- Directed by Richard Quine
- November 11, 1958
- Based on the 1950 play Bell, Book and Candle by John Van Druten
A modern day witch falls for her book publisher neighbor.
Bell, Book and Candle is a great supernatural oriented romantic comedy that not only makes you laugh but gives you all those romantic feels as well. Nearly 65 years later and it still works as well now as it did then. That is not only thanks to a great script but also to an amazing cast. We have Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester, and Janice Rule turning in great performances.
Jimmy Stewart was one of the most versatile actors of the silver screen. He could do comedy and drama and romance films with ease. He could be an affable every man or a grizzled and tough character of the old West. He could go from hapless father to dashing lady’s man. And he can make you believe in and feel for each and every character unlike few actors then or now.
Stewart is affable and charming in his part. He gracefully moves between romantic lover and businessman to believer in magic to man angry because he has been manipulated. He has great comic reactions here yet never delivers his material with a wink or a nod.
Stewart is book publisher Shep Henderson with a rather nice apartment situated above a rare African art store run by Gillian “Gil” Holroyd (Kim Novak) who is also a witch. Gil has been watching Shep from a far and has been taken by this rather handsome stranger, but she has failed to actually make a move despite having powers that could easily make that happen and looking like Kim Novak.
Gil is more seductress than romantically inclined. Stewart after all is this handsome man that she really just wants to sleep with as witches in this film can become ‘hot blooded’ but not actually love. In Bell, Book and Candle’s mythology witches also can’t cry or blush and should they fall in love they will lose their powers and become merely human. Or so the old wives tales say but they’re not even sure as it is apparently something it doesn’t happen all that often if ever.
The wrinkle in the story? When our two leads first meet on Christmas Eve Shep is about to get married. However Gil soon learns that Shep’s wife to be (Janice Rule) is an old college nemesis of hers and decides to use her magic powers to steal Shep away. In fact a great deal of what Gil does in the beginning is aimed at her college nemesis because those wounds haven’t gone away.
But this film is not just carried on the amazing talents of Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart alone. Oh no! It also has Elsa Lanchester as Gil’s aunt Queenie. Lanchester is probably most famous from the Bride of Frankenstein, but she did so much in her career. And when you catch her she’s one of those people that was always good. Her Queenie is a little odd and you are never quite sure if she is off in her own little world. And Queenie much like her niece Gil and nephew Nicky (Jack Lemmon) is a witch.
The very talented Ernie Kovacs is drunken author Sidney Redlitch and perhaps one of the best character creations in this entire film. Seeing Kovacs in his scenes was amazing. He was not only hilarious but made a genuine individual that was occasionally scene stealing in what was essentially a plot device to keep things moving.
Redlitch is an author that writes about magic. His research is questionable at best as our magical individuals find it laughable and unrealistic though useful for them to remain unnoticed by the rest of the world as the public eats it up.
I might be reading too much into this but there is something I need to discuss. In the story Gil has a cat/familiar named Pyewacket. She speaks in the opening to it of wishing to meet Shep and of curiosity over love then he fades somewhat into the background though not forgotten-merely just not central to seen action. Pyewacket though is pivotal in reuniting Shep and Gil to quite literally kiss and make up seemingly at Queenie’s behest in the end. Through given dialogue at the beginning and the resolution at the end it certainly seems as if the whole narrative could be looked at as Pyewacket’s doing as it does Gil’s bidding. She wanted Shep and she got him.
The story is not necessarily about Shep falling in love but about Gil learning to and being willing to fall in love. She must be willing to deal with the heartache and occasional sacrifice that comes with genuinely caring about another.
Watching I couldn’t help but notice that for much of the film Gil’s style of dress is black with the occasional red highlight and consistently containing red high heeled shoes. Very Wizard of Oz and Wicked Witch of the West. However by the end when Gil has lost her powers and she is merely human she is dressed entirely in yellow from head to toes. She also starts the film out selling African art but ends the story selling rather nonthreatening Mediterranean floral style designs.
I wasn’t too keen on the rivalry between Gil and Bianca De Pass (Hermione Gingold). Not because it was a rivalry but because they started out just disliking each other then during finale it was this huge thing between them. There was just no build up to the switch.
As romcoms go Bell, Book and Candle is better written and better directed and just generally much more interesting than your average film-then or now. It has interesting characters with genuinely funny moments and a resolution that shows the characters actually did connect. Our characters go through an arc. Gil has learned how to genuinely love and understands that love at times hurts as well as causes as well as requires some sacrifice and then in this case it be the sacrifice being the loss of her abilities.
Bell, Book and Candle is smartly written from start to finish. It’s well directed and just well done. This is stuffed to the rafters with talent not only behind the camera but in front of it as well. You will laugh and you will feel and you’ll cheer for a happy ending. If you got someone special this holiday season, find this movie and watch it with them. You will not be disappointed!