When I was growing up (in the video store era), most of my gal friends aspired to be Holly Golightly. I was not immune to the pull of that injured ingenue bit… until I met Gillian Holroyd. “Gil” is — at least to my taste — SO much cooler. Would you rather grow up to be a gold-digging party girl, or a jazz club haunting, siamese-cat-wielding, anthropologist, african-art gallery owning, witch living in beat generation Manhattan?
Gillian Holroyd is the protagonist of Bell, Book and Candle, played in the 1958 movie from Columbia by Kim Novak — on a roll after Pal Joey and Vertigo and once again co-starring with Jimmy Stewart. The stellar cast also includes: Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold and Janice Rule.
…it’s also a love letter to the Greenich Village beatnik-jazz-club-coffee house-and-art scene of the fifties
BB and C is a guilty pleasure for me. It is definitely a flawed film, but it’s also a love letter to the Greenich Village beatnik-jazz-club-coffee house-and-art scene of the fifties here equated with an underground of lovable spell-casting witches and warlocks. What wouldn’t I give to step in and inhabit that magical milieu? (Wizarding World? Kids’ stuff!)
Cinematographer James Wong Howe, famous for his moody black and white imagery, here dazzles in Technicolor. From the green-blue darkness of the Zodiac club (above), to the gentle pink dawn over Manhattan that signals our couple’s falling-in-love, the film is delicious, visual sorcery.
The score by George Duning is playfully seductive as well, incorporating a good dollop of jazz which, according to the album liner notes, was still a brave move in 1958.
And then there are the clothes. The credit reads: “Gowns by Jean Louis,” and the gowns are glorious, but Novak really rocks a black turtleneck, peddle-pushers, and bare feet. Then there’s the black velvet cape with the pink, elbow-length gloves and muff, and the leopard cape with the red gloves and scarf. Wowza.
Did I mention it’s a Christmas movie… or perhaps anti-Christmas….
And it is, not surprisingly, a favorite movie of retro-hip artist, Shag.
Jack Lemmon, who already had an Oscar under his belt but hadn’t yet filmed Some Like It Hot, makes a fun entrance and is charmingly naughty as Gillian’s warlock brother, Nicky. Elsa Lanchester is a treat as Queenie, the dotty, busy-body aunt. Ernie Kovacs is dryly funny as the (non-warlock) author of Magic in Mexico who comes to New York to research his next, Witchcraft Around Us. Hermione Gingold chews it up as the grand dame of the supernatural scene — the prototype for Agnes Moorehead’s Endora, as the entire film is one of the prototypes for the Bewitched series (1964-1972).
One of the best scenes features Phillipe Clay, as the French night club singer, channeling Serge Gainsbourg:
I do have to admit, for all of the above mentioned greatness, the film disappoints too.
Jimmy Stewart seems to be embarrassedly going through the motions here. He was literally twice Novak’s age and apparently sick of playing romantic leads. This was his last such role. It doesn’t help that his is the thankless non-magical, straight-man role.
And I have always hated the ending. The film follows Novak’s Gillian; she’s the actual protagonist with a full character arc — that much is good. But where that arc lands her is —well, let’s just say, annoyingly 1950s.
Director Richard Quine — or whomever had final cut — must have known how disappointing this felt because the film leaves the leads to close with Queenie, Nicky and the cat, Pyewacket who are, at that point, more magical, more naughty, and much more fun.
Quine was known for his charming, light-weight comedies: The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), It Happened to Jane (1959), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), etc. He could be a little dark, but goofily so. He didn’t have the bite of someone like Billy Wilder. One can only imagine what this film would have been like had the ending been played with a more acerbic sense of irony.
Nonetheless, it’s a fun movie with some great lines. For example, when Gillian wants to confess her witchiness to Shep, and she can’t quite get to the point, he teases her:
You been engaging in un-American activities or something?
No… I’d say very American… early American.
Nicky later reprimands her for outing them to Shep:
You know what it says on the love potions, ‘Shake well, but don’t tell.’
When Shep breaks it off with his fiancée, Merle, she demands:
You’re jilting me?!
Let’s just say that we’re un-coupling.
Now you know where Gwyneth and Chris heard it first. But its use here is overtly disingenuous. Shep is definitely jilting her and being a callous jerk about it too.
In fact, Stewart is most fun in his two scenes with Janice Rule’s Merle in her apartment. She’s catty and he’s a cad, and they’re both having a ball. When he tries to explain to her that witches exist, and that Gillian is one —
Oh, Shep, you just never learned how to spell.
So if you’re feeling Beatnik-y, or witchy (or b****y), here’s a fun matinée choice. Unfortunately it’s not streaming on Netflix, iTunes or Amazon, but the DVD is out there (so is a pricey Blu-Ray).