Bell, Book and Candle, 1958
I was asked four years ago (!) why I hadn’t already done a post on Bell, Book and Candle (1958). I said then that I hadn’t managed to get any press-photos, that screen-caps were difficult to manage and that magazine images were always course-screened: some of which still applies, but I now have a mass of screen-caps, a full set of lobby cards, one press photo and a trailer. I have also just re-watched it so I thought it was time to do a post on this famous film. (However, I will do it in two parts: this one with the lobby cards, the next one the screen caps.)
Since there are numerous online reviews of the film, I really don’t need to go into any great detail about the plot. In a nut-shell: a bored witch (above, right) casts a love-spell, compelling a man (centre) to jilt his bride (left)—who the witch knows—to hook up with her instead; by the time he discovers the deception, breaks the spell and leaves her, she has fallen in love with him and—as a consequence—has lost her powers; later, when he discovers this, they get back together and live happily ever after. Some people would describe it as “a charming romantic comedy.”
Witches will be intrigued and amused by the representation of witchcraft and magic in the film, and delighted to see the stunning Kim Novak as the lead witch (more of which, anon), but the film’s message is ghastly. Novak’s character (Gilliam Holroyd) is young, cool, strong-willed beautiful, rich and independent (she owns the building, and her own business, and travels widely and at will), she is powerful and respected (as a witch), intelligent and knowledgeable in Art and Anthropology, is well-versed in witchcraft—African, South American and Asian. She is also a free-spirit, sexually independent, with exotic and avant-garde tastes and unconventional behaviour. And she has a great Siamese cat/familiar, Pyewackett.
By the end of the film, Gilliam has lost her hip and exotic charm, along with her familiar her powers and the respect of other witches, she gives up her avant-garde tastes, unconventional behaviour and clothes. African masks and statues are replaced by pretty shells and flowers; and her bare feet and simple and stark black and blood-red velvets and silks give way to heels, frilly and fussy pinks and white gauze. And the marker of her transformation from unmarriageable witch to bride is that her husband-to-be (Shep Henderson) makes her cry: and is over-joyed when he sees her cry! It is difficult not to see this as a transparent representation of what society demanded of women in the 50s.
When it is laid out as starkly as this you might expect some indication from the film (or the play it is based on) that this is a horror-story for women, that the only way this morality-tale could be any more bleak is if it went the direction of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962; 1975) or Sucker Punch (2011) by having James Stewart hold Novak down and perform a lobotomy on her with a drill and then stitch her into a chastity belt. (The fact that she performs the metaphoric lobotomy on herself—for “love”—only makes it harder to watch.) But no, the audience is encouraged to rejoice in Novak’s transformation—her romantic comedy make-over—and to see the story as an example of the triumph of unlikely love or of love in adversity. The feisty, naughty witch perishes at the end and the reviewers rejoiced—and rejoice still to judge by the reviews I have seen.
Of course, most of the film is dominated by the feisty, naughty witch, in a variety of stunning costumes and locations, and this hugely-appealing representation of Novak as a young witch is not erased by her anodyne transformation at the end of the film. The viewer goes away remembering how they were mesmerized by Novak humming a spell to her cat in a blood-red and backless velvet gown, or by the sight of her slinking around in a sheer black silk outfit. They don’t remember her crying and defeated, looking like a meringue.
But to return to the witchy-ness: the blurb on the play-script by John Van Druten reads, in part: “He thinks she loves him. How does she explain that while sex is encouraged among her ‘people,’ love is forbidden?” It is hard to know whether the constant circumlocutions in the play/film about “our people” are used to heighten the suspense and comedy, or whether they are representative of some sort of squeamishness about witches and witchcraft. But it is fun to see urban witches represented as a large and diverse (albeit hidden) group.
The action occurs in New York, in Jazz clubs, and in lounge rooms furnished at the acme of 50s taste. The denizens of the Zodiac Club—which offers beatnik Jazz and avant-garde theatre—are a mix of finger-snapping hipsters, elegant young women, suave city-men and formally-attired middle-aged (and older) couples.** We discover that witches “come into their power” at different ages, suggesting both that their powers are natural and that witches—as a group—are just as diverse as non-witches. Also, allthough the witches cast spells there is no hint of diabolism or demonism (though the African masks and totems do suggest a bit of this). We see a city herbalist, who has some distinctly odd-ingredients for sale, but both this and Gillian’s African sculptures smack more of cosmopolitanism than an anti-Christian conspiracy. In other words, the witchcraft in Bell, Book and Candle has been both naturalized and neutralised. Witches are shown to be caring (Gillian looks after her aunt), and non-witches, like Merle Kittridge (jilted by Shep) are shown to be petty-minded and uncaring (Merle made Gillian’s life very unpleasant at school, makes fun of her brother etc).
Although Gillian’s familiar is named “Pyewacket”—a name reported by Matthew Hopkins in The Discovery of Witches (1647)—that is the extent of the genuine or historical witchcraft in the play or film: the incantations and rituals are invented, and have only the most tenuous connections with traditional witchcraft and no connection with emergent Wicca. In fact, the influence all runs the other way: Bell, Book and Candle offered many hints to the writers of Bewitched (troublesome Aunt Queenie for instance became Aunt Clara), which brought the wonderful Samantha into the lounge-rooms of every television viewer of the 60s and 70s, convincing a generation that “sexy witch” was not a contradiction in terms.
Apparently Stewart was self-conscious about the age gap between himself and Novak (he was 50, she was 25), and after this film gave up on romantic roles all together. The large number of men and women in the film who are clearly even older than Stewart seem to have been included in the cast to contrast with romantic lead—to make him appear younger by comparison. And you have to wonder whether Novak’s hair colour—which is closer to grey than blonde—was tinted for the same reason. Van Druten specified that Gillian must be “twenty-seven—small, alert, direct, very attractive” while Shep “anywhere from thirty-five up, masculine and attractive”.