Over the course of his rather prolific career, Fredric March racked up five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, ultimately winning the prize twice. The majority of these nominated roles came from his work in dramas (save his first nomination for 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway). Indeed, March excels as a dramatic performer, brilliantly bringing to life such iconic characters as Dr. Henry Jekyll (and his murderous counterpart, Mr. Hyde), Jean Valjean, Norman Maine (the 1937 version of A Star is Born), hapless salesman Willy Loman, and even the personification of Death himself (1934’s Death Takes a Holiday).
Though drama may seem to have been March’s preferred milieu, he nonetheless displays an especially charming comedic touch in the relatively few comedies sprinkled throughout his filmography. In movies such as Design for Living (1933), Nothing Sacred (1937), and Bedtime Story (1941), March is an appealing contributor to the zany happenings of the plot, more than holding his own against leading ladies Miriam Hopkins, Carole Lombard, and Loretta Young.
But March may have bitten off more than he could chew (so to speak) when, in 1942, he took over for Joel McCrea as the star of the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch.
McCrea had just completed work on Sullivan’s Travels under writer/director Preston Sturges (who, incidentally, was one of the producers of Witch … at least initially). McCrea’s co-star on that film, Veronica Lake, had reportedly created problems on the set, and McCrea was not eager to work with the tempestuous and troubled starlet again. When Sturges championed Lake for the part of the titular witch, McCrea turned down the male lead, supposedly declaring, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.” Whether March was aware of McCrea’s qualms about Lake or not, he nonetheless took on the part, and thus kicked off what was perhaps the most combative working relationship of his entire career.
In the film, March plays Wallace Wooley, whose Puritan ancestor Jonathan (also played by March) was responsible for the ritual burning of two witches, Jennifer (Lake) and her father, Daniel (Cecil Kellaway), at the stake. Jennifer curses the Wooley family, declaring that none of Jonathan’s descendants will ever find true love, and the two witches are buried beneath an oak tree, which binds their spirits. By the time 1942 rolls around, the curse has been at work for over two hundred years, and it is set to repeat itself once more with the marriage of Wallace to the unpleasant Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward). A storm destroys the oak tree in which they are imprisoned, and Jennifer and Daniel’s spirits escape, determined to wreak even more havoc on the Wooley family. Daniel creates an alluring new body for Jennifer by burning down the local hotel, and Jennifer entices Wallace into “rescuing” her from the flames, intent on seducing him and ruining the wedding and the upcoming election. But her plans go awry when she accidentally ingests a love potion intended for Wallace, and the witch finds herself hopelessly in love with the object of her loathing …
The movie offers some interesting commentary on “modern” politics, which according to this film has not changed overmuch in the past seventy years. It’s easy to see the influence of Sturges in parts of the movie—there is a satirical bite to the way Witch addresses the electorate, demonstrated most effectively in the “brainwashing” scene, in which Jennifer sends clouds of magical smoke floating throughout the state in order to impact the results of the election. It’s a sly statement on the “herd” mentality of voters, indicating how easy it can be to influence the masses (even, the film suggests, without the benefits of magic). And Wallace’s interactions with Estelle’s father, power broker J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick), are reminiscent of McGinty’s association with The Boss in Sturges’ masterful political comedy The Great McGinty, which was released two years prior to this film.
Still, despite such darker underlying themes—themes that are, admittedly, only hinted at and never fully developed in the film—I Married a Witch is ultimately a rather light-hearted romantic romp. Shooting the movie, however, was tense from the start and far from fun for many of the players involved.
The film is based, in part, on the 1941 novel The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith (author of the Topper novels). Smith died in 1934 before finishing the book, and it was finally completed by author Norman Matson and published in 1941. Sturges agreed to produce a film version for director Rene Clair and brought in noted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to work on the script. Trumbo and Sturges clashed, however, and Trumbo left the production. Sturges, whose vision of the film was much different from that of Clair, soon followed, and neither Trumbo nor Sturges received screen credit for their contributions (still, the latter’s presence is still very much felt, as several members of Sturges’ unofficial “stock troupe” of actors appear in the film, among them Esther Howard, Emory Parnell, and Chester Conklin).
As if these issues weren’t troublesome enough, bigger problems were in store as an overtly antagonistic relationship quickly developed between the movie’s two leads. Before filming even began, March apparently declared that his new co-star was “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” Upon hearing this, Lake was (understandably) infuriated, and she made it her mission to ensure that March’s work on the film would be anything but stress-free. For the scene in which Wallace rescues Jennifer from the burning hotel, Lake conspired with one of the costume designers to sew a forty-pound weight into her dress. March subsequently strained himself carrying Lake in the scene, commenting later than the barely five-foot, one-hundred-pound actress was much heavier than she looked. In another instance, Lake gleefully tried to ruin a take by pushing her foot into March’s groin repeatedly during a close-up shot of the actor; afterward, March tore into her in front of the entire crew, while Lake merely smiled complacently. His utter frustration led March to reportedly start referring to the film as I Married a Bitch when Lake wasn’t around.
Lake’s behavior on the set went beyond her belligerent relationship with March. She annoyed the cast and crew with her perpetual lateness, and her inability to perform at the same level on multiple takes made shooting a frustrating enterprise for Clair, who took to shooting the actress when she thought they were still rehearsing so as to get a “fresh” performance out of her.
In the end, one has to admire the efforts of both the filmmakers and the actors, because despite the behind-the-scenes drama, there is no hint of discord in the final product. I Married a Witch is a delightful, if somewhat slight, comedy from start to finish, and a great addition to the string of “supernatural romances” that emerged in the 1940s (I Married an Angel, The Bishop’s Wife, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir). As far as March’s career goes, it may have been an unpleasant shooting experience, but he makes for one appealingly befuddled mortal man … and so it’s somewhat fitting that Sol Saks, creator of the 1960s/70s television show Bewitched, would use I Married a Witch as inspiration for the show, making Fredric March a slightly more dignified precursor to the never-endingly befuddled Darrin Stephens.
[I Married a Witch is not available on DVD as of yet (at least in Region 1, as far as I can tell), but you can see it in its entirety (for free!) on Hulu.]
Brandie is a freelance writer and editor from Alabama and the moderator of the film blog True Classics.