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New York City has played host to a lot of esoteric fringe groups over the years so it's not hard to believe that witchcraft covens could thrive in that metropolis. And Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Richard Quine's film version of John Van Druten's popular play, has great fun with the idea that witches could blend in quite easily with the other kooks and weirdos living in the "Big Apple." Kim Novak plays an art shop owner named Gillian who takes a fancy to publisher Shepard Henderson (James Stewart) when he visits her store on Christmas Eve. Shepard quickly finds himself falling under Gillian's spell even though he is engaged to be married to Merle (Janice Rule). Romantic complications ensue before arriving at a happy ending without the aid of sorcery. Along the way we're treated to a picturesque tour of Manhattan, a beguiling music score by George Duning, James Wong Howe's atmospheric Technicolor cinematography and an assortment of oddball characters including Gillian's brother, Mickey (Jack Lemmon), a jazz-loving warlock who agrees to help an alcoholic author (Ernie Kovacs) write a book on witchcraft.
Kim Novak was at the peak of her stardom in 1958. Not only was she the most popular box office star in America, thanks to her roles in Picnic (1955), The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) and Pal Joey (1957), but she was finally being treated seriously by film critics after her performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). As part of the complicated negotiations over Vertigo, Novak's co-star James Stewart had agreed to team with the actress again on Bell, Book and Candle but he wasn't happy with the choice of Richard Quine for director. Novak eventually convinced Stewart to accept him but she obviously had ulterior motives - Novak and Quine had been having a secret affair for four years! Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper even printed the allegations just two days prior to the first day of shooting on Bell, Book and Candle which eventually laid to rest previous rumors that had been circulating about a torrid romance between Novak and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Bell, Book and Candle was first made famous on the stage by the married acting team of Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer. Although the film version didn't quite match the popularity of the original play, it did offer moviegoers a sparkling romantic comedy with supernatural overtones and is probably more memorable for its supporting cast than its pairing of Stewart and Novak in their second film together. Jack Lemmon (who would become a major star that same year for Some Like It Hot) practically steals the movie as Novak's bongo-playing hipster brother and Ernie Kovaks, Hermione Gingold, and Elsa Lanchester contribute to the film's quirky comic charm. During the 1959 Oscar® race, Bell, Book and Candle was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction/Set Design and Best Costume Design but lost in both categories.
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Director: Richard Quine
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash, based on the play by John Van Druten
Art Direction: Cary ODell
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: Charles Nelson
Music: George Duning
Cast: James Stewart (Shepard Henderson), Kim Novak (Gillian Holroyd), Jack Lemmon (Mickey Holroyd), Ernie Kovacs (Sidney Redlitch), Hermione Gingold (Mrs. De Pass), Elsa Lanchester (Queenie), Janice Rule (Merle Kittridge).
C-103m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford