Well, it’s finally here—my hotly anticipated review of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle, starring Jimmy Stewart as a bumbling New York City publisher and Kim Novak as a seductive witch. Audre Myers sent me this film on DVD a couple of months ago, and after a weekend of woodland adventures and grading papers (including grading papers in the woods), I sat down to watch it.
I’m so glad Audre sent it my way. It’s a very fun romantic comedy about a witch, Gillian “Gil” Holroyd (Novak), who casts a love spell on publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart). Thus ensorcelled, Shep breaks off his engagement with the haughty Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule), becoming magically obsessed with Gil.
Naturally, Shep becomes aware of the spell on him, and grows angry at his newfound girlfriend (and fiancée!) when he discovers her deceit. That’s the classic end of the second act for any romantic comedy, in which the new romance hits a major obstacle in the form of a devastating revelation. After visiting a rival witch to have the enchantment removed, Shep realizes that Gil truly loves him when she sheds tears—which no witch can do.
That’s a great element of this film: in an age long before “world-building” was a concept in films and only popped up in fantasy literature (think Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), Bell, Book, and Candle wonderfully builds a world in which witches hang out in esoteric nightclubs with names like “Zodiac,” listening to free jazz and bongos. One major rule is that no witch can fall in love, as doing so will result in the witch losing her powers.
Witches are also unable to blush or cry, so when Shep sees Gil shedding a tear, he knows she truly loves him, as she has lost her powers and gained the ability to cry—and to love.
But the romance, while being the main thread, is not the best part of the movie. As noted, the creation of a society of witches hanging out in New York City in the late 1950s is where the film really shines. The witches operate in broad daylight, but there enchantments are so subtle, no one realizes they’ve been enchanted. Witches mostly limit their spells to benign parlor tricks: Gil’s mischievous brother Nicky loves turning out all the street lights on his block, for example.
That said, Gil and Nicky are quite powerful witches, and Nicky yearns to use his powers more. That thread is never developed fully—it would have been interesting, but would have derailed the main story—but it is Gil, ironically, who uses her powers most intrusively. Not only does she use magic to end Shep’s engagement and to win his ardor, she also casts a spell to cause Shep and every other publisher in New York to reject a book manuscript that would expose witches in the city. Prior to that, Gil used magic to bring a book author from Mexico to The Big Apple, and caused terrible thunderstorms to rattle Merle’s nerves while the two were in college (a story Gil tells long after the events, which are not depicted on film).
Thus, the central dilemma is clear: in order to achieve love and happiness, Gil must completely abandon the world she inhabits—and the power of her witchcraft with it. It’s a huge sacrifice, but one she makes for love.
Such sacrificial love—even though its roots are in Gil’s selfishness and, quite humorously, her boredom—is often the purview of men in films (and in real life), so it was fun to see a romantic comedy that flips the gender script a bit. There is at least one scene in which the characters explicitly note this gender-flipping: when Shep asks Gil to marry him, and Gil gives him the runaround, he says that that’s usually the man’s line. Gil then tells him that complaining about a lack of commitment is usually the woman’s line. I took this exchange as a subtle nod to the script’s inversion of the typical rom-com setup.
Regardless, Bell, Book, and Candle is a very fun movie, and very well-shot. It’s in beautiful Technicolor, which is quite impressive for a film from 1958. The practical and special effects are good for the time, and really help create the world of sophisticated, jazz-loving witches in New York City.
Check it out—and let Audre know what you think!