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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Nonwicked Wiccans (originally published 5/05)

Has any group of people ever had worse PR than witches? Talk about lousy spin control. Brew up a few herbs for what ails you, mutter a curse under your breath when the local vicar gets fresh, and the next thing you know it's off to the dunking pool. And to top it off, movie portrayals of them are almost always negative. Even when played for laughs, witches are typically presented as thoroughly nasty. This is not always the case, however, as this year's release of "Bewitched" reminds us.

This domestic fantasy is, of course, based on the television sitcom of the same name, but the series was in turn influenced by a pair of earlier films. These two witchy comedies are well worth seeking out on home video.

"I Married a Witch" (1942). French director Rene Clair had firmly established himself as a master of fantasy filmmaking by the time he left France to escape the Nazi occupation. His earliest films had been exercises in surrealist imagery, long on striking visuals but short on plot. But his work was by no means exclusively avant garde in nature. He is probably best known for "The Italian Straw Hat" (1927), an adaptation of a French stage farce. The combination of his knack for fantasy images and his flair for comedy made him perfectly suited to direct an American comedy about a mortal who marries a witch.

Veronica Lake stars as Jennifer, a 17th century witch who is burned at the stake along with her father, Daniel (played by Cecil Kellaway). The two have been accused by Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March). After they have been dispatched, a tree is planted over their ashes so that their spirits will be held captive by its roots. But Jennifer has already gotten even: she has pronounced a curse on Jonathan and all his male descendents, that they will be unhappy in love. Clair then marches us quickly down through the years, occasionally pausing just long enough to show us that the curse is working. Each male Wooley is played by March. At last we settle on Wallace Wooley (March again), a politician who is just about to be married to a complete shrew (Susan Hayward, in an early role). The plot thickens when a lightning bolt splits the tree that had imprisoned Jennifer and Daniel, releasing their spirits. When they happen across Wooley, Jennifer notes with satisfaction that he is engaged to the wrong woman. Not content with this, she contrives to enhance his suffering by making him fall in love with her, knowing that he can't have her. But the plan goes awry when she mistakenly drinks the love potion that was intended for him. Suddenly in love with the man she has cursed, she must now find a way to protect him from her vindictive father. The resulting mayhem is great fun, packed by Clair into a crisp 76 minutes.

"Bell, Book, and Candle" (1958). Kim Novak and James Stewart star in this adaptation of John Van Druten's play about witchcraft in Greenwich Village. Although normal in appearance and in most other ways, Novak's character (Gillian Holroyd) is a practicing witch. Stewart plays Shepard Henderson, a book editor who lives in the apartment above her. Partly out of boredom and partly out of spite for the woman Shepard has been dating, Gillian decides to cast a spell on him to win his affection. This, however, entails spending lots of time with him. Gradually, the unthinkable happens - she begins to feel genuine affection for a mortal. This is strictly forbidden territory for a witch. Soon, she knows, she will have to make a choice.

Elements of each of these films found their way into "Bewitched," which was a nice enough TV show, but a complete waste of the talents of Agnes Moorehead, one of the finest actresses of the 20th century. Using her to play a supporting role in a sitcom is like using a Stradivarius violin as a flyswatter.

These few characters, along with a sparse handful of others (including Glinda from "The Wizard of Oz," lest we forget), represent the sum total of non-hag witches in the movies. Say, this image problem wouldn't have anything to do with the association of witchcraft with women, would it? Just asking.