My older sister and I spent many weekend nights in our childhood watching Frankenstein and Dracula movies. What can I say--she loved to scare me!
One night, she told me we would be watching a movie about witches, and I slid beneath the blanket on the couch, fully prepared to see black-gowned women performing sacrifices over campfires as their black cats peered from behind the forest trees, their green eyes glowing in the dark.
However, from the very first moments of Bell, Book and Candle I knew this would be a very different type of witchcraft movie! Bell, Book and Candle is a fun, charming romance starring Kim Novak as Gillian Holroyd, a bewitchingly beautiful witch who casts a love spell on San Francisco publisher Shep Henderson, played by Jimmy Stewart. Novak and Stewart also starred together in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo the same year Bell, Book and Candle was released.
Bell, Book and Candle is based on the hit Broadway play written by John Van Druten. Released in 1958, the film makes good use of the beat culture--one of the early scenes takes place in an underground bar with a French dancer gyrating provocatively on stage while Jack Lemmon plays the bongos with the band. It is Jack Lemmon's performance in this film that intrigues me the most, but then, Jack Lemmon's performances always intrigue me!
Lemmon plays Novak's brother, Nicky Holroyd, who wants to expose the family's secrets in a tell-all book. Lemmon's performance in this film is as powerful as ever, and almost overshadows Kim Novak. It is only be reducing his time on-screen that the director, Richard Quinn, managed to prevent Lemmon from becoming the star instead of the supporting role. The director is careful to restrain Lemmon's high energy, and at some points in the film, to use this energy to move the plot. In one scene, Stewart rushes into the smoky, noisy, basement bar and, without audible dialoque, the audience clearly understands the conversation taking place between Stewart and Lemmon through Lemmon's skilled use of body language.
Although the film opens with a Christmas scene and most of the plot takes place during winter, the skilled performances by Stewart, Novak, and Lemmon make it enjoyable any time of the year.
The film also stars comedian Ernie Kovaks who appeared in shows as diverse as Laugh-In and Sesame Street before the tragic car accident that took his life in 1962. The famed British stage actress Elsa Lanchester plays Lemmon and Novak's quirky Aunt Queenie Holroyd.
One of my favorite lines from Bell, Book and Candle is a typical Cold War response belonging to Jimmy Stewart. When Kim Novak tries to explain to Stewart that she is a witch, Stewart, trying to understand her emotional distress, asks, "Have you been engaging in un-American activities or something?"
My second favorite quote is in the first bar scene, when Shep Hendersen and Merle Kittridge first join the group of witches in the basement. They are listening to Nicky Holroyd play the bongos, and Aunt Queenie Holroyd Says: "Nicky and the boys play very well together. Nicky's the one playing the bongos. Up to a few months ago, he'd never studied music."
Shep Hendersen: "Ahh, isn't that remarkable."
Aunt Queenie Holroyd: "Particularly when you consider that up to a few months ago, he used to work in an herb shop."
Merle Kittridge replies: "Looks to me as if he's eaten one herb too many."