Bell, Book & Candle

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When Shep Henderson (James Stewart) takes his fiancĂ©e Merle (Janice Rule) to join his new neighbor Gil Holroyd (Kim Novak) and her aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) at the Zodiac Club in Manhattan on Christmas eve he inadvertently stumbled into the subterranean beatnik world of witchcraft. It isn’t long before Gil has Shep literally under her spell, setting into motion a series of screwball events involving a writer (Ernie Kovacs), a gay warlock (Jack Lemon), and a sorceress for hire (Hermione Gingold). To quote Henderson, “it may be Christmas but it sure feels like Halloween”.

Bell, Book & Candle (1958) was a prestige production for Columbia Pictures that brought together many of the greatest talents of the day including Vertigo (1958) co-stars Stewart and Novak, cinematographer James Wong Howe and screenwriter Daniel Taradash. Bell, Book & Candle solidified Novak’s status as a style icon and movie star with its romantic depiction of Beat culture and fashions. The film was made during Stewart’s passionate affair with Novak which imbues Stewart’s final outing as a romantic lead with a unique and palpable heat.

But beneath all of the charm and screwball hijinks of Bell, Book & Candle is the truth of the patriarchal Hollywood studio system that’s recently re-entered the public conscious via Andrew Dominik’s film Blonde (2022). In Bell, Book & Candle the culture of the witches is a kind of utopia that empowers women, homosexuals, and beatniks literally with magic. The James Stewart character of Shep in turn represents the conservativism of America in the fifties and Hollywood by extension. In the scene where Shep confronts Gil rather violently about the love spell she has cast on him it’s easy to project onto the volatile exchange any and all conflicts between the mainstream status quo and whatever marginalized culture one can think of.

The character of the gay warlock Nicky (Gil’s brother) tends to steer the social and political readings of Bell, Book & Candle towards those conflicts between the heteronormative right and the queer culture on the left. This reading is reiterated by the scene where Gil laments being “normal” and “human” after she’s fallen in love with Shep and lost her magical powers along with her beloved cat Pyewacket. This scene can be read as the fear of re-entering the “closet” or as having to forsake the gender of one’s choosing for that which nature and society have chosen in one’s stead.

So the longevity of Bell, Book & Candle as a favorite amongst viewers is two fold. One can enjoy the superficial trappings of the comedy or one can find a deeper relevance and empathy in an allegorical interpretation of the film. There is no right or wrong way to view Bell, Book & Candle. However, it is impossible to deny its significance as a queer coded cinematographic text to the generation before Stonewall.