Friday, May 30, 2008

Loving Magic

Bell, Book and Candle, Starring Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Elsa Lanchester, Hermione Gingold, and Jack Lemmon, Adapted for the Screen by Daniel Taradash from the Play by John Van Druten, Directed by Richard Quine, Columbia Pictures, 1958

I’m not certain if she’s ever publicly commented on this film, by I have my suspicion that the 1958 Jimmy Stewart romantic comedy Bell, Book and Candle served as partial inspiration for J.K. Rowling.

My first intimation came with the name of actress Hermione Gingold, who plays one of the many witches who live among regular people in the film, but then I thought perhaps I was reading too much into a coincidence. The film has a lightly comic air, pairing Stewart as publisher Shep Henderson with the dish-alishous Kim Novak as witch and Greenwich Village gallery owner Gillian Holroyd. This was their second film together, having been previously amazing in Vertigo. Again, here as the romantic leads, the film is considerably a fluffier soufflĂ© than Hitchcock’s obsessive piece.

Later when Jack Lemmon showed up in his small role as Gillian’s brother Nicky, I knew I hadn’t been wrong. A weaker magician than his sister (and perennially broke), Nicky’s favorite trick (and the one that closes the film) is how he wiggles his fingers at streetlights and turns them out. Two coincidences, one would think, ought to suffice.

But enough of that. Enjoyable as always, Stewart turns in one of his standard roles here and it’s a kind of type he specialized in – and, for me, one that never grows tiresome. It’s a kind of rare treat when he does play against his type, but the stammering, put-upon decent fellow he tended to portray has a courtly charm you just don’t see in film any more. That’s a shame because it’s always a hoot, made even more fun by his exasperated moments of anger and frustration. We tend to forget those aspects of his characters, the sudden bursts of shouting and the cruel comments embedded in his scripts, and partly that’s because he spends the rest of the time being so fun. They're instantly forgivable.

Here, there’s very little of that anger, but plenty exasperation, and Stewart is in fine form as publisher caught up in a love spell. Especially pleasant are the exchanges with comic legend Ernie Kovacs as a lush writer (apparently there weren’t any other kinds once upon a…ah, who am I kidding?). The two of them seem to get a kick out of each other and spend their onscreen time together trying not to outcute the other in grinning and subtle gags. Kovacs uses about 90% of his screen time to pull at his wild mop of hair and give us his far-away stare.

Then you get to Jack Lemmon and it’s just like a mega-cute party of grinning actors hamming it up. Nicky plays bongos in a witch’s night club and I wish we’d gotten to see more of that because he’s fantastically funny here, all his electric energy of his youth on display in his sudden twists of the head and double take reactions. Lemmon seems especially entertaining and it's a shame we don't get more of him.

And we haven’t even gotten to Kim Novak who is the picture of cool, beautiful elegance. She’s a little out of the picture, a little removed, though in part that’s deliberate filmmaker strategy for her character and in part that speaks to her range as an actress. With her cat familiar Pyewhacket, Gillian sets about casting a spell on her neighbor Shep partly out of fascination with him and partly out of pique at Shep’s fiancĂ©, Merle, an old and hated college acquaintance of Gillian’s. Win him she does, only with the unexpected results of falling in love with herself.

As in all good romantic comedies, obstacles are thrown in their way. The largest comes when Sidney Redlitch, the author Kovacs so assays, decides to write a follow-up to his bestseller, Witchcraft in the Caribbean. Assisted in this by Lemmon’s Nicky, the two set out to expose the witchcraft society of New York. When Gillian puts the kibosh on Nicky’s dreams of making it big from his proceeds on a bestseller, he sets out to un-bewitch Shep.

Quite possibly it's because of the film's Broadway heritage that the dialogue is so sharp, but I'm still surprised they were able to get away with this fun bit of back and forth between Shep and Merle after he's jilter her, realized he was bewitched, and come crawling back to his ex-fiance.

Shep: That girl you know, Gillian Holroyd, she's one.
Merle: A witch?
Shep: Yes!
Merle: Shep, you just never learned to spell.

All the actors acquit themselves lightly, trippingly, and with plenty of good humor. There are several continental tonnes of poor films made in Hollywood’s “Gold” and “Silver” ages; while Bell, Book and Candle isn’t a great film, it floats effervescently over the dreck of the ages. The fun, alas, is all too quickly over.


Sarah said...

Pyewacket is one of the best names for a cat I've ever heard.

Alley Cat said...

This movie is a family favorite, and one of my favorite movies of all time. I like looking at the styles and fashions of the time.

Sometimes some of the littlest moments become my favorite movie scenes. For me, I always laugh hysterically when Hermione Gingold commands Jimmy Stewart to "Drrrink it!"

The Critic said...

That is a great moment. I love Stewart's little physical humor in that scene, how he tries to bring the bowl to his face but his mouth won't let him do it.