Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Bell, Book and Beatnik

The 1958 movie version of Bell Book and Candle was on the other day. It was directed by Richard Quine, a specialist in comedies featuring sexual innuendo, splashy color, and/or Jack Lemmon. The refreshing thing about Quine’s movies is that they actually look good - attractive set design and photography and use of color - which was something you couldn’t take for granted in the Hollywood of the ‘50s and ‘60s; the collapse of the studio system and the rise of cumbersome widescreen processes had condemned us all to a string of badly-designed, badly-shot movies that looked like the cinematic equivalent of summer stock. In Bell Book and Candle, Quine offers a nice urban flavor with a dash of the then-fashionable beat movement, and the stylishness of it all must have been a pleasant surprise in this style-starved period of moviemaking. The film also had quite a bit of influence*, and not just on Bewitched.

But my basic problem with the film is that the approach doesn’t really sit well with the material. In any comedy about witches living among us - call it the “witch-com” - the basic metaphor is that witches are nonconformists, people who don’t have to live by our everyday rules. Quine runs with this idea by making his witches into the most widely-publicized nonconformists of the time: beatniks. Gillian (Kim Novak), the heroine, dresses in all-black outfits (which signalled “beatnik” in movies the way a tie-died shirt would later signal “hippie”); her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) plays in a jazz combo in the inevitable smoke-filled bistro. They are free spirits whose magical powers stand in for what was perceived as the beatniks’ enviable freedom from responsibility; but of course, in the end, Gillian finds love, loses her powers, and settles down with the stolid hero (James Stewart) into a conventional life with conventional responsibilities.

This is a perfectly legitimate approach, but Quine or his screenwriters didn’t change John Van Druten’s original play enough to make it fit in with the style of the movie or the actors. The result is that the dialogue sounds strange in these beat-inspired surroundings, and particularly strange coming out of these actors’ mouths. (Of course, any dialogue at all sounds strange when Kim Novak is delivering it in that Bea-Arthur-meets-Marilyn-Monroe voice.) What we have is a very American approach grafted onto a play with an English sensibility and style. Lines like “it was most extraordinary” may have sounded fine with the original actors, Lili Palmer and Rex Harrison, walking around a generic Broadway living-room set; it sounds wrong with American actors and an “opened-up” setting.

Van Druten was a successful English playwright-director who relocated to America with equal success, scoring a huge hit with the melancholy comedy The Voice of the Turtle and adapting Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories into the play I Am a Camera (which became the great stage musical Cabaret, and which was ignored almost entirely in the overrated movie Cabaret). He’s high on my list of Broadway playwrights whose plays should be in high-school drama textbooks in place of the dreary The Crucible. His plays often revolve around a heroine who tries to have casual affairs, and eventually discovers that she can’t avoid falling in love - a classic Broadway comedy scenario, combining a tantalizing taste of promiscuity with a reassuring dose of monogamy. Sally in Voice of the Turtle is an actress, Gillian in Bell Book and Candle is a witch, but they both find that a a fling with a handsome young man leads to emotional attachments that they weren’t ready for.

But I think that if there’s ever going to be a Van Druten revival, Voice of the Turtle; is the place to start. The biggest problem with Bell Book and Candle, in any form, is always going to be that Gillian Holroyd is kind of an unappealing heroine. The witch-com usually offers a heroine who uses magic for innocent fun or to teach nasty people a lesson - she wants to fit into mortal society but can’t resist making things a little easier in a supernatural way. Samantha Stephens from Bewitched is the classic example.

With Gillian, Van Druten created a character who doesn’t have these built-in redeeming qualities. She doesn’t want to fit into human society, and she doesn’t want to use her powers for good; she sees magic as a way of setting herself above the world, of “altering things... manipulating things for yourself.” Whereas Samantha Stephens uses magic to help people, Gillian uses her powers to amuse herself at the expense of others; the central plot development - her decision to cast a love spell on the hero, Shep (I’ll admit here and now that it seems weird to be seriously analyzing any play with a character named “Shep”) - comes about because she wants to settle a score with an old rival from school. She’s also high-handed and a bit unpleasant with her relatives, threatening her aunt “menacingly and quite frighteningly” and forcing her to swear not to practice witchcraft in the house (Miss Holroyd: “You practice here.” Gillian: “I can be discreet about it. You can’t”). Her main driving force seems to be boredom; it’s boredom with her subculture that leads her to consider giving up witchcraft and marrying Shep, and when that seems to fall through, she tries to go right back into witchcraft. Of course she finds she’s fallen in love and all ends well, but the ending seems unconvincing because, even by comparison with the other supposedly emotion-free witches, she’s come off as a selfish creep for much of the evening. The role can still be salvaged by an actress with the right amount of charm - I’m sure Lilli Palmer did a good job with it; Kim Novak, unfortunately, doesn’t have the kind of charm that would let us overlook the character’s behaviour - but it is a problem. It’s also probably the main reason why BB&C has never been successfully musicalized, despite many attempts to write a musical version; Gillian just isn’t a character who has anything to sing about.

One last word: I don’t want to be the only person to analyze Bell, Book and Candle without mentioning the gay subtext. It’s there, of course, but the problem with putting it front and center - as some productions do - is that it actually makes the play seem more dated. The gay subtext of Bell, Book and Candle, as in some of Noel Coward’s plays, takes an attitude that was typical then but would seem downright homophobic to today’s audiences. (Miss Holroyd: “You’ll see how impractical - well, how impossible, really - love is. Not sex. Sex is allowed. In fact, it’s almost encouraged!”) After all, if you play it as a gay story, then it’s about a gay character who “goes straight” and is applauded for doing so. (Bell, Book and Candle, the sequel: Gillian starts recruiting for the “ex-witch movement.”) In staging BB&C today it’s better, I think, to treat the witches as part of a generic subculture.

*The original Sabrina the Teenage Witch, as introduced in Archie’s “Mad House” comic in the early ‘60s, was clearly inspired by Bell, Book and Candle; for example, the first Sabrina story included the BB&C-derived rule that if she ever fell in love, she would lose her powers (they dropped this rule when they introduced her steady boyfriend, Harvey, aka Archie with dark hair).


RK said...

In a true case of anything on the Internet lives forever, I juust came upon your blog on BB&C in researching info for a musical adaptation I'm working on. I'.. If you're still out there, I'd love your take on some of my ideasm reconceptualizing Gil as a lost and confused, tired of hiding and then falling in love

Anonymous said...

I also go along with the gay subtext. Yes, as many movies of the time, conformity is the moral of the story expected at the end. However, they do a great job demonstrating (in a very subtle fashion) that while it's what society expects, it's not lasting happiness. The actress seems to force her happiness in an uncomfortable way. She submits, but you get the feeling that she has ruined her life. To emphasize this secret ending, we don't end the movie on a kiss, but on the other two characters having fun in the snow, continuing to practice their craft happily around the city ;) A great way to satisfy the censors yet bring a subversive message at the same time.