Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Holiday Flicks #1 – "Bell, Book & Candle"

Hey kids, here’s a seasonal five-part series: Holiday films for your enjoyment during this festive season. I’m constantly amazed by the number of holiday movies Hollywood cranked out during its heyday, & by how many of them are at least entertaining if not flat-out great. I’ll be writing about five of them—four on the Tuesdays leading up to Christmas, & then a New Year’s flick on Tuesday December 30th. All of these films are available on Netflix, & they should be available, too, at your better rental shops. Oddly, only one of the five is being broadcast on Turner Classics this year—I’ll give the details in next week’s post, since my “appreciation” of next week’s flick comes before its TCM appearance.

This week’s entry is the most “recent”
of the five films, Bell, Book & Candle from 1958, starring the always elegant Jimmy Stewart & the hauntingly gorgeous Kim Novak, with wonderful support from Elsa Lanchester, Jack Lemon, Ernie Kovacs & a Siamese cat named Pyewacket. Interestingly, two of this year’s picks feature Stewart, tho none of the films has the words “Wonderful” or “Life” in its title.

Some may find the film's plot premise odd—that beatnik hipster witches & warlocks are hanging about in Greenwich Village boutiques & nightclubs, leading a life of mostly comic alienation, & capable of enchantment in varying degrees of e
ffectiveness: Jack Lemon, as Nicky Holroyd, mostly reserves his spells for spicing up his love life (in between bongo gigs with a jazz band at the underground Zodiac club—a “haunt” for the witch set), while Lanchester (Aunt Queenie Holroyd) is generally bumbling & ineffectual in her attempts at witchery.

But Novak, as Gillian Holroyd, possesses real power—th
o she's experiencing a sense of ennui that goes past the usual holiday blues. This is a great role for Novak, because it demands not only her considerable physical beauty, but also an aura of intelligent mystery that she exudes most effortlessly.Romance, as one would expect in the classic Hollywood flick, is of course the antidote for ennui, & this enters Gillian’s life in the person of upstairs neighbor & successful publisher Shep Henderson—Jimmy Stewart himself. Of course, Gillian Holroyd’s considerable charms must be hard for Henderson to resist—but he’s planning a Christmas day wedding with his fiancée Merle Kittredge (delightfully played by Janice Rule) & is about to leave Gillian’s apartment after a Christmas Eve nightcap when Pyewacket the magical cat intervenes at the last minute.

The rest of the film follows Gillian’s & Shep’s improbable & magical (literally) whirlwind romance, & without giving away too much plot, you can expect the ride to get bumpy after a bewitching beginning. The sub-plot, which involves Ernie Kovacs as Sidney Redlitch, a writer who is out to expose witchcraft (eventually with the aid of warlock Jack Lemmon), is hilarious in itself, & exposes the witch-mortal romance to seemingly insurmountable tangles.

Bell, Book & Candle was shot in deliciously atmosp
heric Technicolor, & director Richard Quine & cinematographer James Wong Howe came up with some memorable shots—Novak’s feline face in a blue light as she holds Pyewacket; Stewart tossing his hat from the roof of the flatiron building as he clasps Novak in a Christmas dawn embrace, while the hat floats to the street below; the dark boho aura of the Zodiac Club, & especially the tour de force scene where the Brothers Candoli, with Lemmon on Bongos, roar thru a magical version of “Stormy Weather” as part of a spell Novak casts on Rule—it turns out that Gillian & Merle were college classmates, & not amicable ones. When Shep tries to convince Merle that Gillian is an actual "witch," Merle replies drolly, "Shep, you just never learned to spell."

The film was adapted by Daniel Taradash from a stage play by John Van Druten (which had a long run starring Rex Harrison & Lilli Palmer), & this gives the story a pleasingly literate quality, while at the same time remaining true to the film medium thru the performances, the beautiful cinematography, & George Duning’s delightful soundtrack. The title refers to a medieval excommunication ceremony. According to IMDB, “it is opened with ‘Ring the bell, open the book, light the candle,’ and closed with ‘Ring the bell, close the book, quench the candle.’” It's also worth noting that Bell, Book & Candle is often cited as an inspiration for the long-running sitcom, Bewitched; the 40s Veronica Lake flick, I Married a Witch is likewise seen as an inspiration for this film.

There is the question of the “May-September” romance between Stewart’s Shep Henderson & Novak’s Gillian Holroyd. It’s true that Stewart was 50 years old when this film was released, & Novak was 25. According to IMDB, Stewart felt he was miscast as a romantic lead at this stage of his life, & never accepted another such role. Of course, he & Novak had also played lovers in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, also released in ’58—what s study in con
trasts between the two Stewart-Novak films of that year! For myself, I’d say that despite some visual disparity, the performers make the relationship work onscreen. There’s a distinct energy between Stewart & Novak, & each has an appeal the other clearly could fall for; my own better half, Eberle, has always declared that Stewart is quite sexy, whether in his earlier or later incarnation. Again according to IMDB, Novak claimed Stewart was her favorite leading man, & that Vertigo & Bell, Book & Candle were her favorites among her own films.

I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in this offbeat & delightful holiday comedy.

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