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A New Look At A Classic Movie: Bell Book And Candle

Author: Mar-Garet
Posted: January 10th. 2010
Times Viewed: 5,860

(Warning: This article may contain “spoilers, ” so if you haven’t yet seen the movie, you might want to avoid reading it.)

A perennial favorite movie among Pagans at this time of year is the 1958 romantic comedy, Bell Book and Candle. Many regard it as a Yuletide treat, since most of the action takes place on December 24-25, in New York City. Shot by legendary James Wong Howe in some of the most beautiful color ever seen on the big screen, the movie showcases the city-in-winter. It is known as one of the premier New York City films and one of the most distinctive-looking films ever made.

On his website of “A Neo-Pagan Filmography, ” Mike Nichols writes:

“Yes, I’m well aware that this movie, based on the John Van Druten play, is responsible for more misinformation about Witchcraft than anything outside the ‘Bewitched’ TV series. Still, I hardly know a Pagan who doesn’t love it. For many of us, it was the first time we’d encountered the idea of Witchcraft alive and well in a modern metropolis. And Kim Novak is STILL my idea of what a Witch OUGHT to look like. And none of us will ever forget Kovak’s reading of the line ‘Witches, boy! Witches!’ Or Stewart"s offhand comment that it feels more like Halloween than Christmas. Lots of fun.”

The film is based on a play of the same name that opened on Broadway in 1950. The play ran for 233 performances during the 1950-1951 season and served as a starring vehicle for Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, who were married at the time.

(I like to think that the success of this play had something to do with Britain’s repeal of its last Witchcraft Laws in 1951, since it openly featured Witches who were accessible to the modern urban mind. The repeal, in turn, opened the way for two very influential books by Gerald Gardner; Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft.)

The original play was written by John Van Druten, a droll Englishman who eventually emigrated to the US. He incorporated various textures of meaning into his play. One level concerns the story of the hidden community of Witches in New York City and the love story of one of them with a book publisher. Another, more hidden, level is about “witch-hunts” in general, and how groups of outsiders must sometimes hide the truth of themselves from society. Whether the group might be Witches, Beatniks, Jazz-lovers, Foreigners, Artists, Communists or Homosexuals, the story of Bell Book and Candle seems to be saying that true love can cross the boundaries of society, but not without a snag or two!

Some find good reason for the subtext of the film:

“Its author, Van Druten, was gay but in the 1950s no film/play could portray that world and get away with it. So he used the setting of Greenwich Village, center of New York's alternative world, and witches and warlocks to introduce a gay subtext in a subtle way, so subtle it was never noticed by the then censors." --Anne Sterck

This makes sense to me. In BB and C, a key part of the story takes place in the “Zodiac Club, ” a subterranean gathering place where all kinds of odd and counter-cultural characters converge. The bohemian mood is played up, Hollywood-style, with jazz musicians (the Brothers Candoli on trumpets and Nicky on the bongos) with a French singer and mime (Philippe Clay) performing.

Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, together with Christopher Isherwood's short stories, Goodbye to Berlin (1939) , formed the basis of Joe Masteroff's book for the Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret (1966) . Cabaret ALSO explored issues of personal freedom in a nightclub setting, but this time in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, Van Druten died in 1957, a year before the movie of Bell Book and Candle was released.

The movie came together when Van Druten’s play was optioned by Columbia in the mid-1950s. Daniel Taradash, who had recently scripted From Here to Eternity (1953) and Picnic (1955) , was the writer who turned the play into a sparkling screenplay. Columbia gave the script to the up-and-coming 27-year-old Director, Richard Quine.

Lavishly budgeted, the scenes of BB and C can be appreciated for their highly creative and colorful décor, the (then) ultra-modern and urbane interiors, and the wonderfully witchy wardrobe of its star, the great Kim Novak. This wardrobe is still one of my favorite delights, combining the “Witch” with the “Bohemian” in a luscious celebration of black, red, and animal magnetism! The style was conjured by Jean Louis Berthault, who won an Academy Award for these designs. I have no doubts that Kim Novak also added her own touches, since she has always had a strong sense of fashion, even going on to design costumes for a couple of movies herself. She also didn’t like to wear bras OR shoes, much like the character she portrays!

Kim Novak plays the main character, the lovely and independent Witch Gillian Holroyd. Her role is a fairly subdued one, also somewhat conflicted...yet always sensuous and curious, like a cat. Part of her appeal is her urbane sophistication, something that no movie about Witches had ever explored! In addition, Novak brought her own Aquarian artistic sensibilities to this role, for her in private life, Novak was (and is) an accomplished artist who expresses herself in watercolor and oil paintings, sculpture, stained glass design and photography. She also writes poetry, and has a special love for animals and plants.

Novak was 24-years-old at the time, and she had made a big splash in the Taradash-scripted Picnic just two years earlier. She was at the peak of her stardom in 1958, having just received critical acclaim for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn allowed Novak to appear in Vertigo as a last-minute replacement for the pregnant Vera Miles. As part of the complicated negotiations over Vertigo, Novak’s co-star Jimmy Stewart had agreed to team with the actress again on BB and C, but reportedly he wasn’t happy with the choice of Richard Quine for director. This film was, by the way, Stewart’s last film as a romantic lead. He was 50-years-old.

One of the reasons that Novak exuded such a strong, sensuous aura during the shooting of this film was probably that she and Richard Quine were deeply in love at the time. Novak was able to convince Stewart to give Quine a chance. Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak were very good friends and had a wonderful comraderie on the two films they made together.

Stewart plays the book publisher Shep Henderson, and his chemistry with Novak is obvious. Jack Lemmon plays Gillian’s brother, Nicky Holroyd, in a slightly goofy, but earnest, way. The very creative comedian Ernie Kovac plays Sidney Redlitch, who is a writer researching a book on REAL Witches in New York. Nicky, somewhat strangely, volunteers his services to introduce Redlitch to the underground Witch community. It has been suggested that the Nicky character is one of writer Van Druten’s strongest hints of the homosexual lifestyle. If this is the case, it’s no wonder that the movie role is a bit uneven, perhaps tiptoeing in an effort to veil Nicky’s “true” feelings. It is interesting that one of the most puzzling parts of the story is Nicky’s seemingly inexplicable attraction to the writer Sidney Redlitch. Redlitch calls Nicky a “fascinating boy” and hangs around with him exclusively. They even seem to live together while they “collaborate” on the witchcraft book. They seem to be a “closeted” gay couple, though nobody connected with the film would publicly admit that!

Gillian and Nicky’s Aunt Queenie, one of the most engaging and entertaining of the Witches, is played by Elsa Lanchester. Lanchester brings Queenie alive with mischief and a strong pride in being a Witch. “I sit in the subway sometimes, or in busses, and look at the people next to me, and I wonder....” she muses, “What would you say if I told you I was a Witch?” Haven’t we all wondered that at one time or another?

Another great Witch character is Mrs. Bianca de Passe, played by Hermione Gingold. She, actually, is the one who helps Shep break Gillian’s spell over him. Her regal bearing, though comical at times, is immensely suitable for a Deva/Crone Witch character.

Shep’s fiancé, Merle Kittridge, is a perfect foil for Gillian’s magic. She plays a chic New Yorker with a snobbish attitude. (Perhaps her character was named for the G.L. Kitteredge who wrote the book Witchcraft in Old and New England published in 1929.)

And then there’s Pyewacket! SUCH a beautiful Siamese cat! The cat who played Pyewacket in the movie was never credited, but I think she (?) is the best actor in the film! She portrayed the true spirit of Witchcraft that ties the whole story together.

As a Witch, I find several things in this movie that grate on my nerves. However, when I study the film in historic context, it seems a truly groundbreaking artwork where Witches are concerned!

Gillian Holroyd is quite an independent woman for her time–the 1950s, when most women were being encouraged to move to the suburbs and become housewives. She owns (and runs) a gallery specializing in native indigenous art. Kim Novak’s portrayal as a self-assured and strong-minded female was unusual for the time. The Witch Gillian was powerful, someone who did as she pleased, not really caring what other people thought. She even would go so far as to rebel from her own family, falling in love with an “outsider, ” and ultimately paying a price for it.

As Marion Green says in her book Witchcraft Myths in American Culture:

“Gillian was happy with her bachelorette lifestyle, her shop, her flat, and her pet cat’s company. With power relations topsy-turvy, and no prospect of containment within a family to hand, witchcraft must be crushed at once. The title Bell, Book and Candle was a reference to the rite of exorcism designed to defeat it.”

Green posits that, in BB and C, the Zodiac nightclub and the Witchcraft emanating from it suggested both gay sexuality and the “dangers” of female sexuality to patriarchal repression. The play took the possibility of male witches a little further than the film: everyone, male and female, had the potential to be a witch–“queer, ” subversive. In the play, it was suggested that even Shep could become a Witch if he learned the right way!

When Gillian decides to confess all to Shep, he asks, “Have you been engaging in un-American activities?” She replies, “No. I’d say very American. Early American!”

Says Green: “This line cut several ways in 1950: a joke about colonial witch-hunting, a swipe at McCarthyism, an assertion that witchcraft, communism, and maybe even women’s empowerment are all legitimate American traditions. But overall, the play and film conservatively reaffirmed women’s place in society...Having been given the space for alluring independence at first, they must be ‘shepherded’ into marriage. Gillian had initially proposed that her cat familiar give her Shep as a Christmas present: but it was she who would be given away in the end. It was, however, better than ending up dead with a stake through your heart, and the next evolution of the witchcraft-comedy made the pleasures of marriage for a witch, as well as its constraints, very clear.”

Seven years after BB and C, a television series called Bewitched was born and became an immediate sensation. The TV series was about another (blond) woman who decided to “give up” her powers in order to be married to a mortal man. However, Samantha never LOST her powers; she was STILL a Witch, and DID end up using her powers more often than not!

So, what lesson can a real-life Witch glean from BB and C? By the end of the movie, Gillian’s shop has been transformed into a flower-and-plant-shop. Gillian herself has been transformed into someone who can now nurture a living being.... a healer, rather than a manipulator. Her tears are proof of her newly-found depth-of-feeling. Perhaps this is something that real Witches can learn, too.

Unfortunately, her Witchy wardrobe has also been transformed as well–

“Here, Gillian Holyrod is not just a witch, but a dealer in ‘primitive’art and with her black clothes, bare feet and hipster brother is clearly a beatnik, a threat to the 1950s status quo. Feminist scholars note she must trade in her chic Jean Louis wardrobe for a dumpy shirtwaist and jam her bare feet into spike heels to be worthy of love.” -- Laura Boyes

“At the end, she gives up all her witchcraft, stops wearing sexy black outfits, gives away her cat (evil symbol of an independent mind!) , and waits unhappily in her shop, attired in a pretty pastel shirtwaist, until Stewart returns to her. All her magic and enchantment, and certainly all her power, are gone. If Stewart's character fell for the enchantress in her, I think he must have been very disappointed to end up with Betty Crocker.”
--Kathleen Pierce

It seems this story is saying that Love and Power cannot go together….or can they?

“There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish.” -- Mary Parker Follett

Kim Novak made this movie when she was under contract to an all-powerful movie studio. They even tried to manipulate the actress’s personal life. This was difficult for her, because she was an Aquarian free spirit. She was also an artist who followed her own instincts in her art. Even though the movie (like the play) ended with the main character’s capitulation, the Actress-as-Artist was performing an ancient rite. She was bringing a new Aspect of the Goddess into world consciousness.

Kim loved acting, which, to her was not about the money or the fame. To her it was a “search for meaning.” She found a character in Gillian to which she could deeply relate. Kim’s personal story brings a whole new level to the tale. About Jimmy Stewart, she said, “I always felt Jimmy was trapped in Hollywood. He felt it himself. He loved aviation so much and he wanted to be able to do more of that. He somehow just got stuck here.” She took her own advice later, explaining, “I didn't want to start relying on what someone else thought was right. It was easier to go away all together.”

Kim quit the Hollywood life just as Gillian quit the power-plays and witch-wars. They both wanted a life where they could be at peace—and they both got it. Kim’s life became one of country pleasures and artistic freedom.

Yet, Kim left us with an image of a Witch who was totally at-home in the cosmopolitan world of New York City---the first Urban Witch on the big screen! She inserted her Aquarian image into the mix, inspiring a world where magic is increasingly integrated with the mundane. Her artistic rendering of the character of Gillian opened a door into the Aquarian Age for Witches the world over!

Kim Novak (including quotes) :

The Aquarian Age and the Return of Magic:



Location: Appalachia, Pennsylvania

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