Gillian Holroyd is just your average, modern-day, witch, living in a New York apartment with her Siamese familiar, Pyewacket. But one day a handsome publisher, Shep Henderson walks into her building and Gillian decides she wants him--especially as it turns out he's marrying Merle Kittridge, an old poison penpal from Gillian's college days. So, Gillian casts a spell over Shep. But her powers are in danger of being exorcised by something stronger than the bell-book-and-candle routine: Love.
James Stewart ... Shepherd 'Shep' Henderson
Kim Novak ... Gillian 'Gil' Holroyd
Jack Lemmon ... Nicky Holroyd
Ernie Kovacs ... Sidney Redlitch
Hermione Gingold ... Bianca de Passe
Elsa Lanchester ... Aunt Queenie Holroyd
Janice Rule ... Merle Kittridge
Philippe Clay ... French Singer at the Zodiac Club
Bek Nelson ... Tina - Shep's Secretary
Howard McNear ... Andy White - Shep's Co-Publisher
The Brothers Candoli ... Musicians at the Zodiac Club
Bell Book and Candle is not a great movie by any means (it's fair), but it's worth checking out for a couple of reasons. First, it's almost hard to believe this is the same Kim Novak that graced the screen in Vertigo the same year. The combination of her manner in this film, and her incredibly striking natural good looks make her almost hypnotic. She wears little or no makeup throughout the film, and looks infinitely better than being slathered in makeup in all her other films. Sharon Stone wishes she looked this good.
The second reason this film is worth checking out is Jimmy Stewart. Now, while I consider Stewart my favorite actor of all time, there were many instances where he was just not effective in the role he was playing. He's at his best when he's playing the naive sap (Mr. Smith, Destry, Harvey), the everyday man (Made for each other, Philadelphia story), or the straight nose who is thrust into unusual situations (this film, You Can't Take it with you) where he can play off of what's happening to him. His weaker performances, I felt, were in his straight forward dramatic roles (liberty valance, man who knew too much, even Vertigo). This film is a chance to see his everyman thrust into wacky situations.
This film is a little too tame to be considered screwball, but as with any good screwball, the supporting cast is as important as the leads. Elsa Lanchester, AKA Bride of Frankenstein, is hilarious. Ernie Kovacs, as Sidney Redlitch, is an absolute riot. I had to pause the film when he goes looking for a little "post holiday cheer", I was laughing so hard. Then, of course, there's a pre-The Apartment Jack Lemmon in a supporting role, as well.
Bell Book and Candle isn't great, and it never really seems sure of what kind of film it's trying to be, but it's pretty funny and worth seeing for the performances alone.
"Bell, Book and Candle," one of two 1958 pairings of James Stewart and Kim Novak, may or may not be a great movie. I've long since given up caring about that question; these days, at the umpty-umpteenth viewing of the film (which dates back to the first time I ever caught it in its "secondary," or "neighborhood release" at San Francisco's Castro Theatre), I find myself still enjoying it as though I were seeing it for that first time.
On the surface, this should rightly be only one among many so-called, and largely formulaic, "sophisticated comedies" of the late-50s era. Wrong!
For one thing, you can't cast James Stewart in such a film and expect it to run true to form! More to the point, you shouldn't expect him to appear opposite Kim Novak (and 'opposite' here is the key word, in that his aura of decency and groundedness were diametrically contrary to the glacial other-worldliness which she personified), and not expect strange sparks to fly. (Hitchcock, after all, relied on this dichotomy, for different purposes, in "Vertigo.")
Add to this mixture certain key scenes which rely upon the comic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs --already well-established in the previous year's "Operation Mad Ball" (and catch this overlooked gem, if you can, if only to see Kovacs at his absolute cinematic best) -- and you're well on your way to understanding why "Bell, Book and Candle" still turns up regularly on such venues as American Movie Classics, to say nothing of its "shelf life" in video rental outlets.
Were that not enough, you get BOTH Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold, a first-rate score by George Duning ("Picnic"), superior production values and -- oh, yeah, by the way -- a storyline that can both make you laugh and pluck at the errant heartstring or two (if you don't watch out!) . ..
You get a lesson in cinematic chemistry. Maybe even . . . alchemy!
The play Bell, Book, and Candle was a favorite of mature actresses to do in summer stock and take on the road. One famous story, told by director Harold J. Kennedy, has Ginger Rogers insisting that her then husband, William Marshall, who was not an actor, costar with her. Marshall wore a toupee, and when he walked through a doorway, his toupee caught on a nail and stayed behind, dangling in the doorway as he walked on stage.
The play was adapted successfully into a beautiful color film starring Kim Novak, James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Hermoine Gingold, Ernie Kovacs, and Janice Rule. It's light entertainment, about a normal-appearing family of witches (Novak, Lemmon, and Lanchester) and the publisher (Stewart) who lives in their building. The most expert of them is the sultry, soft-voiced Gillian, who would love to be normal. One night, with Stewart in her apartment, she puts a spell on him using her Siamese cat, Pyewacket, and he falls in love with her.
"Bell Book and Candle" was filmed on a charming set that replicates New York. The movie is loads of fun. Jack Lemmon is very funny in a supporting role as Gillian's brother, a musician in the witch and warlock-laden Zodiac Club. He uses his powers to turn streetlights on and off and to turn on the occasional woman. Janice Rule is perfect as the snobby ex-college rival of Gillian, now dating Stewart, and Ernie Kovacs has a great turn as an eccentric who is writing the definitive book on witches. Lanchester and Gingold, of course, are always wonderful, Lanchester Gillian's daft aunt and Gingold as a sort of queen of witchcraft.
Kim Novak is a good fit for Gillian, giving the character a detachment befitting a witch, showing emotion when it becomes appropriate, and with that voice, fabulous face, and magnificent wardrobe, she certainly is magical. Stewart, in his last foray as a romantic lead, costars with Novak as he did in Vertigo, and they make an effective team. He supplies the warmth, she supplies the coolness, and somehow, together they spark. In this, of course, he's much more elegant than in "Vertigo." A charming film, good for a Sunday afternoon, good around Christmas (as part of it takes place at Christmastime), and great if you feel like smiling.
* Gillian's cat is named Pyewacket. This name has become a popular one for cats because of this movie, but few know its origin: Pyewacket was one of the familiar spirits of a witch detected by the "witchfinder general" Matthew Hopkins in March 1644 in the town of Maningtree, Essex, UK. He claimed he spied on the witches as they held their meeting close by his house, and heard them mention the name of a local woman. She was arrested and deprived of sleep for four nights, at the end of which she confessed and named her familiars, describing their forms. They were: - Holt - Jarmara - Vinegar Tom - Sacke and Sugar - Newes - Ilemauzer - Pyewacket - Pecke in the Crowne - Griezzel Greedigutt - Hopkins says he and nine other witnesses saw the first five of these, which appeared in the forms described by the witch. Only the first of these was a cat; the next two were dogs, and the others were a black rabbit and a polecat. So it's not clear whether Pyewacket was a cat's name or not. As for the meanings, Hopkins says only that they were such that "no mortall could invent." The incident is described in Hopkins's pamphlet "The Discovery of Witches" (1647).
* The title "Bell, Book and Candle" is a reference to excommunication, which is performed by bell, book and candle. 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."
* This was James Stewart's final appearance as a romantic lead. This was because many of the leading ladies that were playing his romantic interest were becoming younger and a few were half his age. The critics in 1958 felt that Stewart was miscast, and he apparently agreed. After this film he would concentrate more on roles that portrayed him as an everyman or as a father figure.
* James Stewart celebrated his fiftieth birthday during filming.
* Virtually all reviews use the original title of the play, "Bell, Book and Candle," instead of the title of the movie, which omits the comma.
* The play opened on Broadway in New York City on 11/14/50 and closed on 6/2/51 after 233 performances. The opening-night cast consisted of Rex Harrison as Shepherd Henderson, Lilli Palmer as Gillian Holroyd, Jean Adair as Miss Queeny Holroyd, Larry Gates as Sidney Redlitch and Scott McKay as Nicky Holroyd. There were no other characters in the play.