Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

This is the third film starring James Stewart on our holiday watch list; the others were It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. That ties him with Barbara Stanwyck, who appeared in Christmas in Connecticut, Meet John Doe and Remember the Night.  It’s also the second film featuring Jack Lemmon, though he is just a supporting player here, unlike his wonderful starring role in The Apartment.

Bell, Book and Candle is a nice little film, though a bit shaky in its casting: Jimmy Stewart is too old for the romantic lead, and Kim Novak seems far too languorous and breathy.  It’s a well constructed script, based on a stage play by John van Druten. When performed on Broadway in 1950-51, it starred Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, who were married at the time.


Gillian Holroyd (Novak), a lovely young witch who runs a boutique in Manhattan, is bored on Christmas Eve and wants to meet someone new.  She is mildly attracted to her upstairs neighbor, publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart), but when she realizes that he is engaged to a former college nemesis (Janice Rule), Gil casts a love spell on Shep and they begin a passionate love affair on Christmas.  Gil eventually reveals to Shep that she is a witch, and Shep while not believing her at first eventually goes to a rival witch (Hermione Gingold) to break the spell.  After the break, Gil realizes that she has fallen in love with Shep and as a result has lost her powers.  When Shep learns of this, he also realizes that he is honestly in love, and all ends well.


The story begins on Christmas Eve, and there are many scenes of snow-covered sidewalks and streets in Manhattan. The film concludes in the spring, but the themes of reversal and redemption necessary to make it a Christmas film are there.


Ernie Kovacs (Sidney Redlitch) was known primarily for his innovative TV comedy, but this was his second film.  The first was Operation Mad Ball (1957), also directed by Richard Quine and starring Jack Lemmon.   Kovacs was married to Edie Adams, whom we saw in a small dramatic role in The Apartment.  He died in an auto accident in 1962, cutting short a brief but brilliant career.

Hermione Gingold (Biance de Passe) was best known for her role in Gigi (1958), but she also appeared in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Music Man (1962) and A Little Night Music (1977). She also appeared in several Broadway productions, including one with my favorite title: Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad (1963).

Elsa Lanchester (Queenie) has already been seen in The Bishop’s Wife, and we will see her soon in Come to the Stable.

Janice Rule (Merle) had supporting roles in many TV series during the 1950s and early 1960s, including The Twilight Zone, Checkmate and Route 66. Her best film roles came in Welcome to Hard Times (1967), The Ambushers (1967) and The Swimmer (1968).  She was married to actor Ben Gazzara from 1961 to 1982. Ironically, since she plays Kim Novak’s rival in this film, Rule played the role of Madge in Picnic on Broadway, while Novak took that role in the movie version.

Howard McNear (Andy White, Shep’s co-publisher) was seen previously in Bundle of Joy and is best known for his role as Floyd the barber in TV’s The Andy Griffith Show.


So far this is the only film for which I cannot find any direct connection to Fred Astaire.  It does feature a delightful scene atop the Flat Iron building on 23rd Street just a few blocks from where Fred, his mother and sister lived when they first moved to Manhattan in 1905, but that’s it.


Snow, Manhattan, the Flat Iron building, Jack Lemmon, and a clever, touching script.  Oh, and Pyewacket, of course!  (By the way, this is the only film in our holiday watch list that includes a cat, except for a brief scene in The Thin Man when Asta surprises a cat in the Thin Man’s shop.)


Turner Classic Movies will show Bell, Book and Candle on January 23 at 2:30 a.m.

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