I MARRIED A WITCH – Blu-ray review

Here’s hoping Hollywood never gets around to remaking “I Married A Witch” (1942). The rumored Tom Cruise project(with Danny DeVito directing) from ten years ago might merely have been a disposable nuisance; today it would be marketed as a CGI frenzy with an attitude, a darker vision for darker times. And by “darker” I mean “dumber,” cf. every re-booted “property” of the past decade.

Surely this take on modern love is dark enough as it is. The film opens with the execution of two of its main characters, after all. It’s late 17th century in the New England town of Roxford and thanks to a denunciation by the upstanding Puritan leader Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), a local witch named Jennifer and her father Daniel are scheduled for a well done stake after which their spirits will be trapped forever in a tree planted in the ashes. All the locals have gathered for an afternoon’s entertainment that includes an intermission and vendors hawking freshly popped maize. That’s pretty dark when you realize it’s probably not far from the reality.

Wooley expresses his misgivings, not ever the righteousness of his actions, but because the witch cast a curse that would condemn all future Wooleys to be unhappy in love. It’s the kind of curse that works because it’s just a matter of playing the odds, like when stock market gurus predict volatility.

Fast forward to the 1940s and Wallace Wooley (Fredric March, now sans pilgrim’s hat) is about to be married, and cagy viewers able to remember a few minutes back can predict it won’t go smoothly. Wallace is also all but certain to win the gubernatorial election in a couple days, but… well, you probably know. A strategic lightning bolt sets loose the spirits of Jennifer and Daniel, initially manifesting as very talkative puffs of smoke who scope out their new digs while plotting revenge because they’re movie witches and that’s what movie witches do.

Eventually Jennifer sweet talks daddy into giving her a body, and boy does pops ever deliver when she finds herself in a petite blonde package that looks exactly like Veronica Lake. Jennifer contrives an arsonous meet-cute with Wallace that sets the tension for the rest of the film. Poor Wally is presented with two grim options: an 800 year old force of evil who wants to cause him unending suffering, or the twenty-something version of the same thing in the form of his controlling socialite fiancee (Susan Hayward, in a thankless role). Witchy Scylla or bitchy Charybdis? No man has the mad navigation skills needed to plot a safe course between them. With Veronica Lake as the most infernally adorable sociopath of all-time, who would want to?

Fresh off star-making turns in “I Wanted Wings” and “Sullivan’s Travels,” Lake was in the middle of her short-lived peek-a-boo prime. Though co-stars (including Fredric March on this production) were already complaining about working with her, the great collapse was still a few years away and she was America’s newest sweetheart for very obvious reasons. Almost impossibly slim, she had a commanding presence that seemed incongruous with her China doll design, making her the perfect choice for a character who is so innocently evil. Jennifer really doesn’t mean any harm when she set out to crush a man’s spirit any more than a sweet little kitty-cat bears ill will to the hapless mouse it rips to shreds and then toys with all night.

The film is based on a novel begun by Thorne Smith and later completed by Norman Matson after Smith’s death, a suitably ominous start for this eldritch tale. French director Rene Clair had flopped commercially with his first Hollywood venture “The Flame of New Orleans” (1941), but he had already proven his deft fantastical touch with films such as“Paris qui dort” (1925, AKA “The Crazy Ray”) and was a sensible choice for this project. Clair was fascinated by cutting-edge special effects and integrated them seamlessly into his story: talking smoke plumes, sudden gusts of wind, lightning strikes, and Lake’s goofy, mischievous grin, the most special effect of all.

The movie’s practical magic still looks perfectly groovy, and doesn’t need any kind of digital re-imagining. And even if Veronica Lake’s career did not fulfill its early promise, there’s absolutely no way to improve on her impish performance here. If a remake ever hits theaters, just stay home and reach for this Blu-ray instead.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics film scanner from the original nitrate 35 mm negative and a nitrate 35 mm composite fine-grain master.” Nitrate is both luminous and volatile, and the source print used here shows some evidence of inevitable chemical decay. Blotchiness is more apparent in certain scenes (like when the two witches, as puffs of smoke, ride a broom across the town) and there are shots that show fading/warping along the edges of the frame.

But while this 1080p transfer can’t fight chemistry, it does exhibit a strong sense of detail and rich contrast in the black-and-white photography. I also don’t want to overstate the case; the signs of decay are fairly modest and never threaten the integrity of any shot or scene. This is a very fine transfer, but because of the source can’t match up to the near-perfection of Criterion’s best high-def products.

The linear PCM Mono track is solid if unavoidably flat throughout. It’s a tiny bit warbly in a few spots, but nothing significant and all dialogue is clearly mixed. Optional English subtitles are provided.

Aside from a Trailer (92 seconds), all we get is an audio recording (20 min.) with director Rene Clair. It is only identified as being from the late ’50s and was broadcast on host Gideon Bachmann’s radio program “The Film Art.” Bachmann is a very serious interviewer who does not do puffy publicity pieces. He grills Clair on his feelings about experimental cinema and the (im)possibility of individual artistic expression in commercial cinema. I wish we still had programs like this.

The 28-page insert booklet features a lengthy and effusive appreciation by director Guy Maddin who clearly has strong personal feelings about the film, its creators, and its cast.

Film Value:
“I Married A Witch”may feel like a gossamer wisp of whimsy, especially since it whisks across the finish line in under eighty minutes, but its deft balance of humor, a touch of magical menace, and more than a little sauciness keeps it both lively and entertaining. The disc is short on features, but as far as I know this is its first North American release on DVD or Blu-ray. Fans who have had to rely on their old VHS copy or who haven’t been able to secure one at all will be thrilled.