Friday, April 10, 2015

Classic Cinema Corner: Rene Clair's I Married A Witch, or: How Veronica Lake Made Witchraft Look Both Cool and Hot

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/
Hello gang, and welcome to I-Day in the ole Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. By now, all my regulars probably know what the ole A to Z thang is, but in case you do not, just click on the big I to the right of these words, and it will explain all. For all the newcomers to my blog, those coming here via the aforementioned A to Z thang, welcome aboard. Hope ya'll can stick around for a bit. Today, we are taking a look at another classic work of cinema. A film that is not all that well known these days, but is still quite a wonderful little picture. Read all about it here...

This essay could easily be subtitled "How I Fell in Love with Veronica Lake". Seriously. Yeah, the lady died back in '73, when I was but a mere wee lad, and she would be in her nineties if she were alive today, but back in the day - ooh la la. How can one not be mesmerized, fall in love even, when watching Veronica Lake up on the screen? One cannot help, nor can they be blamed, for falling head over heels for this beautifully entertaining actress-cum-pin-up girl. Even Curtis Hanson made use of this image when casting Kim Basinger in the Veronica Lake-esque role in L.A. Confidential. David Thompson, in his cinema-loving opus, "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," describes Miss Lake as "Petite, silky, and lurking behind the half curtain of her own blonde hair". How could one not simply go all gaga?

Actually my first encounter with the lovely Miss Lake (and her "curtain of blonde hair") was in the Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels, where the petite actress (she was just 4' 11½", a full inch shorter than my lovely wife - yeah, I like 'em little) joins Joel McCrea's dissatisfied movie director on his travels across the country posing as a pair of hobos. Incidentally (and quite ironically considering the mythic quality of that aforementioned "curtain of blonde hair") I fell in love with Miss Lake when she was dressed in the film's tomboy incognito look.

It was a few years later that I first encountered the film I Married A Witch, directed by French expat Rene Clair. The film (not available on DVD, which is a shame that needs to be rectified sometime soon) is the story of a 200+ year old witch who has come out of cursed entrapment to seek revenge on the future generations of the family responsible for her forced exile. One member of that future generation would be a popular politician, played with vim and vigor by Frederic March. Our intrepid and rather angry witch, heads off to destroy March's political aspirations, but then one messed-up love spell later, and... Well, there is no need to wonder about the conclusion of the film, it should be obvious from the title, but inevitable outcome or not, the movie plays out with a giddy fascination for Lake, that makes one wonder if Rene Clair did not fall head over heels as well.

I recently watched the film again the (airing on the indispensable TCM) and none of that magic I saw in my first few viewings had gone away. A tantalizing film indeed. Lake's performance as the titular bride-to-be is like watching a force of nature (no matter how tall) do its thing. Sweeping around (on broom and as if on air) from one corner of the movie to the other, first seeking revenge then accidentally getting hit by her own love spell, Lake is like a manic beauty throughout. First appearing in March's life, naked and in need of rescue in a burning building (as least March believes she is in need of rescue - he soon finds out he and his political career are the ones in need of rescue) Lake will go from smokey mystery girl to love struck goddess before our very eyes.

The cinematic basis for the sit-com Bewitched (Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery held many of the same physical features as Lake did - she was my first celebrity crush when I was about eleven or twelve and watching her on syndicated childhood afternoons) Clair's film, at 77 minutes, is a quick and quite compact film (much like Lake herself) but packs a punch (again, just like Lake) that combines classic fairy tale with screwball comedy. March and Lake play off each other very well, but perhaps that is just a cinematic fallacy. Lake, as lovely and as demure (albeit wildly so) as she seemed on screen, the actress had a reputation off screen for being rather...well...one time co-star Eddie Bracken said of her "She was known as 'The Bitch' and she deserved the title."

Sullivan's Travels leading man actually turned the male lead down in I Married A Witch, saying "Life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake." Yeah, the lady had quite the reputation in her day. Perhaps it was this difficult-to-work-with image that cut Lake's career short. Perhaps though, it was her hair. That "curtain of blonde hair" that made her a star of screen and pin-up posters. Perhaps, akin to Samson, the power to mesmerize was all in Veronica Lake's hair. Much like the WWII GI's fascination over Lake's other attributes (though I am sure her hair was amongst those attributes) that made her one of the most popular pin-up girls of the war, her hair fascinated all those girls left home alone. Like a sweeping one-eyed beauty, Lake's hair had become the number one fashion for those girls working in the factories during the war. So much so that the War Department had actually asked the studio (Paramount) to make Lake wear her hair back for her next role (a nurse in the war). They did and she did and it was about this time Lake's quickly risen star had begun its just as quick decline from the heavens.

I am sure this was all coincidence, but the decline was real. Marriage troubles and domestic tragedies, scathing reviews for many of her post-war films and a discontentment at the studio and a drinking problem led to her eventual departure from Paramount and later departure from acting. After a marriage to eye-patch wearing director Andre de Toth (and two children), Lake made her final film in 1951 (Stronghold) and fell into obscurity, and dying in 1973, relatively forgotten. No matter the cause (the hair, the drinking, the dissatisfaction) Lake's career was cut way way way too short. But her star still shines bright in my heart (no matter how cheesy that may sound!), and I Married A Witch still holds a special place due to the lovely Miss Lake's performance of wild abandon - showcasing her talent for silly melodrama and screwball antics, all the while with that sexy curtain of blonde hair. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web. 


1 comment:

  1. I love this movie and it has been years since I saw it. We used to have "Saturday Night At The Movies" with Elwy Yost and he showcased this movie and after there were his great conversations. I always thought this is where "Bewitched" was conceived. Great homage to a star no one knows today...and should despite her bitchiness

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