Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that leave audiences not knowing what to think.
Bell, Book, and Candle is a 1958 Columbia Pictures film based on the stage play by John Van Druten, which first debuted in 1950. The film features James Stewart and Kim Novak, both of whom had just recently starred in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. While Bell, Book, and Candle was not the first time these actors co-starred with each other, it is the first time they led a comedy together. Directed by Richard Quine, Bell, Book, and Candle is filled with the charm and romance of movies of that era, but also reflects a lot of the sensibilities of that time.
Kim Novak stars as a beautiful yet lonely owner of an art gallery. The decor is both modern and upscale. She has a Christmas tree made of bulbs and gold bars that looks elegant and yet as abstract as some of the art in her gallery. It is dimly lit and she lives in an apartment that is partitioned off from the business. It is quickly established that Gillian Holroyd (Novak) is a successful woman in charge of her own destiny.
And yet, she is lonely. Not necessarily sad, but with a touch of ennui she confesses to her cat Pyewacket that she wishes something new would happen to her. In romantic comedy fashion, a series of strange events cause someone new to walk through her door. Shepherd Henderson, played by Stewart, is a book publisher who finds Gillian’s Aunt Queenie looking around his apartment. Shepherd is less than ecstatic to find a stranger tidying up his home so he does not give her the warmest of greetings, but politely lets her know he needs privacy. Aunt Queenie messes up his phone line so he needs to go down to the gallery and borrow Gillian’s. The trap is set.
The film was released in 1958, well before the sexual revolution. It is remarkably forward thinking as Gillian is an unconventional woman who does not live for the admiration of men nor aims to get married. However, she is attracted to Shepherd and is pleased when he takes up Queenie’s invitation to join them at the Zodiac Club. Shepherd shows up with his fiancee and Gillian tells Queenie she would never steal another woman’s man . . . until she sees the woman. Janice Rule plays Merle Kittredge, an old rival from college.
Gillian is portrayed as a nice witch, who is cautious and practical with her use of magic. Gillian cares for her family and wants the best for them. However, she is not above using magic or sheer catty behavior to get what she wants. The banter between Rule and Novak is wonderfully passive aggressive and they are both on par with their dislike for each other’s characters. Daniel Taradash’s script is clever with the wordplay between the two characters and Shepherd. Shepherd tells Merle that Gillian is a witch and she remarks how he’s ‘never learned to spell.”
The stage is set for a fury of feelings especially after Gillian uses magic to get Shepherd to leave Merle and fall for her. The use of technicolor accentuates the lighting effects of the magic spells and tricks. One scene features a close up of Novak holding Pyewacket to her face as she hums a tune that enchants Shepherd. The lighting around Novak amplifies her spell. Bell, Book, and Candle, is a comedy so it lacks the intensity of Vertigo, but that spell casting scene is eerie and the lighting and direction bring a weightiness to it.
Despite the drama of falling in love, overall the film is light-hearted and silly. While Novak and Stewart share a great chemistry, it is the supporting cast that steals the comedy spotlight. Aunt Queenie is a delightfully oddball character played by Elsa Lanchester. Jack Lemmon plays Gillian’s musician/warlock brother Nicky. Lemmon is widely known for his comedic timing and he is excellent here with his counterpart Ernie Kovac who plays a drunken novelist. Kovacs and Lemmon work off each other really well to deliver some of the silliest parts of the film.
A film about witches definitely makes this a strange tale. While it is a love story with a happy ending, I cannot help but take issue with the finale. According to the film’s lore, a witch cannot fall in love or she will lose her powers. As it is a romance and Gillian is completely won over by Shepherd, she loses her powers. Her hip dark clothing becomes pastel colored and more conventional and her shop becomes filled with flower decor and lots of light. Most importantly, as a witch she did not cry or blush, in love she exposes her feelings.
The ending can be viewed as a complete surrender to the power of love, but it feels a bit like a complete loss of one’s sense of self. The phrase bell, book, and candle, was used in excommunication ceremonies in a ritual to banish heretics from the church. I thoroughly enjoyed the film as I love James Stewart and cinema of that era, but I can’t help but feel Gillian’s autonomy was banished when she fell for Shepherd. But maybe that’s the point? What do I know? I’m not a witch. Watch this film with your cat (or someone else’s cat if you don’t have one) and try not to fall in love.