Thorne Smith died before he could finish The Passionate Witch, which was completed by Norman H. Matson. Smith was a lifelong drinker who still turned out some incredibly popular books, like the first two Topper novels, which is a much sexier story than the movies that were made from it.
Director René Clair was looking for a new project and shared the book with Preston Sturges, who thought that it would be a good vehicle for Veronica Lake. Dalton Trumbo was signed to write the script, but the final film had numerous writers, including Robert Pirosh, Marc Connelly, André Rigaud and Clair.
Frederic March plays numerous members of the Wooley family, all of whom have been cursed by Jennifer (Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway), who were burned at the stake for witchcraft. Before death, Jennifer has cursed the Wooleys to all marry the wrong woman for all time.
Hundreds of years later, lightning splits the tree where their ashes were buried, freeing them to continue to haunt the Wooleys, this time in the form of Wallace, who is running for governor and about to marry the rich and spoiled Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward). The trouble is that she soon falls in love with Wallace, causing no small matter of scandal, as his would-be father-in-law J.B. Masterson (Robert Warick) is funding his political campaign.
Obviously the inspiration for Bewitched, this movie succeeds because of Lake, who was as charming and hilarious as she was gorgeous. Here’s how weird Hollywood is. During World War II, Lake changed her trademark peek-a-boo hairstyle — which covered one eye — at the urging of the government, as they wanted to encourage the women working in factories to have safer hairstyles. Her career never recovered to the same level of fame she had before the hairstyle switch.
By 1951, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and bankruptcy, Lake ran away, left her husband and flew alone to New York. In 1969 she told the New York Times, “They said, “She’ll be back in a couple of months.” Well I never returned. Enough was enough already. Did I want to be one of the walking dead or a real person?”
She was arrested more than once for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct while living far from her famous past in the all-women’s Martha Washington Hotel in Manhattan, working as a waitress in a cocktail lounge as Connie de Toth. She lived in the Bahamas, did summer stock, wrote an autobiography — in which she said that she wasn’t a sex symbol but instead a sex zombie — and made Flesh Feast before dying of acute hepatitis and acute kidney injury, the result of years of drinking.
She deserved better. This film is glorious and magical proof.
Leslie Caron, an actress who knew Clair, said that he spoke with affection when remembering Lake, saying “The trouble with her is she didn’t have confidence in herself. Nothing could convince her that she was beautiful. It was a fight every morning to get her to face the camera.”