Stewart and Novak are bewitching in... Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)

Bell, Book, and Candle (yes, I add the extra comma -- I'm all about the Oxford comma) is a special film for me. As I've mentioned here before, my sister can be a tricky customer when it comes to the classics. She really enjoyed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but she hated From Here to Eternity. High Society is tops, Philadelphia Story is decidedly not. After watching Bell, Book, and Candle in her theatre class when we were both in high school, she raved about it and I immediately bought it for her for Christmas. (I do this a lot with friends and family who say they like an old movie. I think I'm scared that if they don't watch it consistently, they'll lose their enjoyment of it and I'll have lost yet another classic film convert.)

My first time seeing Bell... was with my sister and I was quickly charmed. Subsequent viewings have only made me adore it even more, so much so that I thought instead of my usual review, I'll just make a list about all of the things I love about this movie. First, we'll start with the basics:


The plot.
Based on a very successful Broadway play by John Van Druten, Bell... is unabashedly offbeat. Kim Novak is Gil, the owner of an art shop and a witch. Like, a literal, magical witch. Gil enjoys her powers, but she is hesitant to use them and she often wonders what it would be like to be normal. Gil's brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) and their aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester), on the other hand, adore their sorcery and use it any chance they get. When publisher Shep Henderson (Jimmy Stewart) moves into the same building as Gil, she becomes intrigued by him, especially when she finds out that his fiancée, Merle, is the woman who tormented her in college. Because she likes Shep and wants to get revenge at the same time, Gil uses her magic to make Shep fall for her -- and unexpectedly finds herself reciprocating his feelings.

In a subplot, Shep becomes the publisher of Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs), an alcoholic author who believes he is the foremost authority on witchcraft. Tired of operating in the shadows, Nicky helps Redlitch write his latest book, much to Gil's disapproval.

What could have been.
The casting of Novak and Stewart only happened after a few other couples were considered. David O. Selznick actually bought the play rights in 1953 for his wife Jennifer Jones, who would have made a completely convincing sorceress. However, nothing happened with it and Columbia purchased the rights from Selznick in 1956. Producer Julian Blaustein and the man who adapted the play, Daniel Taradash, thought that Rex Harrison and his wife Lilli Palmer should be cast since they were the original stars of the play.

Columbia head Harry Cohn wanted to use studio star Kim Novak, though. Currently at Paramount working on Vertigo, Novak wasn't immediately available and Harrison had to back away due to scheduling conflicts. Blaustein and Taradash then decided that Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and director Alexander Mackendrick would be an ideal match. That fell through too -- Kelly was married and retired from acting, while Grant and Mackendrick had creative differences with the studio. Columbia's arrangement with Paramount for Novak to be in Vertigo included reciprocity, so Cohn picked her Vertigo co-star Jimmy Stewart.

The costumes.
I've remarked on this blog before that my favorite movie wardrobe belongs to Gingers Rogers in Carefree. I think I can safely say that my second favorite is Novak's in Bell... Lovely capes, great gloves, leopard print that surprisingly doesn't look tacky, wonderful variations of red and pink -- all of Gil's clothes are to die for, and Novak looks simply ravishing in them. It totally makes sense that Jean Louis was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.



















The music.
Jazzy scores from 1950's films are one of life's greatest gifts. George Duning's soundtrack doesn't reach the heights of my beloved Henry Mancini, but that's a really high standard if we're being honest. Duning does add some fun touches, though, to emphasize the magical side of the Holroyds, such as when Nicky extinguishes street lamps with his powers.

One of the Holroyds' favorite places is the Zodiac Club, where Nicky plays bongos with the house band. Jazz is really prominent there and there are two interesting performances that happen inside the club. My favorite is when Philippe Clay does his rendition of "Le noyé assassiné," or "The Bored Assassin," a Charles Aznavour-Florence Véran tune that Clay helped popularize. During the same scene, Shep brings Merle to the club after hearing about it from Queenie and Gil. When Merle starts to exhibit what a nasty person she is by bashing the club and Nicky, Gil recalls that when they were in college, Merle was terrified of thunderstorms. She then slyly tells Nicky to play "Stormy Weather" and the resulting frenetic performance almost makes Merle have a nervous breakdown. I like Gil's brand of justice. You can watch the sequence here, including Clay's appearance.

Pyewacket.
Listen, I'm not much of a cat person, but if I ever met one like Pyewacket, maybe I'd change my mind. The cat is beautiful and he seems like a great companion. I love how he reaches up and stretches against Gil, which looks like he's hugging her. My dog actually does the same thing against my legs, especially when she wants picked up. Anyway, Pye is the conduit through which Gil casts her spells and he is also the one who ultimately brings Shep and Gil back together in the end (with a little boost from Queenie).

The supporting players.
Bell... has a fun cast surrounding Stewart and Novak. Hermoine Gingold portrays Bianca De Pass, a witch who charges high prices for her knowledge and cures, which Gil disapproves of. She's definitely Gingold's kind of wacky. Ernie Kovacs plays the author Redlitch, lending his signature deep voice and deadpan expression to the part. Elsa
Lanchester is flighty Queenie, who delights in sorcery and doesn't quite understand boundaries. After all, the first time we meet her, she has broken into Shep's apartment and looked through his things. However, the best of the supporting cast is...

Jack Lemmon.
Without even saying a word, Lemmon's introduction cracks me up. Sitting on the stage at the Zodiac while playing his bongos, the look on his face is just hilarious. Lemmon adds a feeling of spontaneity to Nicky, which aligns with Nicky's "live in the moment" attitude. He's like a little kid when it comes to magic. It annoys him that Gil doesn't appreciate it as much as he does and I think he slightly resents her because of this -- her skills are better, but she doesn't even use them. Lemmon keeps Nicky from becoming just the annoying brother by his mere presence. When he is on the screen, there's added vitality and humor.

Novak and Lemmon had worked together before in the comedy Phffft! (1954). The magnificent Judy Holliday played Lemmon's wife in that film, but troubles between the couple cause them to divorce and one of the women Lemmon tries to date to get over Holliday is Novak in a small part. In 1962, she and Lemmon finally played a couple in the marvelous mystery-comedy The Notorious Landlady. You can read my enthusiastic thoughts about that one here. My post also talks about the great friendship Lemmon had with Ernie Kovacs. The year after Bell..., the two men worked with one another in It Happened to Jane with Doris Day. Kovacs was supposed to co-star in The Notorious Landlady as well, but he sadly died in a car accident before he could.

James Wong Howe's cinematography.
A legendary cinematographer, Howe consistently gave us breathtakingly alluring images. After my most recent viewing, I realized that his work on this film is more subtle than you would think, yet dazzling just the same. I think the only truly obvious moment is the blue lighting that he utilized whenever Nicky uses his powers; it doesn't even wash over the whole frame, just over Lemmon and whatever object he is putting a spell on. I'll let the rest of the screenshots speak for themselves:









"Somehow it seemed more like Halloween than Christmas."
Shep says this about the Zodiac Club, but it also pertains to the question of whether Bell... is a movie for Christmas or Halloween. I say both! While it has witches, warlocks, and spells, the film begins on Christmas Eve. One of the first pieces of music you hear is "Jingle Bells" weaved into the opening credits' music; Gil, Nicky, and Queenie exchange gifts beside Gil's fantastically modern Christmas tree; snow blankets New York City, making you want to cozy up by the fire.

It celebrates the weirdos.
When you're in love with long-dead actors and movies that come from at least forty years ago, you're not exactly looked at as "normal," which is completely fine with me. I've always believed that "weird" things are just something you're not used to yet, and I think Bell... embraces that. The people who are wrong in this film are the ones who don't appreciate the unfamiliar. Let's take Merle for an example. She found Gil strange in college because Gil didn't like to wear shoes -- she even got Gil put on probation for it! (Man, what a strict dress code.) Merle also calls Nicky "creepy" because of the eagerness he displays towards playing his bongos. Gil's "Stormy Weather" prank is more than a mean trick; it's a reminder to Merle that she isn't above having her own quirks too.

When Gil tells Shep the truth about who she is and what she's done, he freaks out and suddenly becomes fearful of Gil. What's the old adage? "We're afraid of that which we don't understand"? Shep is able to break Gil's spell over him with a cure from Bianca De Pass, but when we check in on him a few months later, he is irritable and can't stop sniping at his poor secretary. He wouldn't admit it, but he misses Gil. When Queenie sends Pyewacket to his office, all he had to do was put the cat back outside -- he didn't have to take him back to Gil. Once he sees her again, he asks about Queenie with a sense of affection rather than annoyance, which is quite the change since he always seemed to find the woman to be a nutjob.

There's an interesting quote from Gil when Shep asks her to marry him (before he knew she was a witch). She's hesitant to give an answer, mainly because she believes that his feelings are caused by her spell. As she tries to explain why she isn't sure about marriage, she says "I've always lived for and by the special, not the ordinary." When a witch or warlock falls in love, they lose their powers; they're also able to blush and cry. After Shep breaks up with her, Gil realizes she is no longer a witch when tears start to fall down her face after he has left. Queenie is mesmerized by the tears -- she studies them just like Shep studies Bianca De Pass's house. The two worlds really aren't much different, the film seems to be saying.


Stewart and Novak.
Although Vertigo is the more famous and more striking film from Stewart and Novak, it's nice to see them be relaxed and lighthearted in Bell... When they sit by the fire in Vertigo, there is a creepy, foreboding atmosphere. In Bell..., their fireside chat takes place while they snuggle with their bare feet up on the coffee table. The part of Gil
fits Novak so well, too. She is absolutely luminous in this movie as she illustrates Gil's intelligence and warmth. It doesn't hurt that she and Stewart had good chemistry, either. In an interview with the dearly departed Robert Osborne, Novak called Stewart her "favorite person of all time" and remarked that he never acted like the giant movie star that he was. "I can't imagine any person
nicer to work with or to be with," she further stated. "I hope he's the first person I see on the other side of those pearly gates!" May we all be so lucky. It warms my heart to know that Novak had someone as kind and supportive as Stewart in her life, particularly during her tumultuous Hollywood years.


A charming romantic comedy with a delightful cast, Bell... is an enjoyable, visually enticing movie that is really a must for Novak fans, and, I would argue, a must for Lemmon fans as well.


With love,
Michaela

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This is my contribution to the Jack Lemmon Blogathon. Please read the other wonderful tributes to this exquisite actor here.

Comments

  1. I remember being taken completely by surprise the first time I saw Novak in PHFFFT! Didn't expect her at all. She does look dynamite here. Who knew witches were so well dressed?

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    Replies
    1. Right? She's got to be the best-dressed witch in pop culture. When I first saw Phffft!, I kept expecting her part to get bigger as the movie went on -- then I had to remind myself that she wasn't a star yet, so of course she only has one or two scenes.

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  2. So many aspects of Bell, Book, and Candle (yes, the omission of the revered Oxford annoys me as well) blend together to make the movie a cherished delight. It is one of those whose theme music will drag me in every time.

    You are so right about it being right at the top of the list, or should be, for Jack Lemmon fans. He is a total hoot as Nicky. When he's off screen, you can't wait for his return.

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    Replies
    1. Definitely. I'm so glad he was given this role. I can't think of anyone in 1958 who could have made Nicky as much fun to watch as Lemmon. While I believe this film is primarily Novak's, Lemmon fans shouldn't dismiss it.

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  3. I still can't believe this came out in the same year as VERTIGO. Kim Novak and James Stewart couldn't be more different. This was a fun film, with a great Jack Lemmon performance too! The cinematography is almost as gorgeous as Kim Novak and Pyewacket should have won best supporting actor!

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    Replies
    1. So true! That cat is great.

      I actually just rewatched Vertigo this week and it really is interesting that they were filmed one after the other. Tonally and stylistically, they're so different, although they're both about Novak putting some kind of spell on Stewart. It would make for a fascinating double feature.

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  4. I also strong believe in the Oxford comma! This is one movie I have yet to see, but after reading your post and all of the great things about the film, I absolutely must!

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    Replies
    1. Oh, good! It's such a fun movie. Even if the actual title doesn't include that extra comma. :)

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  5. Kim Novak's wardrobe in this film is fabulous. For some reason, though, I just can't get into this film, and I'm not sure why that is. However, you've persuaded me to give it another shot.

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    Replies
    1. I could see how this film would be hard to get into. It can be a little inaccessible for some people, but I hope you do give it another try.

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    2. I love George Duning's score and totally agree with you about James Wong Howe's cinematography. And swoon, all of Gil's clothes are beautiful. And you're so right, this movie really is for us weirdos. We're the good kind of weirdos tbh. Also, I think of this movie as a lighthearted version of Vertigo.

      But Michaela, how could you possibly forget to mention Baby Witch Parties?! ;-)

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    3. I forget about that line every time, so it never fails to surprise me/crack me up. You're right -- it should have been a part of my list.

      I would love to do a comparison post on this film and Vertigo someday. I think it could be quite interesting.

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