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I Married a Witch: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

I Married a Witch (1942) movie poster I Married a Witch

Theatrical Release: October 30, 1942 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: René Clair / Writers: Robert Pirosh, Marc Connelly (screenplay); René Clair (screenplay - uncredited); Thorne Smith, Norman Matson (story)

Cast: Fredric March (Wallace Wooley, Jonathan Wooley, Nathaniel Wooley, Samuel Wooley), Veronica Lake (Jennifer), Robert Benchley (Dr. Dudley White), Susan Hayward (Estelle Masterson), Cecil Kellaway (Daniel), Elizabeth Patterson (Margaret), Robert Warwick (J.B. Masterson)

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Any film that remains familiar to the general public several decades after its release is deemed a classic. Obviously, the old dramas that are regularly recognized in all-encompassing retrospectives and Greatest Film Ever debates earn that status.
Comedies, animated films, and more fantastical genre pictures that endure also get that designation which is denied to most of their kind.

That gives us a very skewed perspective of early Hollywood. The films weren't all gems. It only seems like that because time tends to forget those that weren't. And there are an awful lot of forgotten old films. Thousands were released every decade and, of them, even well-versed film buffs aren't likely to intimately know more than a couple of hundred of them.

A movie like I Married a Witch reminds us that Hollywood's Golden Age wasn't comprised entirely of geniuses finding their voices, technical landmarks, stirring war dramas, and breathtaking epics. Just like today, there were minor films that simply aimed to entertain moviegoers for an hour and change. That is what this 1942 comedy sets out to do and 71 years later, it still does a decent job of achieving its modest goals.

Of course, the fact that I am talking about this film 71 years later and with regards to the Blu-ray and Region 1 DVD debuts recently extended to it by The Criterion Collection, maybe this trivial escapist romantic fantasy deserves to be called a classic. It just certainly doesn't feel like one.

The actions of luxuriously-haired pilgrim Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March) will have lasting consequences for he and his male descendants to come. Still in smoke trail form, father and daughter witch share a broom ride, an optical illusion that explains some of the shot's wear and tear.

I Married opens in the distant past "when people still believed in witches." Then, Puritan leader Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March) has a couple of colonists burned at the stake on charges of witchcraft. One of the condemned places a curse to make the accuser and all his descendants unhappy in love. The Puritan, meanwhile, has a tree planted over the witches' ashes to imprison their evil spirits.

The witches' curse, nonetheless, hangs over the Wooley men for centuries to come through the then-present day, which finds Wallace Wooley (also March) all set to get married and be elected governor on the same day. Per the hex, his fiancée Estelle (Susan Hayward) is an unbearable shrew, who also happens to be the daughter of Wallace's wealthy chief political backer. During a party celebrating both anticipated life changes, lightning strikes the tree, freeing the spirits of the two burned witches.

The passage of over two hundred years hasn't dulled Jennifer or her father's thirst for vengeance. When they emerge in smoke form, their first thought is to strike back at the man who had them killed. As a direct descendant, Wallace bears enough resemblance to father and daughter's mortal enemy for them to lock targets on him. Daniel secures an adorable human body for Jennifer (Veronica Lake, Sullivan's Travels) and she quickly gets to work, being rescued by the gubernatorial candidate in a major fire the witches have set at the Pilgrim Hotel.

Jennifer the witch (Veronica Lake) is stuck on politician Wallace Wooley (Frederic March) after he saves her from a burning hotel. Assuming a human form, Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) tries to help Jennifer (Veronica Lake) out of her romantic pickle.

Jennifer remains present in Wallace's affairs and often in his clothes (the only ones she has). Though that could be scandalous, Wallace's heroic act puts him further ahead in the polls. While Jennifer's vague vengeance plot involves breaking Wallace's heart, she winds up drinking the love spell she brewed for him.
but Daniel obtains a bodily form (Cecil Kellaway) in which he can more easily object to and interfere with his daughter's course of action.

I Married shows off what visual effects it can, moving brooms around with strings that are easy to spot in high definition and relying on obvious miniature sets. Some of its smaller illusions, like the hotel fire's mattes, a slide up a bannister and something as simple as the smoke in alcohol bottles that briefly represent the witches, manage to impress. But despite some fancy camerawork, this is not a film you watch to marvel at its techniques; it's one you instead find charming on the bases of its characters and scenarios. While those elements never elevate this to high art, they keep it breezily diverting for its brief runtime of just under 77 minutes.

This American comedy is not an obvious choice for Criterion treatment, which by definition is applied to "important classic and contemporary films." Such importance is usually found in historical weight or the imprint of a masterful filmmaker. That isn't to slight René Clair, a Frenchman with 30 writing and directing credits to his name on IMDb spanning from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s. Three of Clair's four "Known For" credits on that site are early '30s French musical comedies that were released to DVD by Criterion in the early part of last decade. I Married is the second of five American films that Clair made on exile from France during World War II.

Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film, released two weeks ago with spine number 676, are notable because they mark this film's first appearance on 5-inch disc in its native country. Each edition carries an SRP $10 below Criterion's standard price points, seemingly due to the discs' light supplemental loads (which on Blu-ray at least doesn't even require a dual-layered disc). Though this might seem like a new direction for Criterion, it's not, as next month the label moves to producing all of its new releases exclusively as Dual-Format Editions collecting all the DVDs and Blu-rays that would previously be released separately with Blu-ray packaging and pricing, a cost-cutting, quality-maintaining measure that the company announced in August.

As you might imagine, I Married a Witch was one of Sol Saks' two main inspirations for creating the popular, successful, and long-running ABC sitcom "Bewitched." The other was the Broadway play Bell, Book and Candle that was adapted into a 1958 film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

I Married a Witch: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
1.0 LPCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: October 8, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $29.95
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Clear Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($19.95 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray's presentation should shatter any illusions you may have of I Married a Witch being an A-list title for Criterion. The 1.33:1 picture is subject to quite a bit more wear and tear than most Criterion releases. The video is generally good considering the age, but certainly imperfect. It falls short of the studio's high standards, as lines and other intrusions appear with some regularity. Optical effects shots are, unsurprisingly, quite problematic. A look at the included trailer gives an indication of the tall challenges faced on this restoration. Still, while you can't fault the company for not doing more (no other studio even bothered to release this to DVD), you can be slightly disappointed that the film isn't in better shape.

The slight disappointments extend to the LPCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack, which can't hide the film's age. Still, the mix is plagued by nothing worse than mild distortion and faint hiss, neither prominent enough to deter your enjoyment of the film.

This image of René Clair fills in the smoke trails of the cover design for the entirety of the 20-minute radio interview with the director (and uncredited writer and producer). Fredric March takes top billing in "I Married a Witch" and this rough-looking trailer that promotes it.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Criterion also seems to hold back in the supplements department. The film is joined by a late 1950s audio interview (20:18) of director René Clair by Gideon Bachmann for his radio program "The Film Art."

With a heavy accent and a bit of arrogance, Clair discusses his body of work (giving I Married just brief passing mention), the industry's realities, and the need for cinematic experimentation.

The disc also thankfully includes the film's original theatrical trailer (1:32), an unsightly HD ad cluttered with vertical lines (making you further appreciate the transfer's relatively minor faults).

The briefly scored, always static menu screen simply reproduces the lower portion of the stylish cover art. The disc still benefits from Criterion's usual authorial effort, being equipped with bookmarks and flawlessly resuming playback of any portion.

The noteworthy final extra is found inside one of the company's standard clear keepcases: a booklet, which at 28 pages is sturdier than most. In between the routine cast and disc information, it holds two articles.

The 10-page "It's Such an Ancient Pitch" by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin drips with admiration for René Clair, whose filmography he reflects upon before coming around to celebrate I Married (which he labels a "near-musical"), discuss how it departs from its unfinished Thorne Smith source text, and muse upon the careers and clashing personalities of the cast. Silly but articulate, it's a fun and enlightening read.

Following that is "René Clair in Hollywood", R.C. Dale's revealing interview of the filmmaker for the winter 1970-71 issue of Film Quarterly. Clair discusses his American collaborators, the results of an I Married preview screening, his interest in special effects, and his disinterest in telling other people's stories.

Jennifer (Veronica Lake) bottles a freshly-brewed love portion she intends to use on her target in the 1942 comedy "I Married a Witch."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I Married a Witch is a lesser effort from Criterion and quite justifiably so, as it's not a particularly artful or significant film. Still, even a lesser Criterion effort exceeds what any other studio ever gave or would have given this somewhat forgotten, definitely fun 1940s comedy. The reduced list price makes this Blu-ray easy to recommend as one of the boutique label's high-third tier titles.

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Reviewed October 22, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1942 United Artists, Cinema Guild Productions, Caiden Film Company, and 2013 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.