Monday Morning Movie Review: Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)

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!

15 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)

      • I do like Jimmy Stewart’s movies especially It’s A Wonderful Life. His kid annoys me though – ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.’ Urgh. That movie would have been better if Stewart had chucked her off the bridge! 🙂

        Glad you survived your camping trek. Did the other bloke play Duelling Banjos after all?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Your bias is showing; now that you’re a doggy daddy, you failed to mention Piwacket, Gil’s cat/familiar.

    What I’ve always found interesting are the hints that are given that witch craft is evil. While we smile broadly as Nicky douces the street lamps, you understand that this is only fun but that power they command can be just as equally damaging in very serious ways. There was a reason the witch of Endor was put outside the gates of her city. From Wiki – The Witch of Endor is a woman who, according to the Hebrew Bible, was consulted by Saul to summon the spirit of prophet Samuel in order to receive advice against the Philistines in battle, after prior attempts to consult God through sacred lots and prophets had failed (First Book of Samuel; 1 Samuel 28:3–25). The Witch of Endor is absent from the version of that event recounted in the deuterocanonical Book of Sirach.

    I wonder if, back in the day, people were aware that the witch’s mother on the tv series Bewitched was named Endora. Hmmm … seems like whoever wrote the part had read the Bible.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes! While driving into work this morning I realized I’d neglected poor Pye. I thought it was interesting how her powers were directly linked to the cat.

      Yes, the movie does a very good job of keeping the tone light, while also suggesting that these witches could do some pretty heinous stuff. Gil herself succumbs to her desire to possess Shep and resorts to witchcraft to seduce him, setting the events of the film into motion—and suggesting her power.

      I did not catch that the mother on _Bewitched_ was named Endora! It’s been many years since I watched the show (on Nick at Nite!), but I know the story of the Witch of Endor well.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s yours to do with as you please. But if I were you, I’d get a blood sample and thumb print before you say yes. LOLLOLOLOLOL!!!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. And, as what I hope is an interesting side note: Bell, Book, and Candle along with I Married a Witch were the major inspirations for Sol Saks’ rather beloved TV series, Bewitched.

    But, the movie’s title has always been odd to me since Bell, Book, and Candle is the nickname given to- and the major trappings of an old (8th century) Catholic ritual to excommunicate someone and declare them Anathema.

    “Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive him and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.”

    Liked by 4 people

    • The name perplexed me a bit, too, jonolan. I took it to be an example of Hollywood taking a name with a very mysterious provenance and capitalizing on that mystery and mysticism to fit the magical themes of the movie. Also, Jimmy Stewart’s character at one point says, “I’m done with all this bell, book, and candle stuff!”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed it is odd. My first thought on seeing the title was Archbishop Langton on Papal orders laying all England under Interdict during King John’s reign, the last time before the Chinese flu when all English churches were closed.

      That ceremony also uses Bell, Book, and Candle as it is actually a form of ex-communication laid upon a political entity.

      In this case, somehow it ended when King John swore political fealty to the Pope. Amazing, huh? It also got King John out of the Magna Charta, then he proceeded to lose his money, crown jewels, and all in the Wash, and soon thereafter died (probably of dysentery).

      But the movie is very enjoyable, as I remember from many years ago.

      Liked by 3 people

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