The holiday season is a time for traditions, from the people we spend it with, to the food we eat, to the films we watch. The best movies, for the most part, are stories of reflection and redemption. One that is incredibly popular — including in my house — is It’s a Wonderful Life. However, while it might be his most iconic, James Stewart’s turn as George Bailey is far from his only Christmas romp.
A little over a decade after the Bedford Falls adventure, Stewart was put under a different kind of spell in Bell, Book and Candle, appearing alongside Kim Novak for the second time in 1958. While Vertigo is their most popular collaboration, this Christmas witch story is not to be ignored.
Released on Christmas Day 1958, Bell, Book and Candle was first a success on Broadway in 1950; Daniel Taradash adapted John Van Druten’s play for the screen. In the opening moments, snow falls, “Jingle Bells” can be heard, and New Yorkers are seen carrying trees. It is an image that looks right out of When Harry Met Sally or You've Got Mail, several decades before Nora Ephron became a screenwriter. Christmas is meant to be a happy time of year, but sometimes the holidays leave people feeling blue.
Shifting from the cold outside into a Greenwich Village shop specializing in African artifacts, Gillian (Kim Novak) laments to her cat Pyewacket about her feeling of restlessness. She is stuck in a rut; she wants to do something different, meet someone different. She is bored with her Christmas traditions. Cue James Stewart as neighbor Shepherd “Shep” Henderson stepping out of a cab. “He’s different. Why don't I ever know people like that? Why don’t you give me him for Christmas, Pye?” An odd request for a regular feline, but Pyewacket is Gillian’s familiar, playing an important role in the central romance of this film. Gillian's right; James Stewart would make an excellent gift.A meet-cute is orchestrated by Gillian’s aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) — also a witch — after she has put a hex of sorts on his phone. This puts Shep in Gillian’s orbit as he needs to borrow hers to report the unusual sounding fault on his line. In this conversation, they partake in the usual pleasantries about what they do for a living. Shep even has a classic rom-com job as a book publisher. She is reluctant to go out with her aunt that evening, but Shep encourages Gillian to not stay at home. It is Christmas Eve, after all.
Gillian’s existential crisis continues at the Zodiac Club. She longs for carols in a little church, not the bongos her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) plays and the same old faces she sees in this witch hangout. This time of year reminds Gillian of her witch status. She isn’t “normal,” something she longs for. Christmas movies — particularly the romantic kind — often feature a protagonist wanting to switch places with someone else. This might be the lavish life of a princess, but all Gillian wants is to experience the humdrum. She thinks it would be pleasant to be around ordinary people.As a witch there are certain rules when it comes to emotions; in Bell, Book and Candle there is a theory a witch can’t cry or love. Once again, enter Shep, as he too seems to be looking for something new, ditching the usual hangout for a night in the Zodiac with his fiancée Merle (Janice Rule). Earlier, Gillian has decided Shep is off limits after finding out he is engaged, but when she realizes Shep’s fiancée was her personal tormenter at college, all bets are off. Her witch ennui has been replaced with a swirling mix of desire and revenge on her former nemesis (it doesn't help that Merle still appears to be awful).
Gillian’s relationship with magic is fraught as she thinks using it too much becomes “habit forming.” Her brother and aunt don’t see it like this; Nicky questions why witches can't use powers to make themselves rich. Instead, his party trick is simply turning out street lights. Riches come in many different forms, another notion holiday movies like to underscore. And as with regular humans, one tradition these witches enjoy is gift giving.Gillian is way ahead of the 1960s aluminum tree trend, eschewing a typical tree for a fabulous gold wire, gold bauble affair that matches her artistic sensibilities. It is like she is trying to partake in this tradition, but something is holding her back. A green fern wouldn’t go with her beatnik Greenwich Villiage aesthetic or her shop decor.
Gillian's whole look is effortless from the cropped black pants and turtlenecks to hooded capes paired with fur mufflers for those snowy walks home. Costume designer Jean Louis keeps things simple, but with the most intricate details including embellishments on the slash-neck maroon frock, complete with a jaw-dropping backless reveal. Kim Novak would be bewitching without her powers in this array of costumes that look just as incredible 60 years after the film first came out.Beneath the tree sits gifts for the present exchange with her family, which is also pretty run-of-the-mill. Nicky receives records and she gifts Queenie with a beautiful shawl. Nicky asks "Did you witch it or did you pay for it?" He knows his sister is holding out on them, as she is the most powerful witch in their family, but this question goes against good present-giving social etiquette. Queenie is confused by her gift, asking what it does. “Makes you look fascinating” is Gillian's response. Its only power is that it looks pretty. These are regular gifts to match Gillian’s longing to be regular. But you can’t have a rom-com without a bit of intervention, magic or otherwise. Nicky refers to his gift for Gillian as “a mingy present,” which mostly sounds unpleasant, but is really his way of saying how little money he has. Unlike her earthbound offerings, Nicky got her a potion that will summon any person she wishes to draw into her presence. Instead of picking Shep, she instead chooses the author Shep wants to sign. She’s taking the high road by not messing with his relationship.
Except Shep stops by — he sees the spell and thinks the building is on fire — revealing his wedding has been bumped up to Christmas Day. Drastic action is taken as they are already in the early hours of December 25. A gift exchange is on the cards, but this is not a case of returning an unwanted item to a store. Instead, she uses Pyewacket to make him fall for her. She’s into him, so it doesn’t feel like a price she can’t commit to.
The wonder of Christmas rubs off in the following weeks, but when Shep stands atop the Flatiron Building in an embrace with Gillian, while most of Manhattan sleeps below, anything and everything seems possible. He doesn’t really remember the hours that came before, including his desire to go dancing in the snow and being denied access to the Empire State Building, but he is so happy he throws his hat from the top of this iconic building.“There’s a timelessness about this. I feel spellbound,” utters Shep, unknowingly describing the magic performed on him, as well as the essence of what this holiday is about. If Halloween is about pretending to be someone we are not for a night, Christmas movies like to reinforce the notion that anything is possible. The magic of this time of year also comes from realizing what you already have, it isn't about the biggest present, but the people you spend it with.
If you’re looking for a nostalgic holiday rom-com with a magical twist then look no further than Bell, Book and Candle. After all, a witch story isn’t just for fall and Halloween. Witches are the gift that keep on giving.