Bewitched, Bothered and… Kim Novak

The classy Columbia bauble BELL BOOK AND CANDLE  is a playful romantic comedy about witchcraft in New York, starring a very attractive Kim Novak as a soulful sorceress and James Stewart as the neighbor she snags with a minor magic spell. Based on the John Van Druten play, its witches and warlocks have been disassociated from any mention of the Devil or Satanism; Novak’s character has even gotten into the Christmas spirit. Forget the horrors of Rosemary’s Baby or even The 7th Victim; this witchery is little more than an unusual lifestyle choice.  Nope, the delightful folk we meet here are merely a little more eccentric than their nonconformist artistic neighbors in Greenwich Village.

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Fans today enjoy BELL BOOK AND CANDLE as a fanciful followup to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s as if James Stewart’s Scotty Ferguson and Kim Novak’s Judy Barton were granted a special do-over card, an opportunity to re-run their romance under less traumatic conditions. He’s Shep Henderson, a book publisher. Novak is Gillian ‘Gil’ Holroyd, a dealer of exotic African and Oceanic art. A witch looking for passion can cast a spell over any mortal that catches her eye, but Gil is at least a bit tentative about it; she’s even considering abandoning her magic powers. Shep’s fiancée (Janice Rule) is shut out entirely as Gil, with the help of her  cat Pyewacket, draws Shep into an amorous trap. Looking on approvingly are Gil’s Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon). Aunt Queenie uses her spells for her favorite pastime, snooping into other people’s business. The mischievous Nicky is addicted to childish pranks, but also employs the magic touch as a way of earning a living without holding down a job. Nicky recklessly takes the muckraking author Redlich (Ernie Kovacs) under his wing, promising him secret knowledge about the witch & warlock underground. This alarms Madame de Passe (Hermione Gingold), the wise elder member of the local coven.

 

Despite an age difference of 25 years, stars Stewart and Novak  generate major romantic chemistry. Just turning fifty, Stewart still carries a charge of attraction — those pastel sweaters help somehow — while Kim Novak is at her dreamy best at all times. As her Gil Holroyd is meant to have exquisite taste, there’s every reason for her to be a fashion plate at all times. And she’s also no slouch when it comes to the art of wearing soft, fuzzy sweaters. The only truly unbelievable idea in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is that a magic spell would be required  to make Shep Henderson fall head over heels for the enchanting Gil.

 

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is like a mild romantic intoxicant, the perfect diversion from reality. James Wong Howe’s soft Technicolor lensing and George Duning’s lush score remind us of their teaming on Novak’s breakthrough picture Picnic of three years before.  Richard Quine directed Novak’s first movie and would go on to direct two more, Strangers When We Meet and The Notorious Landlady. Filmed entirely on studio sets, the glossy picture gives us jazz sessions in a smoky coffee house called The Zodiac Club and the sight of Nicky using his black magic to make the street lamps flicker on and off.

 

Is there morality among witches? The terminally mischievous Nicky causes some alarm with his plan to collaborate with Redlich on a tell-all book about Greenwich Village witchery. Although increasingly disillusioned with magic, Gil joins with Aunt Queenie to keep Redlich’s book from progressing past the manuscript stage . It’s Jack Lemmon’s last major supporting role before leading player status arrived with his Billy Wilder movies. Lemmon gives his impish smile  a healthy workout, and even gets to perform on the bongoes.

 

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is among Kim Novak’s best pictures, probably because the artistically motivated and unconventional Gil Holroyd character is quite like the actress in real life. We can easily imagine Ms. Novak lounging around in her hip-chick leotards and conversing with a favorite pet. In interviews Novak has claimed that she found Stewart to be personally irresistible, and the warm attraction shows on screen. After the heavy dose of  shock and tragedy in Vertigo, this romantic jaunt is a cozy time-out with two beloved idols.

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Kim Novak was a special guest two years ago for the TCM Fest’s gala screening of Vertigo. She returned tonight to the welcoming and appreciative TCM audience. Host Robert Osborne made a special note of pointing out Ms. Novak’s honesty in interviews, and she proceeded to express her dismay at what happened at the last year’s Oscar presentation. In the network television coverage Novak looked and sounded a bit unfocused, which hardly justified what followed: an ugly mini-storm of snide web posts and cheap jokes went viral on the web. It happened because an anxious Kim took a mild tranquilizer before the show, on an empty stomach. Osborne agreed that the cruel attitude toward celebrities on Oscar broadcasts has gotten out of hand, what with Liza Minnelli being pre-targeted for a cheap shot in this year’s show. Ms. Novak thanked the TCM crowd for understanding, and finished her interview to applause and calls of, “We love you, Kim!”