Hollywood Magic Is Real

I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)

In the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch (1942), director René Clair serves up an irresistible potion consisting of revenge, sex, politics and romance. Based on the novel The Passionate Witch by author Thorne Smith, I Married a Witch stars Fredric March and Veronica Lake, an unlikely romantic leading couple if there ever was one. From the significant age gap between March and Lake, to tales of feuding and unprofessionalism on the set, to irreconcilable creative differences amongst the directorial and production staff, not to mention threat of censorship, the legend surrounding the troubled production has only added to the delightful curiosity that is I Married a Witch.  

The vast differences in Fredric March and Veronica Lake’s acting styles were a major point of contention on the set of the film. March viewed acting as a serious, delicate balancing act consisting of both precise execution and consummate professionalism, no matter the role. Although he enjoyed the benefits of Hollywood stardom, particularly as a matinee idol and leading man at Paramount Studios during much of the 1930s, March knew the popularity of a star was often fleeting. For him, acting was a serious profession, with its many ebbs and flows, great successes and terrible mistakes. He also knew that a leading role was not always the best one or even a good one (as evidenced by many of the throwaway ones early on in his career), and gladly chose strong supporting roles, often with lower billing, with no concern for the flashiness of stardom. Later on in his career, March made some bold choices with films such as the then-controversial An Act of Murder (1948), Man on a Tightrope (1953), The Desperate Hours (1955) and Middle of the Night (1959), stretching way beyond the glossy image created for him when he was first under contract at Paramount.

I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)

On the other end of the acting spectrum was Hollywood newcomer Veronica Lake, the petite blonde with the trademark peekaboo hairstyle. After a handful of bit parts and uncredited roles, Lake hit the jackpot costarring alongside Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges’s 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels. Due to the success of Sullivan’s Travels and her newly discovered star status, Lake was later paired with Alan Ladd, a perfect match in both looks and stature, in the film noir This Gun For Hire (1942), thus cementing one of Hollywood’s most iconic on-screen partnerships. Most certainly a celebrity first, Lake was one of the best products to come out of Hollywood’s star machine. Her “look” was an inspiration to the fashion industry and American women, and she provided a much-needed distraction from the unfolding events surrounding WWII, becoming a popular pin-up with servicemen overseas. Lake was more manufactured image than actor, and like so many before and after, her star burned fast and hot, unable to sustain itself for more than a few years. This meteoric rise was short lived; Lake was a victim of both Hollywood’s penchant for typecasting and her rumored self-sabotaging behavior, which was most likely the result of serious mental illness and alcoholism. Although many didn’t consider her to be a serious actor, including several of her co-stars and directors, Lake was a success.

I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)

While both the established actor and rising star are key ingredients in Hollywood’s trademark movie magic, the combination doesn’t always get along. Preston Sturges originally signed on to produced I Married a Witch, and asked Joel McCrea to reunite with his Sullivan’s Travels co-star. McCrea declined starring alongside Lake, citing their difficult working relationship, prompting Sturges to offer the role to veteran actor Fredric March. Unlike McCrea, March was slightly past his romantic leading man prime, and probably wasn’t the best fit for the youthful Lake, who was a mere 20-years-old. In addition to the peculiar casting was Sturges’s exit from the production due to serious creative differences with director René Clair. Dalton Trumbo, who was originally hired to work on the adapted screenplay, also clashed with Clair, ultimately quitting the film. To add insult to injury, March and Lake despised one another. This merging of established actor of stage and screen with overnight Hollywood success created one of the most infamous behind-the-scenes feuds in Hollywood. March thought Lake to be childish and unprofessional, and Lake considered March a pompous ass. Both were probably correct in their assessments. March was known for his no-nonsense approach on set, which was a result of his stage career. According to production notes, Lake was often late to set, due to a variety of reasons ranging from long delays in hair and make-up to three hour lunches. She also disliked multiple takes, often refusing to do them, which did not sit well with an actor accustomed to extensive rehearsal and perfection. March supposedly referred to the film with his friends as “I Married a Bitch,” a rather convenient, low-hanging insult. While Lake was notoriously difficult, March was not without his faults. Some claimed he was a notorious womanizer, others, like frequent co-stars Claudette Colbert and Sylvia Sidney, said he was “all-hands.” While it doesn’t appear to be that he treated Lake in this manner, she was definitely aware of his rumored behavior and it affected their working relationship. He also unfairly criticized Lake, implying that she was more beauty than brains, a theory that followed Lake for much of her career. Much of the criticism Lake received was tinged with sexism, a serious problem in Hollywood that unfortunately hasn’t gone away.

Despite March and Lake’s differing backgrounds, work ethic and personalities, they were able to make their on-screen romance a believable one. They actually have chemistry, which is an astounding feat considering the brutal pranks and insults flying off-camera. The magic we see in I Married a Witch (currently streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck) is not in the romantic pairing of the supernatural with mortal man, but in the successful collaboration between fire and ice.

Jill Blake

15 Responses Hollywood Magic Is Real
Posted By Emgee : February 25, 2017 5:25 am

My favourite anecdote about this movie is that Lake put a 40 pound weight under her dress in scenes where March had to carry her. So he really had to do all the heavy lifting in this movie, ha!

Posted By LD : February 25, 2017 8:50 am

Thanks for the interesting and informative article about a film that I like very much, regardless of the dynamics. Sometimes a lot of wrongs do make a right, I guess.

Although McCrea refused to work with Lake in I MARRIED A WITCH after his negative experience with her in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, he did work with her again in 1947′s RAMROD. The film was directed by her then husband Andre de Toth but I don’t know if that influenced McCrea’s decision to work with her again.

Posted By Charles Berger : February 25, 2017 10:38 am

Thoroughly enjoyed the article. Jill has it so right. March was a superb actor and would upstage anyone if given the opportunity.He was very serious about his profession, but that did not stop him for “coming on” to many of the actresses who played opposite him.
Yet, when March played opposite Tracy, it was a clash of two titans.Who could ask for more?
Ms. Lake was the product of the Hollywood star buildup. Not everyone can be a Hepburn or Davis. She was what she was, and in my opinion very adequate.
Hollywood’s history is full of fleeting stars. There will never be another Gable, Flynn, Davis or Hepburn.

Posted By Doug : February 25, 2017 11:00 am

A fine article, and in a slightly twisted way, the backstage conflicts can add ‘something’ to a film. The players bring different energies to the game when there is a personality/style clash. The movie becomes more than just another job assignment for the actors.
Charles mentioned:”March was a superb actor and would upstage anyone if given the opportunity.”
Bob Benchley wrote of the age old theater practice of ‘Catching flies’ where a background player would distract the audience from the actors upstage.
It would have been interesting to hear Benchley’s take on the behind the scenes shenanigans of “I Married A Witch” but Bob remained quiet on all such stuff-he was everyone’s best friend in Hollywood.

Posted By Emgee : February 25, 2017 3:30 pm

”March would upstage anyone if given the opportunity.” Well, except for Miriam Hopkins.

Posted By George : February 25, 2017 3:45 pm

” … stretching way beyond the glossy image created for him when he was first under contract at Paramount.”

For all the great movies it produced in the ’30s, Paramount seemed clueless when it came to actors. The studio had no idea what to do with Cary Grant or Carole Lombard or (for a long time) Claudette Colbert, either.

Check out Karina Longworth’s “You Must Remember This” podcast episode about Veronica Lake, posted just a few days ago. It’s part of her “Dead Blondes” series, which has also covered Thelma Todd and Peg Entwistle.

http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/episodes/

Posted By Emgee : February 25, 2017 4:14 pm

“Paramount had no idea what to do with Carole Lombard” I’d say her career flourished after she was signed with Paramount, and made some of her best pictures with them.

As for Claudette Colbert, well, same thing there really.

“In 1936, Colbert signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures, and this contract made her Hollywood’s highest-paid actress.”Not too shabby, i feel.

Posted By Kristen Lopez : February 25, 2017 4:17 pm

In Veronica’s autobiography she says March hated her because he refused her advances, so there was purportedly evidence of his handsy nature.

Posted By George : February 25, 2017 7:54 pm

Emgee, almost all of the movies Lombard is remembered for were made for other studios, either on loan-out or after her Paramount contract ended:

TWENTIETH CENTURY (Columbia)

MY MAN GODFREY (Universal)

NOTHING SACRED (Selznick/United Artists)

MADE FOR EACH OTHER (Selznick/UA)

IN NAME ONLY (RKO)

MR. AND MRS. SMITH (UA)

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (UA)

Her Paramount resume was full of such long-forgotten items as FAST AND LOOSE, IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE, UP POPS THE DEVIL, I TAKE THIS WOMAN, NO ONE MAN, NO MORE ORCHIDS, FROM HEAVEN TO HELL, WHITE WOMAN, NOW AND FOREVER, and too many others.

Only after Hawks borrowed her for TWENTIETH CENTURY did Paramount release that she was a great comedienne (instead of a bland “love interest”). Only then did her home studio cast her in HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, as well as junk like SWING HIGH, SWING LOW.

Posted By AL : February 26, 2017 7:17 pm

It’s said that he pulled the same routine with Kim Novak.

Posted By Jill Blake : February 26, 2017 7:58 pm

Emgee– Yes, plus Lake’s foot to March’s groin during a scene.

Charles Berger– March really was one of the finest actors we’ve seen. I wish I could go back in time to see him on the stage. What a thrill that must have been.

Posted By Jill Blake : February 26, 2017 8:14 pm

George– I have to agree with you re: Paramount. I love so many of the studio’s early films, but a lot of their contract actors were underused.

Posted By George : February 26, 2017 8:38 pm

Jill – In his book “The Hollywood Studios,” Ethan Morrden writes that no studio was as reckless with its contractees as Paramount. MGM hired people and then found suitable properties for them. Warner and Fox hired people who fit the stories they wanted to tell (urban melodrama for Warner, rural romance for Fox).

But Paramount hired everyone and put them in everything. Most of Paramount’s early talkie stars — Nancy Carroll, Evelyn Brent, Richard Arlen, Buddy Rogers, Mary Brian, Fay Wray, George Bancroft, Clara Bow — were gone from the studio by ’31 or ’32. Thanks to the studio’s mishandling of their careers, most were reduced to B movies or supporting roles. Bow quit movies in ’33.

Other people that Paramount dumped, including Jean Arthur and William Powell, came into their own at other studios. And it was Columbia’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT that put Colbert in a position to receive a great salary. (To its credit, Paramount put her in better movies after the Oscar.)

A lot of Paramount’s 1930s films were undistinguished programmers, some more entertaining than others. Lubitsch, Von Sternberg and De Mille couldn’t direct everything.

Posted By Emgee : February 27, 2017 5:41 am

“A lot of Paramount’s 1930s films were undistinguished programmers.” So were those of the other studios, Paramount was really no better or worse.

Posted By swac44 : March 14, 2017 12:03 pm

I also feel Lake gets a bad rap, she does what’s required of her in films like The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia, perhaps not elevating the material, but not doing it a disservice either. For Ramrod, she’s probably at her best, and that may have to do with her relationship with De Toth. It’s a fine film that’s among my favourite westerns.

For an irreverent take on I Married a Witch, check out this episode of comedian Greg Proops’ Film Club from the Cinefamily theatre in L.A. Proops tends to go off topic quite a bit in his musings, but I’ve been a fan since first spotting him on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and get a kick out of his commentaries, especially with a live audience to interact with.

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