witch burned along with her father (Cecil Kellaway) during the Salem trials–but not before she places a curse on her accuser and all of his descendants, condemning them to always marry the wrong women. When her spirit awakens some 200 years later she finds the curse still active on Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), and decides to torture him further by seducing him into falling in love with her. Unlike her more reserved performances in her previous films, here Lake is completely alive, injecting every line of dialogue she has with a wink and a wry smile. Her character has a ball tormenting the poor politician, and Lake shows it, likely in part due to her feud with March. Prior to the film the actor had called Lake “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” In response, Lake called him a “pompous poseur,” and the two continued to fight throughout shooting. On set she would pull pranks on he co-star which, in her defense, was completely in character–though it may have contributed to the generally underwhelming performance from March.1
Clair impresses just as much as Lake, delivering a swiftly paced comedy that snuck a surprising amount of lewd jokes past the censors. At Paramount he was surrounded by helpful collaborators–including Preston Sturges, an uncredited producer–and crafted the story from Thorne Smith’s novel The Passionate Witch along with several writers including Robert Pirosh, Marc Connelly, André Rigaud, and Dalton Trumbo. But perhaps his most valuable colleague was Oscar-winning special effects expert Gordon Jennings, who helped Clair realize elaborate sequences such as one with a flying taxi cab, as well as smaller gags with flying brooms or anthropomorphic smoke throughout the film. I Married a Witch remains high point for Lake and Clair, a height that neither would reach for the rest of their respective careers in Hollywood.
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|1.||^||Jeff Stafford, “I Married a Witch”, Turner Classic Movies, accessed July 20, 2017.|