Saturday, April 11, 2020

Modern Fantasy in the Golden Age of Cinema: Supernatural & I Married a Witch

Friday night's "off-the-shelf" double feature started from the idea that the latest thing to arrive might as well not even make it on the shelf - I pre-ordered Supernatural when I saw it on an upcoming releases list a month or so ago just based on the premise of Carole Lombard in a horror movie. It didn't arrive on release day, but only a day or two behind, not bad given the circumstances. It's not a lost masterpiece, but it's short, interesting, with a transfer that looks pretty good and has a good chunk of trailers to pad out the experience.

The back half was ordered in one of those Criterion Collection half-off sales a few months or a year back and was still on the "unwatched recent arrivals" shelf. I'm not sure I'd seen anything by director René Clair before this January, when his silent short "Paris qui dort" was part of the Brattle's "Things to Come" series, but now that I dig into his filmography a little I wish more were easily accessible in America without resorting to out-of-print DVDs. He seems to have done a lot of modern fantasy in a period when it wasn't really a respectable or mainstream thing in the movies, and this particular version is a delight.

That sort of fantasy wound up forming the theme for the night, and every time I discover one of these movies, I'm struck all over again at how there's just a big fantasy and science-fiction shaped hole in what is often called "The Golden Age of Cinema". There isn't quite nothing - there are Universal Monsters and Val Lewton and Saturday serials - but even the stuff that became classics wasn't considered A-List stuff at the time, and I suspect that wartime austerity kept anyone from trying to do something as ambitious as The Wizard of Oz again until Forbidden Planet. You can see it in the trailers on the Supernatural disc - there are a couple for Lombard movies, a couple Randolph Scott ones, but the then-contemporary fantasy/horror entries are not exactly star-studded affairs.

Although maybe they were more popular than one thinks, just not prestigious, with few becoming part of the canon until the kids who grew up on 1950s monster movies (and reruns of Universal monster movies on TV) started dictating the canon. Much like Harold Lloyd and other silent stars whose legacies weren't well-tended were forgotten, I suppose it's possible that there are more movies like Supernatural that just disappeared from the way we talk about film because they didn't fit what people in the middle of the Twentieth Century considered not even great but legitimate art.

Every time I see one, I want to see more.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Carole Lombard is best known for screwball comedies, Randolph Scott for westerns, and while neither was quite a newcomer when they made Supernatural, their presence makes this film feel like even more of an oddity than it likely is. They're both out of place and a little too good for this B-movie paranormal thriller, but a large part of why it's worth reissuing on disc.

It opens with newspaper headlines lurching toward the screen to tell the tale of Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), an unrepentant murderess who killed three lovers and is set to be only the second woman executed in the electric chair. Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner) notes that there is often an uptick in similar crimes after such an execution, and wishes to examine the body afterward to see if some sort of spiritual energy is given off. Houston, it turns out, is also a friend of the family of Roma Courtney (Lombard), whose twin brother has just died. It makes her an obvious target for grifter spiritualist Pal Bavian (Alan Dinehart), though handsome Grant Wilson (Scott), just returned from South America, and lawyer Nick Hammond (William Farnum) aim to look after her.

Bavian, it turns out, is Ruth's lover and the one who ratted her out to the police, which is what one might call the sort of narrative efficiency a 64-minute movie needs if one is feeling generous and the kind of coincidence that sets eyes to rolling if one is not. The film itself winds up somewhere in between, moving along in pleasantly lubricated fashion so that there's no time to get bored but never feeling like it's moving in any particular direction. This is all just happening and the ties between the various characters and pieces of the setting aren't really strong enough to actually pull on each other.

It's still kind of fun in pieces, though - there's a good movie to be made out of Alan Dinehart's spiritualist if the filmmakers had a clearer idea of what to do with him, for instance - nobody from the writers to the actor really seems to have decided whether he's mostly a low-rent schemer or a ruthless murderer at heart, but director Victor Halperin clearly takes a certain amount of joy in showing how he performs his magic tricks. There's an urgent mania to how he introduces the Rogen case, blocking her eyes or zooming in on them to make her seem larger than life while Vivienne Osborne uses the couple minutes she has to make Ruth seem both monstrous and human.

And there's Carole Lombard, who is terrific. In retrospect, it may be easier to imprint Roma with her sunny film persona, but she and Halperin do good work in giving the audience some sense of Roma as something other than grief; there's intelligence and determination visible in how she mourns, more than enough to want her back after she's been possessed. Of course, the fun really begins when Ruth possesses Roma; Lombard shifts her body language and delivery enough to signal the audience and communicates that Ruth is certainly thinking of how all this can play out even if the story isn't. She shifts from the sweet girl-next-door to a predatory sort of sexy without the makeup and costume changes that a lot of later movies would use to signify this sort of situation, and it's a kick.

None of the characters do enough on-screen to really make Supernatural a thriller, and it's not enough of anything else to stand out. It's still fun to see actual stars from this period in this sort of movie, especially if you look at its unfinished pieces as something that would later be refined.

Also on EFilmCritic

I Married a Witch

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

I Married a Witch is a daffy romantic fantasy that doesn't quite go off the rails toward the end but does make a person start wondering what you could do with a remake - the sort where you keep all the good jokes and maybe find someone who can pull them off as well as Veronica Lake but also follow the story where it leads a modern viewer. Even with that, it's so light and charming that one doesn't necessarily want anyone messing with it, either.

Back in Pilgrim times, 1670 or so, the people in a small Massachusetts town burned a witch and her father, planting their ashes under an oak tree to make sure they wouldn't reconstitute, but not before the witch cursed all of the descendants of Jonathan Wooley to be unlucky in love and marry the wrong women. 270 or so years later, one of those descendants is running for governor, with finacée Estelle (Susan Hayward) the very epitome of this curse, even if her newspaperman father (Robert Warwick) has put the weight of his papers behind Wallace Wooley (Fredric March). But when lightning strikes the oak tree and their spirits are set free, Jennifer decides that seducing Wallace would be the best way to further punish his bloodline, even if getting a new body (Lake) means a spot of arson. Wally proves too decent and timid to meet her schedule, so she decides to resort to a love potion.

In an ideal world, there might have been more overlap in the careers of writer Thorne Smith and director René Clair - both specialized in comic fantasies poking fun at middle-class foibles - but that wasn't to be. This film plays to the sunnier side of their natures, peppered with endearingly absurd bits from the "pop-maize" being hawked at a witch-burning to a ridiculous landslide election, making what could be dark jokes with such wide-eyed innocence that makes them go down easy. At times, dropping the supernatural in doesn't seem to be changing the nature of the farce that much other than making it slightly more broad, although there are plenty of jokes that are entirely built around the silly unreality of the situation.

Veronica Lake sells a lot of the goofier bits, in large part because Clair leans into her youth in a way that a lot of other filmmakers didn't when they had the chance. Only 19 when the film was made, she's able to give Jennifer the sort of enthusiastic innocence that undercuts all of the bad-girl words the filmmaker put in the mouths of the movie's witches and warlocks, playing at Jennifer having fun being modern and sexy and not really being malicious despite what she may say, using the shock at being hoisted by her own petard to made the transition into being powerfully infatuated all the smoother. It's reflected in Cecil Kellaway's gleefully amoral turn as her father, and a fun counter to the panicked, exasperated energy that Fredric Marsh gives Wally. Marsh also does a nice job of establishing Wally as a decent guy who doesn't understand why the universe has it in for him the way it does in the quick window between broadly playing various Wooley ancestors and having Jennifer show up and throw things into immediate chaos.

They're so good at light, almost-frantic chaos that it's easy to see how things don't quite work so well as soon as soon as they start to take things a little more seriously. When Jennifer starts to feel bad about deceiving Wally or worried about what her father will do, her voice changes a little and the bits of magical silliness after that don't feel quite as innocent, but this isn't exactly a movie that has the room to talk about the awfulness of being trapped by someone else's uncaring actions. I suspect a modern version might have Jennifer make the connection between her cursing Wooley's entire family and at the mercy of her own potion to a much greater extent than this one does.

That's hardly a knock on the one we've got, though; I Married a Witch covers any sharp edges it has in a big, soft layer of fluff and makes that work, and its dabbling in witchcraft makes it one of the most enjoyably screwy screwball comedies of the era.

Also on EFilmCritic

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