Bell Book and Candle (1958)
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The play was adapted successfully into a beautiful color film starring Kim Novak, James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Hermoine Gingold, Ernie Kovacs, and Janice Rule. It's light entertainment, about a normal-appearing family of witches (Novak, Lemmon, and Lanchester) and the publisher (Stewart) who lives in their building. The most expert of them is the sultry, soft-voiced Gillian, who would love to be normal. One night, with Stewart in her apartment, she puts a spell on him using her Siamese cat, Pyewacket, and he falls in love with her.
"Bell Book and Candle" was filmed on a charming set that replicates New York. The movie is loads of fun. Jack Lemmon is very funny in a supporting role as Gillian's brother, a musician in the witch and warlock-laden Zodiac Club. He uses his powers to turn streetlights on and off and to turn on the occasional woman. Janice Rule is perfect as the snobby ex-college rival of Gillian, now dating Stewart, and Ernie Kovacs has a great turn as an eccentric who is writing the definitive book on witches. Lanchester and Gingold, of course, are always wonderful, Lanchester Gillian's daft aunt and Gingold as a sort of queen of witchcraft.
Kim Novak is a good fit for Gillian, giving the character a detachment befitting a witch, showing emotion when it becomes appropriate, and with that voice, fabulous face, and magnificent wardrobe, she certainly is magical. Stewart, in his last foray as a romantic lead, costars with Novak as he did in Vertigo, and they make an effective team. He supplies the warmth, she supplies the coolness, and somehow, together they spark. In this, of course, he's much more elegant than in "Vertigo." A charming film, good for a Sunday afternoon, good around Christmas (as part of it takes place at Christmastime), and great if you feel like smiling.
Based upon the popular 1950s stage play, this movie does have a bit of the stagy feel to it. Despite that, there is the good use of Technicolor, George Duning's pleasant score, and the great cast of comic actors. Ernie Kovaks looks a little out of place, but he does well. Jack Lemmon is great as Novak's warlock brother, Stewart is fine, Elsa Lanchester is good as well, and so is Hermione Gingold. The real star of the film, however, is Pyewacket, Novak's handsome seal-point Siamese cat. What ever happened to him?
Not exactly a knee-slapping comedy, but pleasant, lite and fluffy entertainment. Enjoyable, and a stark contrast to Novak and Stewart's earlier pairing (the same year) in Hitchcock's "Vertigo". Worth seeing.
This film is a visual feast with some tidbits of 1950s Jazz music in the score. Complete with black cat, spell-book and magic tricks. Who can blame Jimmy Stewart for falling for Kim Novak's spell? The International cast of supporting actors includes an authentic Parisian Night Club Act, as well as the ultra-eccentric Hermione Gingold (of Gigi/Moulin Rouge fame). Elsa Lancaster is an absolute delight as the intuition-plagued Auntie Queenie. Don't miss this bewitching piece of light entertainment!
On the surface, this should rightly be only one among many so-called, and largely formulaic, "sophisticated comedies" of the late-50s era. Wrong!
For one thing, you can't cast James Stewart in such a film and expect it to run true to form! More to the point, you shouldn't expect him to appear opposite Kim Novak (and 'opposite' here is the key word, in that his aura of decency and groundedness were diametrically contrary to the glacial other-worldliness which she personified), and not expect strange sparks to fly. (Hitchcock, after all, relied on this dichotomy, for different purposes, in "Vertigo.")
Add to this mixture certain key scenes which rely upon the comic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs --already well-established in the previous year's "Operation Mad Ball" (and catch this overlooked gem, if you can, if only to see Kovacs at his absolute cinematic best) -- and you're well on your way to understanding why "Bell, Book and Candle" still turns up regularly on such venues as American Movie Classics, to say nothing of its "shelf life" in video rental outlets.
Were that not enough, you get BOTH Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold, a first-rate score by George Duning ("Picnic"), superior production values and -- oh, yeah, by the way -- a storyline that can both make you laugh and pluck at the errant heartstring or two (if you don't watch out!) . ..
You get a lesson in cinematic chemistry. Maybe even . . . alchemy!
The second reason this film is worth checking out is Jimmy Stewart. Now, while I consider Stewart my favorite actor of all time, there were many instances where he was just not effective in the role he was playing. He's at his best when he's playing the naive sap (Mr. Smith, Destry, Harvey), the everyday man (Made for each other, Philadelphia story), or the straight nose who is thrust into unusual situations (this film, You Can't Take it with you) where he can play off of what's happening to him. His weaker performances, I felt, were in his straight forward dramatic roles (liberty valance, man who knew too much, even Vertigo). This film is a chance to see his everyman thrust into wacky situations.
This film is a little too tame to be considered screwball, but as with any good screwball, the supporting cast is as important as the leads. Elsa Lanchester, AKA Bride of Frankenstein, is hilarious. Ernie Kovacs, as Sidney Redlitch, is an absolute riot. I had to pause the film when he goes looking for a little "post holiday cheer", I was laughing so hard. Then, of course, there's a pre-The Apartment Jack Lemmon in a supporting role, as well.
Bell Book and Candle isn't great, and it never really seems sure of what kind of film it's trying to be, but it's pretty funny and worth seeing for the performances alone.
Evidently, judging by some of the comments submitted by IMDb, the big issue seems to be the pairing of the two stars, who had collaborated on "Vertigo", released the same year. Movie audiences didn't think anything about the age difference when this film was released. In fact, most of the aging male stars of that period were always involved with much younger women.
The film set in Manhattan during Christmas is a delightful comedy that has enchanted viewers. Kim Novak was at the height of her beauty as it's clear the camera adored her no matter what was she playing. As the witch that becomes human, her Gillian is charming. James Stewart, who plays the publisher Shep' Henderson, is also seen at his best. Mr. Stewart was an excellent comedy actor who shows in here why he was at the top.
In supporting roles the wonderful Elsa Lanchester, playing Queenie, is a welcome addition to any movie, as she proves here. Jack Lemmon's Nicky Holroyd, the brother of Gillian, is also good. Ernie Kovacs is also seen as the writer Sidney Radlitch.
This is an excellent way to spend a winter night at home watching "Bell Book and Candle".
A good job was done in transferring this stage work for the screen, it barely betrays it's stage origin. Stewart is very good as the puzzled publisher who gets ensnared in a witch's spell because Kim Novak takes a fancy to him.
Novak was quoted as saying that her favorite leading man during her career was Jimmy Stewart and her two favorite films, Vertigo and Bell Book and Candle are the ones she did with him.
Hermione Gingold is absolutely brilliant as the head witch, Mrs. DePass, and watching Stewart drink that concoction she mixed up to kill Kim Novak's spell was a scream.
Jack Lemmon plays Novak's brother and by this time he was doing leads and carrying films on his own. He's good, but I do wonder why he accepted a supporting part here.
One thing I am curious about. How did they manage to get Pyewacket the cat to act on stage for 233 performances?
Kim Novak is a beautiful, modern-day witch living in New York City, hiding her powers from normal people, including her neighbor James Stewart. Jimmy is engaged to Janice Rule, whom Kim Novak hates, so she casts a little spell to exact revenge. Under the love spell, Jimmy dumps his fiancé and falls for Kim, but when she starts to fall in love with him too, what's a witch to do? This is a great movie to watch on Halloween, if you don't like scary movies but still want a festive flick. Despite Jack Lemmon's manic bongo playing and Elsa Lanchester's normal facial expressions, there's really nothing spooky about this movie. Kim has a beautiful Siamese cat, and sometimes a little spooky music plays as she talks to her cat and casts a spell, but it's more alluring than scary.
I love this movie, and while I found James Stewart very attractive in his silver-haired glory, he sadly felt he was too old to continue playing romantic leads, even though he was only fifty. This was his last one, and he went on to play nonromantic movies. Jimmy and Kim make an adorable couple, and their chemistry is lovely. If you've never seen this cute magical flick, give it a watch this October and get ready to fall in love.
The film's comic moments are mostly provided by the stellar supporting cast, including a young Jack Lemmon (as Kim's warlock brother), Elsa Lanchester (their ditzy aunt), and Ernie Kovacs (!) as a befuddled writer. Hermione Gingold even shows up in a hilarious cameo as a sort of Grand Witch. There's lots to like in this movie--wit, romance, and a great cast--that is, if you can possibly take your eyes off the enchanting Miss Novak. I have seen the movie a half a dozen times, and I never can.
That having been said, this movie is wonderfully written and sweetly executed by Kim Novak and the venerable Jimmy Stewart.
Hermione Gingold delivers a stellar performance as Bianca, Elsa Lanchester (with too many movie credits to mention except as Ms. Jane Marbles of "Murder By Death") was wonderful as Ms. Novak's absent-minded-yet-capable upstairs neighbor Queenie. Also starring Jack Lemmon (wonderful performance) and Jim Kovacs (brilliantly witty).
"Witches can't cry. Why, they can't shed a single tear because their heart is full of Magick. They don't have time for silly things such as love." Queenie.
Gillian Holroyd (Novak) and her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) are Manhattan witches. Cloaked deeply within the secret underworld of those of the Craft, they live among other New Yorkers as one of them, without so much as causing a raised eyebrow.
But then, along comes Shepherd "Shep" Henderson (Stewart), a steadfast, no-nonsense, dedicated businessman who is engaged to be married to Gillian's old college rival.
By a quirky mishap of chance, he finds himself moving into Gillian's building and is instantly "bewitched" by her charm and grace. By the use of Magick, with a little help from Pyewacket (Gillian's familiar, trained by Robert E. Blair) and Queenie, Gillian begins to work on this handsome new dream man to get back at her old enemy.
But Magick should never be used to control, nor to hurt, and Gillian learns that the hard way in the most bittersweet way. Not only does she have to face what she's done, but she has to face Shep in her guilt.
From the critical perspective; however, the movie takes a serious turn: The effects are very dated to the point of being pure camp. Some of the scenery was seemingly shot in the basement of someone's small home, but at least the characters were quirky and fun.
On a personal note, Pyewacket steals the show. Great cat! Great training by Robert E. Blair.
As a Note of Trivia, this is the roots for the beloved Bewitched television sitcom. This introduces the original Samantha and Darrin. All the characters of note are present and accounted for. You have but to look, to see it for yourself.
This is one of my favorites, and I watch it often.
This movie gets a 9.1/10 from...
the Fiend :.
Novak, as Gillian Holroyd the witchery heroine, in partnership with her feline assistant, Pyewacket, activates a zap of a love spell on her intended, accompanied by the full ceremonial ritual of haunting music and alluring wardrobe. Novak in this film has never looked more enticing on screen. Dressed to make the object of her affection swoon, she is attired in a dress of wine colored velvet whose sleeves are manacled by red sequined bands. In this get- up, setting her slanting eyes in a gaze focused to mesmerize, she is a seductress primed to get the man she targets and have the man she wins do her bidding. Here again Stewart showcases his well-honed screen persona of hapless and gullible, performances keynoted by whiny, shrill confusion and frustration. In this film, however, these devices typical of Stewart's acting technique work for his character of the lover seduced by otherworldly powers.
In a film, abundant with eccentricity, it is the performances of the supporting cast that gives the film much of its enjoyable moments. The quirky genius of Ernie Kovacs shines as an alcoholic huckster who authors dubious exposes of witchcraft with enough sensationalist elements to guarantee best sellers. As Sidney Redlitch, Kovacs veritably steals every scene in which he appears. Grandiose in manner, and outrageous in dress, and as one character describes her, appearing as if she lived in a "pickle jar," Hermoine Gingold provides the perfect incarnation of the grand old dame of this New York witchery set. As Bianca de Passe, she reigns over proceedings, a figure lounging in the club where the coven congregates, a Greenwich Village cellar hangout appropriately named "The Zodiac." Jack Lemmon lends his great comedic facility to Nicky, a boyish amalgam of merry-magic prankster and bongo playing beatnik.
There is not one superfluous or dull moment in this movie. The premise and script are clever, it all fits, it all works and it's a whole lot of magical fun.
I described it as a 1950s comedy because it could hardly be mistaken for anything else. Everything is so smooth and polished, from the set decoration, through wardrobe and plot, to the performances and direction. Take the character of Ernie Kovacks. He's referred to as "a drunk and a nut." And here's how the movie demonstrates these traits. He asks for a second drink, and, though he always wears a jacket and tie like the other gentlemen, his hair is a bit long and tousled. That's a strictly 1950s version of a drunk and a nut. Nothing is out of place; everything is tidy and free of dust. The soles of Jimmy Stewart's shoes are barely scuffed.
And the Zodiac Club, where the witches hang out. It's called "a low dive." Yet it's a clean, dark place with polite waiters, a quintet of musicians, neatly dressed clientèle, and potted plants against bare brick walls. That is not my idea or yours of a "low dive" -- not even for Greenwich Village in 1958. My idea of a dive in Greenwich Village is Julius's or The White Horse Tavern or The San Remo or The Swing Rendezvous, a now defunct lesbian hangout. The Zodiac Club is a high dive compared to these.
The kookiness we always hear about is muted by today's standards. I mean, Kim Novak is odd because she runs around her apartment in her bare feet. And she wears a lot of black clothes like the Beatniks of the period did.
But never mind all that. It's an enjoyable romantic comedy. Kim Novak is effective as Gillian, who runs a primitive art shop for the uptrodden. She has a strange beauty, bulky and ethereal at the same time. She glides rather than walks, a wispy presence. Her eyebrows seem drawn with a set of plastic French curves. And Jimmy Stewart is quite good as the bewildered and bewitched victim. In the 1930s he usually played in light roles. In the postwar years and for much of the 1950s he was the tortured protagonist, but here he puts his early experience in comedy to good use. Who could resist laughing when Hermione Gingold forces him to wear a shawl and drink a hideous concoction of putrid fluid in order to cure him of Novak's spell? It's good to see him as a stooge instead of the angry and indignant man of principle he was in danger of becoming. Richard Quine directs the movie quietly, without fireworks or special effects, and does some interesting things that the play couldn't have had. Note the scene in which Novak casts the spell over Stewart, when the Siamese cat's face and ears seem to merge with Novak's startling eyes.
Ernie Kovacks in the 1950s was a well-known television personality. There was never anything quite like The Ernie Kovacks Show before -- or after. It brings the word "surrealism" to mind. He could stage five minutes worth of wordless and indescribable tricks in an unpopulated room with only Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra as background. And he did an unimpeachable sketch using the character of Percy Dovetonsils, an effete poet. The movie's end credits kind of skip over The Condoli Brothers but that's a little cavalier because these two guys -- Pete and Conte -- were virtuoso trumpeters with independent careers in jazz ensembles. Conte was later a member of Doc Severison's band on Johnny Carson's Late Show. You can see Conte play a few screwy solo notes in the "No Hay Banda" performance in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive."
The third act kind of bogs down a little and becomes more "romantic" than "comedy". But it's never dull. The whole film rolls along as neatly as Van Druten's play and the kids will probably get a kick out of it too.
The biggest mystery was just how little magic was used in the movie. There were a couple scenes but there were no "big" showy special effects used, not that I needed that but you would think there would be more in this type of movie since it's about witches and warlocks.
Along with the 40s movie I Married a Witch (which helped to make Veronica Lake an icon), Bell, Book and Candle inspired the grand film and TV fascination with all things witchy that began with Bewitched and has continued through Practical Magic, Worst Witch and Harry Potter.
What I rarely see noted is that the movie is also a rather interesting alternative Xmas movie. The story takes place over the Christmas holidays, and, despite the fact that it is superficially about witchcraft, actually embodies a great deal of Xmas spirit (giving, love, family, self-sacrifice, etc).
I will always watch this movie (have seen it several times since my first viewing in the early 90's) particularly if it is shown around or just after the holiday season. It has style, substance, a great cast, and terrific production values. And like Adam's Rib, it casually expresses ideas that were rather radical for its time, are radical even now (in both movies the female character is guileless and powerful), and so always seems ahead of the times.
this is one of the few films I've fallen in love with as a child and gone back to without dissatisfaction. whether you have any interest in what it offers fictively or not, BB&C is a visual feast.
I'm not saying it's his best work, I'm no expert there for sure. but the look of this movie is amazing. I love everything about it; Elsa Lanchester, the cat, the crazy hoo-doo, the retro-downtown-ness; but the way it was put on film is breathtaking.
I even like the inconsistencies pointed out on this page above, and the "special effects" that seem backward now. it all creates a really consistent world.
Kim Novak works very well as Gillian, making her believable and quite captivating. The role is also written effectively, and it gives Novak a lot of good material to work with. James Stewart is equally believable (and, of course, always likable) in his part, but he is given much less to work with. The dialogue for his character never rings true the way that Gillian's does, and even though Stewart does his usual fine job with it, it's hard not to notice some of the less-inspired lines.
With Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs, and Hermione Gingold, the supporting cast is also loaded with talent. Lanchester and her role are well-matched and quite entertaining, and the others make good use of their opportunities when the script allows them to.
The movie usually looks very good, and in particular Gillian's shop is a very nice creation that also serves as an interesting backdrop to the story. Yet it never really hits high gear, and given the concept, it might have worked better with a more episodic approach, instead of trying to sustain one story line all the way through. It is definitely worth seeing, as the cast and some of the settings alone make it worth watching. But there are some missed opportunities, and if they had been taken, it could have resulted in a really fine movie.
Kim Novak's gifts were not essentially comic, as she went on to confirm in Kiss Me Stupid. James Stewart was a fine comedian, as he ably demonstrated in movies from ranging from The Philadelphia Story to Harvey. I think he comes out better from this mess than anyone else does. Except maybe the cat.
some SPOILERS follow, you may not want to read further. The aunt puts a spell on the phone so that Stewart will have a reason to go downstairs and use Novak's phone, the spark that gets them together. Add to that, she was at college with his fiancée, remembers her as a very self-centered person, and puts a spell to make him drop her. This film purports that witches neither cry or blush, but if they were to fall in love, they would cease to be a witch.
Stewart is naturally upset to find out he was tricked into his affection for her, but in the end recognizes her blush and her tears, no longer a witch, they love each other and plan to marry. There is nothing to be taken seriously in this cute film, although there might be something about the need to be true to yourself and others. However it is just meant to be a nice diversion, and a chance to see two of the best of the 1950s - Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. On VHS, borrowed from my local library.
March 2012 edit: I have this on DVD now, part of the Kim Novak collection issued about a year ago I believe, and I confirmed once again what an entertaining movie it is.