Holiday Classics: “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958)

There’s a perpetual debate as to whether or not “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie (personally I fluctuate too much on the matter and just watch it for Thanksgiving), and the same question could be extended to the 1958 comedy “Bell, Book and Candle,” based on the stage play of the same name. The story opens on Christmas Eve, and holiday gift-giving is a minor but integral part of the plot, but its supernatural elements make it an appropriate film for the spooky season as well.

For today, however, I’m going to discuss “Bell, Book and Candle,” with its snowy city streets and the elegant décor of the protagonist’s art gallery, as a holiday movie. Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) owns a New York City art gallery and is taken with her upstairs neighbor, a publisher named Shepherd Henderson (James Stewart). But Gillian has a secret: she, along with her aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon), is a witch. When she finds out that Shep is engaged to a hated former classmate, Gillian casts a love spell on him, even if falling in love herself means that she will forfeit her powers.

Nicky (Jack Lemmon) gifts his sister Gillian (Kim Novak) a summoning potion for Christmas in “Bell, Book and Candle”

A big part of the story hinges on a gift that Nicky gives his sister for Christmas: a potion that will allow her to summon anyone she wants, which Gillian uses to bring best-selling author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs), who Shep mentioned wanting to meet, to New York. And the story overall revolves closely around family and love, which also makes it great for holiday viewing. Director Richard Quine and screenwriter Daniel Taradash expanded the play’s setting to a few more locations to make it more cinematic, but the film still retains the intimacy of the theater production. “Bell, Book and Candle” is magical without being overly spooky, although its best and most supernatural element involves Gillian’s familiar, a Siamese cat she calls Pyewacket, so named for a spirit referenced by witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins in his 1647 pamphlet “A Discovery of Witches.”

Pyewacket may be the true star of the movie for cat lovers, but it’s also nice to see Novak and Stewart together again right on the heels of starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo,” also released in 1958. In fact, it’s largely because of “Vertigo” that the pair ended up in the leading roles in “Bell, Book and Candle.” Columbia loaned Novak to Paramount for Vertigo, and, after purchasing the rights to John Van Druten’s play in 1956 (David O. Selznick was originally eyeing it as a vehicle for his wife and muse, Jennifer Jones) had hoped to get Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer to reprise their roles from the stage version. Ultimately, Columbia ended up cashing in on reciprocity deal they made with Paramount when loaning out Novak for “Vertigo,” and got Stewart to come over and star with her in this film. Their chemistry in this movie is okay; compared with “Vertigo,” there’s a role reversal here which sees Novak as the one obsessing over Stewart instead of the other way around, which feels a bit different considering how 50-year-old Stewart was twice Novak’s age. In fact, “Bell, Book and Candle” was Stewart’s last movie as a romantic leading man. He wasn’t getting any younger, and his leading ladies just kept getting younger (remember, it was much more difficult for women to maintain an acting career once they hit a certain age, compared to men), so he pursued more father-figure type roles from then on out. The supporting cast of “Bell, Book and Candle” is also incredibly solid, and it’s interesting to see Lemmon in this film. He’s good, although the part may feel lacking to those who are familiar with the actor’s body of work. “Bell, Book and Candle” came early in his film career, just on the verge of his roles in 1959’s “Some Like It Hot” and 1960’s “The Apartment,” which launched him to stardom.

Runtime: 106 minutes.

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