One of the oldest templates for a romantic story is the man and woman from different worlds who fall in love. Writers, the creative lot that they are, somehow manage to squeeze new life out of the same basic premise. In Bell, Book, And Candle we get the amorous pairing of a mortal and a witch. Somehow, that concept doesn’t sound all that fresh either…didn’t I see a television sitcom with that same scenario? No matter, for here we get the comedic talents of four of Hollywood’s greatest actors, as appreciated or unappreciated they may be.
James Stewart should be a name recognizable to all moviegoers. He was a legend, arguably the most beloved actor to grace the silver screen. On the screen, he was an Everyman; George Bailey (It’s A Wonderful Life), Jefferson Smith (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), or Mike Connor (The Philadelphia Story) could have easily been someone who lived next door or you’d meet in the grocery store. Bell, Book, And Candle was Stewart’s second pairing with Kim Novak — they co-starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, also released in 1958. Though never a big box office draw, Novak was a beautiful actress who possessed considerable poise. Bell, Book, And Candle also starred Jack Lemmon. Lemmon had already won one of his two Oscars for 1955’s Mister Roberts, and would receive a nomination for Some Like It Hot the next year. The highlight of the cast to me, though, is Elsa Lanchester. It’s unfortunate that she isn’t better known, because she was always striking and entertaining in every role in which she appeared, such as Bride Of Frankenstein (playing both the titular creation and Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein”), The Bishop’s Wife, and Mary Poppins.
Bell, Book, And Candle is based on a play of the same name first performed on Broadway in 1950, starring Rex Harrison. The play was written by John Van Druten, an accomplished playwright and screenwriter. His plays were made into the movies I Remember Mama and Cabaret, and he wrote the screenplay for Gaslight. The movie was directed by Richard Quine. Quine directed over thirty movies in his career, the most notable of which were The World Of Suzy Wong and How To Murder Your Wife (also starring Jack Lemmon).
Gillian Holroyd (Novak) leads a very independent life for a woman living in 1950s New York City. She owns her own shop selling South American and African artworks, and does not have a husband to “take care of her.” She lives near her aunt, Queenie (Lanchester), a kind, free-spirited, but slightly befuddled older woman. Both women, we learn, are witches. Not the stereotypical ogre sort, or the New-Agey Wiccans popular today…just immortal (that’s immortal, not immoral, you pervs) women with magical powers.
Through a series of quirks on Christmas Eve, Queenie and Gillian meet Shep Henderson (Stewart), a businessmen who lives in their apartment building. For Gillian, it is attraction at first sight, though her witch’s cold heart won’t let her show it. For Shep, the two ladies are a minor nuisance, but an intriguing one at that. Though he turns down their offer to accompany them to their nightclub hangout, he later brings his fiancée, Merle (Janice Rule) along and visits them. There it is revealed that Gillian and Merle know each other from college, where they were rivals. The nightclub meeting inspires Gillian to hatch a plan. Partly because of her rivalry with Merle, mostly because she had the hots for Shep, she casts a spell on the hapless guy. He falls head over heels for her, and they spend a magical evening (err, pun intended) together. But wait! Shep was supposed to elope with Merle on Christmas Day. C’est la vie.
Another wrinkle is added to the story in the form of Gillian’s brother, Nicky (Lemmon), and a famous writer, Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs, at one time the host of “The Tonight Show”). Redlitch is an investigative writer, looking to blow the lid off the witch subculture in New York City. Nicky (who’s a warlock, the male version of a witch) inexplicably teams with the writer and feeds him information about the witches of New York City. As the months go by and Redlitch gets closer to the truth, Gillian’s cover is close to being blown. Needless to say, she is fearful of the consequences of telling Shep that he only loves her because of a spell. Sigh, the angst of being a witch and in love!
Columbia’s release of Bell, Book, And Candle is another in their “Columbia Classics” line. Like most of their other titles, the audio and video quality is a good as the source material can permit. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic and full-frame, selectable from the main menu. While it would never be mistaken for a modern release, the transfer is entirely acceptable. No digital or NTSC problems are introduced, and the picture is only marred by occasional grain or dust. Audio is two-channel mono. It has a hollow tone to it for most of the film, but again, that’s the limitations of the source material rather than the fault of the transfer.
Extras are sparse, but comparable to those on other “Columbia Classics” releases. We are given talent files on the director and three of the leads (Lanchester, unfortunately, being the slighted one). Theatrical trailers are provided for Bell, Book, And Candle as well as two other James Stewart pictures: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Man from Laramie. And lastly, pictures of six posters promoting the original release (including one in Italian) are provided.
Considering that the director and three of the four leads have passed away (and Bell, Book, And Candle is certainly not the loftiest entry on Jack Lemmon’s résumé), I suppose that I cannot hope for the participation of anyone involved with the production. Still, I expect more in the way of extras from Columbia. They are one of the strongest supporters of the DVD format, but it seems like their classic releases receive short shrift in the extras department. I’m not complaining, but I would have liked to have seen some history of the artwork used in Gillian’s shop, or explanation of the witch mythology used to give authenticity to the characters, or perhaps how the stage play was translated to the screen.
Fans of Jimmy Stewart (undoubtedly the target audience for this disc) will love the movie. It’s a fun, innocent romance, the likes of which aren’t really made anymore. The subject matter — the precarious interaction between love and magic — has been tread by recent productions such as the dreadful Practical Magic and Simply Irresistible, so it’s only a matter of time before some unimaginative studio executive mines Bell, Book, And Candle for a remake. Catch it in its original glory before it’s too late.