Friday, October 15, 2010

I Married A Witch (Rene Clair, 1942)

This essay could easily be subtitled "How I Fell in Love with Veronica Lake".  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 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 go simply 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") 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 generation of the family responsible for her forced exile.  That future generation would be Frederic March, a popular politician.  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 just watched the film again the other night (airing on the indispensable TCM) and none of that magic I saw in my first viewing 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 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."  Perhaps it was this difficult-to-work-with image that cut Lake's career quite 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.  Okay, it was probably her supposed bitchiness, but let us contemplate that hair just for a bit.

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.  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.  I have still only ever seen two of her films (I know, how dare I call my self a cinephile!?) but her star still shines bright in my heart (no matter how cheesy that may sound!).  I Married A Witch holding a special place due to the lovely Miss Lake's performance of wild abandon - showcasing her talent for silly melodrama and screwball antics.  And doing all of this while staying so damned sexy - "curtain of blonde hair" or not. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You must watch the films she made with Alan Ladd...particulary This Gun fo Hire...her scenes doing her magic acts are mesmerizing! I am a huge huge fan...just finished reading her autobiography...complicated lady indeed she was...that book is also highly recommended. It is a shame that it is out of print (The Blue Dahlia is out of print as well).