Alan Smithee Podcast 76: I Married a Witch (1942, René Clair) / Bewitched (2005, Nora Ephron)



Regular listeners of An Alan Smithee Podcast know that we’re pretty shameless when it comes to being topical. When your movie podcast is basically about whatever the hell movies you feel like talking about, you have to be a little topically trendy to catch new listeners. However, don’t assume that this episode’s choice of Nora Ephron’s worst movie (probably) was chosen to dishonor her memory. This is mere coincidence and frankly, we do a fine enough job dishonoring her memory with ad hominem insults (mostly mine, Andrew has class) when we were under the assumption she’d live at least another week or so.

In deference towards Ephron’s M.O. – after the fact – let’s say this episode is sort of about feminism, vis-a-vis the short niche history of romantic farces about women with magic powers and the zany predicaments they put their men into. On stage and screen the concept doesn’t date back much further than Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, in which a séance brings back the ghost of a man’s nagging wife. This play was only produced a year before the 1942 film I Married A Witch, surely one of the most famous romantic comedy fantasies that people know by name without having watched. As a key work in her career’s meteoric rise and fall, Veronica Lake plays heavily into that as the titular witch. In the long run, the film begat Bell, Book and Candle (1958), with Kim Novak as another romantic trickster witch, which then begat the TV series Bewtiched in 1964.

I Married A Witch is a devious, playful and tart treat. Veronica Lake is not an innocent sugar cookie like Elizabeth Montgomery, initially intending to torment rather than marry the hapless Fredric March until literally falling in love with him by accident. The story and dialogue are as brisk and witty as any great screwball classic from Hollywood’s golden age and director Clair, who began in the silent era, devises a good deal of photographic tricks and practical effects to bring the magical elements to life. The battle of the sexes at play here carries a lot more weight than the Grant-Hepburn variety, as essentially March’s soul is on the line. Only March’s bitchy fiancé Susan Hayward makes Lake look likable by comparison, which doesn’t exactly present the ideal picture of womanhood between the two of them. They are both STRONG women, however, which is less than can be said for the women in the bad movie of this episode…

Bewitched is, without hyperbole, a failure on every conceivable level. Worse, one wonders what dramatic or comedic purposes Nora Ephron and her co-writer sister Delia Ephron even had in mind. A Marxist critic in 1942 would probably hate our being asked to identify with an opportunistic politician of family money and connections; Frederic March is running for governor and that’s not exactly necessary for the story of his love triangle between a cold fish and a Satanic nymph. However, only a commoner with no ability for class critique whatsoever could stomach, let alone enjoy the sucking vortex of insulated world views that comprise the scenario of Bewitched 2005. Forget for a moment that literally not a single character in this film is not rich, famous or endowed with magical powers. Could the meta-story of a Bewitched movie being about the remaking of the Bewitched TV show possibly be any more unnecessarily convoluted? Exactly what aspect of this plot could anyone possibly relate to?

Here’s the only corpse kicking that needs to be done: Nora and Delia Ephron wrote a story in which the unlimited powers of witch Nicole Kidman and her warlock father Michael Caine are unconsciously represent the privileged life they grew up in. Mister and Mrs. Ephron were East Coast professional screenwriters who moved lil’ Nora and Delia (those NAMES, good gravy!) to Beverly Hills as small children, where they proceeded to graduate from Beverly Hills High School. Afterwards, Nora fled back across flyover country to one of the most snobby elitist schools in America, Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She then interned at the JFK White House, presumably performing executive maintenance functions alongside Mimi Beardsley. After starting her career as an essayist, she married Carl Bernstein and divorced him before finally following in mom and dad’s footsteps as a screenwriter. She then defined the modern brainless-in-Seattle rom-com chick-flick with When Harry Met Sally and, yes, Sleepless In Seattle. Phillip Wylie, Robert Crumb and Rush Limbaugh combined couldn’t conceive a more exaggerated parody of a liberal feminist Jewess than this woman’s life.

In Bewitched, Nicole Kidman wants the execrable Will Ferrell to love her LITERALLY because he’s a “helpless” dope and as a super-powered witch dabbling in civilian life, any helpless dope will do – even if he’s a movie star. After using her magic powers to conjure a home worth millions in Los Angeles, she resolves not to use her powers to make Ferrell fall in love with her, except she changes her mind about that, twice. Ferrell and his Hollywood ilk in this film are vulgar Hollywood stereotypes, not like those sophisticated and literate New Yorkers who agree to write the scripts for meta-remakes of 1960s sitcoms. So far as Ephron’s feminist street cred, Kidman’s utter lack of personality whatsoever should posthumously wipe the record clean. She’s merely a cipher for Ferrell, whom Ephron presumably had more interest in working with. Arguably the show itself was similarly constructed – with Dick Powell and Dick York getting all the laughs in reaction to Samantha’s antics – except Ferrell doesn’t even know Kidman is a witch until the last 20 minutes of the horrific 101 minute running time. So there’s no farce, and at least Elizabeth Montgomery had some kind of charm.

Presumably, had Bewitched been a hit, Ephron’s version of I Dream of Jeannie would be about Billy Crystal finding a real genie to star on an off-broadway musical remake of the TV show, who then blogs about it on The New York Times Magazine website. Blecchhh.


Episode 38: This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle) / Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

Where would Hollywood be without the literary adaptation?

Accusing the system of unoriginality has never been out of style and with good reason: before there was other media to plunder, turning books into movies was a great way to turn a profit, from Gone With The Wind to the bible. During the golden age of the airport novelist, which came and went between the creation of television and the ability to watch Lost on a Game Boy, pulpy imaginations like that of Stephen King and Tom Clancy ruled the skies. Our movies in this episode reflect the best and worst of the mass-produced page turner seat filler fodder – fifty years, a thousand worlds and one Frank apart.

This Gun For Hire came from the pen of The Third Man author Graham Greene under the original, subtler title of A Gun For Sale. Partially fashioned as a showcase for the up and coming Veronica Lake, the scant 80 minute story allows her two nightclub song and magic numbers before throwing her on the lam with Alan Ladd in a fast paced plot of espionage and cold blooded revenge. Rumors have persisted that this pairing was conceived in consideration of the two rising stars’ relatively low stature – literally 4″11′ (hers) and 5″6′ (his).

Lake is every bit as wry and sexy as she was in Sullivan’s Travels but the show surprisingly belongs to Ladd, whose morally shifty hitman makes the film one of the most formative early works of fim noir. Also great is Tuttle’s direction and the supporting cast, particularly Laird Cregar as the slimy, corpulent double-crosser whom Ladd is gunning for.

Despite a more prolific involvement in film from the very beginning of his career than Greene, Michael Crichton still had to wait 15 years to see the film version of his 1980 thriller Congo. Upon seeing the results he may well have preferred to wait longer or not to have begun the process at all. This film is an abject disaster on every conceivable level, failing to produce either the escapist fantasy the filmmakers intended or an unintentional work of hilarious incompetence.

Being produced on the heels of Jurassic Park, one gets the sense that the studio responsible felt that Crichton’s name alone guaranteed a hit. Thus the low cost casting of b-movie hired guns like Joe Don Baker, Tim Curry and Bruce Campbell alongside low cost indy darlings like Laura Linney and Dylan Walsh. Even more cynical is the withholding of the story’s star creatures, a bunch of marauding killer gorillas, until literally the final 15 minutes of the film. Jurassic Park would not be the same film with only 15 minutes of dinosaurs, and killer apes are a poor substitute for dinosaurs in the first place.

To make the children of America who only wanted to see more people being chased through jungles by PG-13 monsters wait through over an hour of idiotic banter between Ernie Hudson and an animatronic gorilla is nothing short of fraud. For sheer lack of even the most rudimentary distracting spectacle, Congo is perhaps the worst film of 1990s Summer blockbuster era.