Sorting through the career trajectories of those who worked on I Married a Witch (1942) makes me feel like an air traffic controller amid a strange confusion of spirits—phantoms arriving from far-flung corners of time’s oblivion to work together on one bedazzling movie. I behold sturdy domestic immortals in their unshakable orbits, some fascinating-but-rickety life forces flapping about without much altitude, a squadron of sad souls utterly lost in the fog. Highest above flies the most refulgent aerial enchantress who ever took to the empyrean, and pilot of an uncanny career crash that haunts me frightfully every time I watch her perform. And streaking in with a curlicue contrail of signature flourishes behind him, an ultramodern esprit de l’humeur from France.
When director René Clair started to make movies, it didn’t take him any time at all to get airborne. He became a filmmaking force in 1924, when, at the age of twenty-six, he finished his first picture, Paris qui dort, a special-effects fantasy about a mad scientist who invents a device that freezes Paris in time, leaving the city’s populace locked in odd and humiliating positions while those not affected by his “crazy ray” are free to loot. All of Clair is already in this first picture—the fantastic premise, the leftist lampooning of the classes, the light romantic bounce in his touch, the love of simple photographic tricks used in smart and startling ways.
That same year, Clair was invited by painter and poet Francis Picabia and composer Erik Satie to supply projections for the overture and intermission of their Dadaist ballet Relâche, a mischievous title that roughly translates as “Performance Canceled.” The resultant commission, Entr’acte, is an orgy of trick photography and playful camera positions that makes the viewer experience the world in new ways—an up-tutu shot of a dancer in slow motion resembles the blooming and closing of a flower, over and over; a cannon fired directly at the audience by Picabia and Satie fills the frame with an image of a glans-like projectile slowly sliding out from the wide-caliber foreskin of a long, dark barrel bore. The movie’s shots run in reverse, in double exposure, and with joyous non sequiturs abounding—all this and cameos by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp!
The astonishing accomplishments of this debutant year established Clair as a leading member of the Parisian avant-garde and a director of limitless promise, known for staying one step ahead of expectations. In 1928, for instance, with silent film just reaching its acme of expression, Clair pulled a bravura aerobatic stall turn by repurposing to stylistically triumphant effect the antiquated editing rhythms and wide, stationary frames of prewar cinema in his The Italian Straw Hat.
When sound came to French film in 1930, the young genius leapt at the talkies, determined to soar above the horde of earthbound filmmakers who would likely use audio to redundant effect: see a door slam, hear a door slam. Clair invented his own approach to dialogue, music, and effects—a kind of select-o-sound in which only those elements that contribute to story, character, or atmosphere are heard. And dialogue need not always be among them. A noise must lead on or surprise the eye; a sight must do the same for the ear. No microphones concealed in vases before a bolted-down tripod for Clair. His films insisted on transforming, without warning, spoken dialogue into half-sung lyrics, then into full-throated song, then swiftly back into mimed silence—a poetic world in which one’s heart can always be heard but the quotidian sight of a slammed door or heavy footfall may be allowed the dignity of muteness.
Clair’s first three outings with both camera and microphone—Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le million (1931), and À nous la liberté (1931)—were brazenly confident masterpieces packed with visual and aural innovation. Watching them, one grows convinced that all movies, especially nonmusicals, should be fabricated with lyric logic out of the wishful dream materials of verse. I love especially the way euphonious rhythm sometimes sneaks into Clair’s proceedings, and then back out again, before ever fully announcing itself as song. These movies dive into the territory of a genre that can best be described as the near-musical. His invention of this singular cine-vocabulary—and creation of these three unprecedented hybrid masterpieces, all in the first full year and a bit of French talking film, and all before his thirty-third year—marks Clair as a miracle of the Vigo variety! The closest Hollywood ever came to duplicating his recipe was when Lewis Milestone directed Hallelujah, I’m a Bum in 1933, a full two years after Clair completed his hat trick.
When Clair’s fifth talkie, The Last Billionaire (1934), failed commercially, the director traveled to the UK to work with Alexander Korda’s London Films, creating there another beautiful fantasy, The Ghost Goes West (1935). But after a falling-out with Korda, Clair was back in France in 1939, shooting Air pur, a celebration of childhood. He had to abort that film when the war started (oh, how I wish I could see what enchantments he would have made of that material!), and off to America he went! Allllmost within the compass of my little control tower, almost within buzzing distance of those less lucky, wayward shades and their sad altitudes. Soon, René, soon you’ll cross flight paths with these wraithy old comrades of mine.
Clair landed bumpily on his first Hollywood sortie, with the Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Flame of New Orleans (1941), heavily weighed down by the grim cargo of leading men Bruce Cabot and Roland Young. The failure of his American debut suddenly plummeted Clair below radar level, and his future in film was in jeopardy when his agent sent him a strange little book, The Passionate Witch. Clair took it to Preston Sturges, who took it to Paramount, and a second chance was granted the underappreciated master. It is 1942, and multifarious fantômes are suddenly coming together into their preordained positions in the supernal airspace, so that the film I Married a Witch may be whipped up from what seems to me a mere welter of ether!
Let us now study I Married a Witch’s swarm of circling selves for the sake of quick uncanny inventory. Here is Thorne Smith, the author of the best-selling Topper novels, which featured much supernatural sex and drinking, and The Passionate Witch, the book upon which our movie is based and that the hard-drinking author failed to complete before suddenly dying. (The work was finished by a colleague.) And so was sent upward our first sad soul.
The premise of Smith’s novel, a sexy fantasy as uninhibited in its suspension of disbelief as any musical, and one that would require charming special effects to boot, was inspiring source material for Clair. But the director found its execution too dark for his taste. The book version of the title character, Jennifer the witch, uses sex, not production-code magic spells, to lure the staid protagonist, Wallace Wooley, away from his fiancée and enslave him in miserable intercourse-addled marriage; she sneaks from the nuptial bed at night to ride a goat and slits the throat of a rooster in the bathroom. And things turn even more ghastly from there. Maybe Fritz Lang could’ve given this a shot?
Clair changes the story to make Jennifer more likable—thoroughly delicious, in fact! She is still bent on revenge against Wally, but only because she recognizes him as a descendant of the Wooley who had her burned at the stake centuries before. By laying his incandescent touch upon this dark story, Clair makes his movie less cynical, more about the giddy disinhibition of love than the nightmare of a marriage gone wrong. The story in his hands has broad fantastic conceits—the immortality of witches, spirits that fly; and deciduous and decidedly horny transubstantiation—and quickly creates a shimmering preternatural world with understandable rules, in which romance can flourish with that intoxicating logic of music. When the incorporeal Jennifer and her father first appear in the film as wisps of talking smoke, we are asked to believe in, and want to believe in, the existence of a love free-floating through the world in search of its yearned-for object.
The movie is gorgeously designed by art-directing legends Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté, shot with silvery studio sumptuousness by Ted Tetzlaff, and scored by Roy Webb, who received an Academy Award nomination for understanding when to melodize this near-musical and when to stand back and let the director supply the lyricism sans notes. I’ve always believed that the way music and image work together in film can never be completely understood, that the relationship will ever be deeply mysterious, occult—but with Clair we have the deepening, doubly occult problem of attempting to comprehend how not-music and image work together! Witchcraft! There’s deviltry in the air above the conjuring soundstage.
And smoke. And mirrors. Literally. In a moment shot in hazy, dreamy vapors, our star apparitions Fredric March and Veronica Lake meet in a fire (so much fire imagery in this movie—the fire of love merged with the flames of hate . . . It’s a thin line, as the saying goes), she as naked as Eve and he, the coughing, blinded Adam, stumbling through the fumes, saving this trickster in distress. “Why do you look away? Am I not pretty?” she asks. His answer, “Who cares!” before picking her up and carrying her into his room, where she finally gets a gander at her own visage. “Oh . . . not bad,” she admires. “I’m a blonde. Would you rather I be a brunette?” (Oh, Veronica. Do you have to ask?) March is more bewitched, bothered, and bewildered than Frank crashing headfirst into Ava. With the clanging fire engines, screaming guests, hotel floors collapsing around them, and giggling cool of this gorgeous blonde, the scene embodies what happens when you fall hot and heavy in love. Clair burns this into the celluloid as if he’s right there with Fredric—and the rest of our spooked cast . . .
Even if one looks closely in the credits for I Married a Witch, one finds no mention of twenties leading man Monte Blue (White Shadows in the South Seas, Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle), but he works anonymously as a doorman in this haunted picture. Keystone Kops superstar and Chaplin alumnus Chester Conklin pours drinks uncredited in a country club scene, one of over eighty such ghostly appearances made in pictures by the man as his life played out its long final stretch. Franklyn Farnum, a leading man of Hollywood oaters made in the teens, is an extra in the same scene; he worked in hundreds of movies over three decades without costing his employers a single millimeter of credit roll—a purgatory perhaps unmatched in Hollywood history. Maybe he is working still in the photoplays, lining up semitransparently every morning at Gower Gulch for his daily back-lot assignment, invisible to swiftly passing modern-day Angelenos.
At the top of the credits wings the well-famed March, the only actor to win two Academy Awards (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives) and two Tonys. His career was spectacular and long; he produced an uninterrupted stream of comedic, fantastic, and tragic characters over forty years, and he was at the peak of his wits for this collaboration with Clair, in which he must play stuffy and straight and still make his character sexy—a tough feat the wily veteran pulls off handily. Yet at this remove, he feels forgotten by film history—or if not exactly forgotten, for we know and love many of his films, then unknown as a person. Once a first among equals, his persona has gone wan with the years and drifted from the eternal spheres reserved for Cagney, Bogart, and Cooper down to altitudes frighteningly close to the noxious ethers occupied by Blue, Farnum, and Conklin. Whither Fredric? Tower to Fredric! You’re an immortal! Get back up there! I repeat, you’re an immortal! Over!
Second leading man Robert Benchley is holding a happy altitude. The author of more than six hundred essays for Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and other periodicals, and the star of forty-eight short subjects that he mostly wrote or cowrote, including the Academy Award winner How to Sleep, Benchley is the franchiser of his own distinct brand. He’s a man confounded by himself as he explains the simplest things to his viewers. He is urbane, a delight—the perfect citizen of Clair’s universe—and so he conducts himself within the precincts of this movie. His touch here, tossing off lines and tossing back drinks as Wooley’s best friend, is so subtle, he seems to have eschewed jokes altogether—I’m convinced he crossed out all the gags written for him by the apparitional and uncredited Dalton Trumbo in favor of a more elliptical, attitude-based performance. Benchley’s jokes seem latent in his face, always about to impart themselves to the viewer but surprising by not launching, by staying behind the pan. Perhaps his are near-jokes—never more at home than in a near-musical.
Wait! Turns out Benchley poured a lot of hooch into his liver while cofounding the Algonquin Round Table with Dorothy Parker, and he is dead of drink by 1945. And now he drones on with avuncular bounce, close enough to earth for us to recognize still that mug of his loaded with perplexed ambiguity, sweeping in his own wide, raggedy circle that every so often catches a corner of Manhattan before curving down to Turner Classic Movies.
But I am saving for last the most lambent and lost of all the airborne entities within our concern. I am speaking now of Veronica Lake.
Veronica, you who were born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman but rechristened at age seventeen by producer Arthur Hornblow after his stenographer Ronnie and the body of water invoked by the blue of your eyes, how you bewitched the world. Reports about almost every event in your life vary—can we ever really know anything about you for sure?—but some say Busby Berkeley insisted you keep your hair down over your right eye. I like to think you figured that hair out for yourself.
At eighteen, in 1941, you earned a supporting role in Mitch Leisen’s I Wanted Wings, and into the world of cutlery came a sharper knife! That same year, Preston Sturges put you in Sullivan’s Travels, and you were so beautiful you defied comprehension. I love it when, inspired by Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life, Sturges garbs you in hobo-boy drag—so kah-YOOT! And your speaking voice, if to call it that does not profane the music you make when you speak, is a tiny mellifluent purr vibrating out from the short ribs in your four-foot-eleven-and-a-half-inch frame. Your hair—YOUR invention!—makes you taller than any Helmut Newton model, makes you sixty feet tall! Two huge noir hits with Alan Ladd (This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key), and that brings us to the great intersection in the sky, that confluence of all these fetishizable-but-fading characters heading every which way— brings us to I Married a Witch!
Lake and March have such spectacular chemistry in the movie. No one could suspect how much they loathed each other. Lake claimed she spurned the forty-five-year-old leading man’s advances. March claimed she was an ill-behaved amateur. The hatred between the two performers playing at romance on-screen is so hot it works wildly! Watching the heavenly Lake, positively itchy with sexual frustration because she can’t seduce this man, is enough to cast a blazing spell over anyone! When she accidentally drinks a love potion that makes havoc of her plan, the stakes are raised to agonizing levels! (Lake actually sings while concocting the philter! Ah, the sweet music of her voice, and of Clair’s soul!)
But outside the fantasy of the film, a different—or was it the same?—kind of passion burned bright. The actress explains in the memoir Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake:
One scene had me in a rocking chair. A picture falls off the wall and strikes me unconscious. I’m supposed to sit in the chair without movement while March desperately attempts to talk to me.
The shot was medium, showing only the two of us from waist-high. We were into the scene and he came close to me. He was standing directly in front of the chair. I carefully brought my foot up between his legs. And I moved my foot up and down, each upward movement pushing it ever so slightly into his groin. Pro that he is, it wasn’t easy for him, and I delighted simply in knowing what was going through his mind. Naturally, when the scene was over, he laced into me. I just smiled.
I wonder if it was really rage that Lake hoped to provoke by rubbing her foot on March’s crotch.
Everyone agrees Lake was willful, unpredictable, frequently late to the set. Her mother, who drove young Connie into the movies as much as any parent has driven a child, and who once successfully sued the actress for support, even as the latter was bankrupting herself, told the world her daughter had long been a paranoid schizophrenic. Maybe Lake just drank too much, starting at parties—she was so young—and the practice got away from her. She had few friends, possibly none. No one wanted to work with her, and she was done in Hollywood by age twenty-six.
This is the most haunting part! After disappearing from Hollywood, Lake worked, as anonymously as Franklyn Farnum ever did, as a server in a Manhattan bar. None of her customers suspected they were being poured shots by Veronica Lake, partially disguised by drink bloat as she was. But discovery of her whereabouts was inevitable. In 1963, she made a ballyhooed comeback in the off-Broadway revival of the musical Best Foot Forward, with, weirdly enough, Christopher Walken and Liza Minnelli briefly sharing the stage with the peekaboo legend. But—maybe it was the drink—it didn’t stick. Lake was only forty.
Come on in, Veronica! Tower to Veronica! I’m requesting you ground yourself immediately!
She ended up living in Hollywood, Florida. That’s the wrong Hollywood. Then, just to complete the graveyard spiral, in 1973 she was dead of kidney failure, atfifty.
Now let’s check back in quickly on René Clair. The titan stayed in America through the war, long enough to make this magnificent supernatural comedy and a few other charmers he considered minor or disowned. As part of his five-year contract with Paramount, Clair was offered picture after picture, passed on them all, and finally, weary of the inactivity the Hollywood system encouraged in this once febrile auteur, offered to forgo his salary.
After the war, Clair returned to work in France. Just one year older than Hitchcock and a year younger than Douglas Sirk, yet arguably way faster out of the gate than either, Clair seems to fade just as Hitch, Sirk, and other coevals really take off. I don’t know much about his postwar output, but I do know the New Wavers considered him old-fashioned—ah, so what!—and that he is chiefly remembered for his masterpieces up to and including I Married a Witch.
Clair may have blurred into some horizon; maybe more will be heard from his late years yet. Perhaps there are masterpieces among those titles from beyond the clouds, maybe not. I’m fine either way, because for that one brief moment of perfection, he, Lake, March, and the rest of the lovely doomed escadrille made a constellation of themselves, a briefly coruscating arrangement of immortal allsorts so beautiful that I want to cry.