My 10th selection for the 12 Films of Christmas is one that might, at first, seem like a head-scratcher. I’m sure there are people doing a double take and looking to see if, perhaps, I meant Halloween. I can’t blame them. Traditionally, “Bell, Book and Candle” is brought up around October 31, when moviegoers are seeking some supernatural movies that aren’t gore-fests. In the case of this 1958 Columbia Picture, even though it swirls around a curvaceous witch and her cat familiar, it is very much a Christmas motion picture.
The studios had high hopes for this otherworldly comedy. The Kim Novak–Jimmy Stewart love story, with laughs, was a rom-com before the word was even invented. What sets it apart is that the lovelorn heroine, Gillian Holyrod (Novak), is not a “good girl.” In fact, she’s not really a girl at all, not a mortal one in any case. Gillian is a witch, and she resides in Greenwich Village—where else?—surrounded by beatniks, bongo players, artists, poets, and nonconformists. It’s a wise choice for a witchy woman who wants to pass as just one of the girls.
Novak is perfectly cast as Gillian. Her hair is blond and circles her head like a nimbus. With her heavy-lidded eyes, petulant pout, and husky voice, she appears like a woman who can make any man fall in love with her by snapping her fingers. That’s practically what happens in this film, when Gillian decides to cast a spell over her former schoolmate’s fiancé (James Stewart).
A few months prior to filming “Bell, Book and Candle,” Novak and Stewart had teamed up for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Perhaps this familiarity and having had the chance to work for a master perfectionist like Hitchcock, their pairing is believable and never strains credulity. (This is quite remarkable, because in 1958 Stewart was 50 and Novak was 25. It doesn’t emit “creepy older guy” vibes. Stewart seems bewitched and bewildered, and Novak appears bewitchingly ageless. She doesn’t fall into any age category; she just is.)
Born out of spite, the Gillian Holyrod and Shep Henderson “love at first sight” affair can’t possibly last. It’s Christmas Eve and Gillian is just pulling a prank out of mischief and boredom. While humans might string popcorn or play their Nat King Cole Christmas album extra loud, Gillian decides to meddle in romance. Shep’s fiancée, Merle (Janice Rule), was supposedly so beastly to Gillian during their schooldays that we aren’t supposed to judge Gillian’s interference too harshly.
However, the spell does extend from Christmas Eve, when Stewart’s Henderson decides to spend the night with his newfound love, Gillian, into the next morning. On Christmas Day, when Merle and Shep Henderson are set to tie the knot, he shows up at her apartment and announces that the wedding is off. He is completely under Gillian’s control. She has stolen his heart, his mind, his future, and his good sense.
Gillian is not alone in her witchy ways. Her bumbling, eccentric aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and her brother Nicky the warlock (Jack Lemmon) are also part of the downtown Manhattan scene. Gillian’s pet/familiar is a Siamese cat named Pyewacket, and it is this character that displays the most moral attitude in the film. As Gillian schemes and hatches more plots against the jilted, hapless Merle, Pyewacket has enough and abandons her owner. It’s a sign of how many thresholds of decency Gillian has crossed that even a witch’s magical familiar has decided that it can’t tolerate any more.
The Holyrod clan, or coven I suppose, acknowledge Christmas and all of the festivities that surround it. Gillian runs an art gallery and her taste is avant-garde and unpredictable. The witches have a Christmas tree and it is hyper modern, but shiny packages and gifts tied with bows snuggle beneath its futuristic silhouette. It’s akin to the Harry Potter franchise films where the students attend Hogwarts Academy to learn wizardry and magic spells, but they still get off for Christmas break.
While Potter’s Christmas set décor is lush, opulent Victorian or Edwardian England, “Bell, Book and Candle” is very 1950s New York chic. If you’re a fan of “Mad Men,” imagine this is how Roger Sterling would’ve decorated his love nest if he and Joan Holloway ever moved in together. The furniture, the ornaments, the dresses—they all shriek affluent sophistication and folks who are flush with cash.
Stewart’s besotted character is a book publisher, so he is literate and loaded! When he is initially targeted by Gillian as her next dupe, she whispers to Pyewacket, “Maybe you’d like to get me something nice for Christmas. Maybe the man who lives upstairs?” So, the decision to ensnare a mortal man is passed off as a last-minute Christmas decision. Forget Amazon and its Prime Delivery deals, Gillian and her cat have a very different idea about expediency and people who are difficult to shop for.
When “Bell, Book and Candle” debuted, after a limited November rollout, Columbia Pictures released it worldwide on December 25, Christmas Day. It seems almost preposterous to think that during the supposedly uptight Eisenhower years, a mainstream motion picture studio was hip enough to schedule a Christmas debut for a film about a cutting-edge coven.
Most likely, the presence of eternal nice guy Jimmy Stewart had a lot to do with ameliorating the demonic, satanic overtones. Well into middle age, he still managed to have that “boy next door” forthrightness. This was Stewart’s last hurrah as a leading man, and it’s well worth a watch because of that. The early-morning shot of Novak and Stewart on a New York City rooftop, surrounded by freshly fallen Christmas snow, is surreal and sultry. Stewart speaks for the whole audience when he tells his enchantress: “There’s a timelessness about this. I feel spellbound.”
I think most viewers will agree. They’ll be anxious to see if Pyewacket finds his way back home; does Shep Henderson find his soul and locate his true feelings; will warlock Nicky discover his place in the human world; and is Gillian Holyrod fated to always be isolated and alone? She seems like the girl who has everything, but she learns this Christmas holiday that she has nothing at all. It’s a rich, retro movie, and one that can be streamed or purchased on DVD and Blu-Ray, too.