Candlelight

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Fiona always had a problem with BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE — she loves Kim and Jimmy and Jack and Elsa and everybody else — she certainly loves Pyewacket — loves the artificial/real New York construct and the Christmastime setting — loves James Wong Howe’s lustrous lighting and the daring use of colour (including that green glow that follows Kim into VERTIGO)… she just had a problem with the whole “giving up witchcraft” thing.

This time round, persuaded by the film’s persistence that being human is somehow preferable, Fiona went with it, more or less. Giving up superhuman powers in exchange for being able to weep, blush and drown still doesn’t seem a very good deal, but on closer examination the movie may not be about female disempowerment at all. Flowing as it does from the enchanted pen of John Van Druten, it may be more about being a social outsider and finally finding a place in the mainstream — in fact, it may well be about being gay during a particularly oppressive period, and yearning for a situation where one can love openly.

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It seems to me that Jack Lemmon’s Nicky is coded gay, and that Lemmon is playing him that way, though Fiona isn’t convinced — hard to tell with Lemmon, who’s always light, never macho, but never particularly sexual one way or the other. It’s just not a significant part of his instrument. He carries no whiff of ambiguity normally, but here I think he’s aiming for a more pixie-like persona than usual. But maybe that’s because he’s playing a warlock.

Of course, whatever the film’s hidden or overt meanings, it’s also the climax of Richard Quine’s career as a visual stylist. There are a lot of beautiful things in his other films, but the concentration of style and glamour here reaches something like critical mass.

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23 Responses to “Candlelight”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    I tumbled to the gay allegory within the first 15 minutes or so. One look at Kim Novak swooning over the boy next door and I thought “Oh my God, that’s me!” and spent the rest of thew movie on the verge of tears. And I’m not the only man who’s reacted to it in that way…

  2. I was reminded a bit of Rivette’s Histoire de Marie et Julien. Witches can’t cry, revenants don’t bleed. Makes me want to re-see the Rivette.

  3. Stupid footnote: There’s a sound effect they use for magic spells (Lemmon zapping streetlamps, for example) that had a very long afterlife in Hanna Barbara cartoons. It was familiar enough to seem startling in a movie.

  4. More to the gay allegory: Just now recalling that James Stewart spends a fair amount of time seeking a cure. He assumes falling for a witch can’t be natural.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    The film’s only weak spot (for me) is the notion that anyone – whatever their sexuality – would fancy James Stewart. I know that’s heresy, of course…and his brand of befuddled normalcy does play well in that situation.

    Imagine if she fancied Cary Grant or Tyrone Power? That might rob the movie of much of its conflict.

  6. The metaphor is nicely confused by the fact that he is the object of desire but loving him = normalcy. So if Kim represents a gay man, Jimmy must represent a straight woman. But at any rate, he represents heteronormative America, and who could do that better than Jimmy Stewart? He certainly didn’t evoke ambiguity in Rope.

    He was, irl, quite the babehound, so he must’ve had something. Beyond the oft-cited likeability.

  7. david wingrove Says:

    In contrast to so many other Hollywood stars, I don’t know of a single gay man who ever fancied Jimmy Stewart.

    Perhaps I’ve just led a sheltered life?

  8. It’s gay alright. In fact one could construct an entire “Gay Jeopardy” quiz ’round Bell Book and Candle. To begin with John Van Druten was gay. He didn’t adapt Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” as I Am A Camera fer nothin’ y know!

    The “Zodiac Club” is most definitely a pre-Stonewall gay bar. That Lemmon’s Nicky turns off street lights “for his romantic life” is a “tell” if there ever was one.

    You’re rght about it expressing a longing for “normalcy” read assimilation. But I’drather be wisked to the top of the Flatiron Building for a pre-dawn smooch than ANYTHING.

    I simply adore this film. Made the same year as Vertigo it gives Jimmy and KIm the Happy Ending Hotchcock couldn’t.

  9. Here’s a poem by Frank O’Hara, At The Old Place

    “Joe is restless and so am I, so restless.
    Button’s buddy lips frame “L B T TH O P?”
    across the bar. “Yes!” I cry, for dancing’s
    my soul delight. (Feet! Feet!) “Come on!”

    Through the streets we skip like swallows.
    Howard malingers. (Come on, Howard.) Ashes
    malingers. (Come on, J.A.) Dick malingers.
    (Come on, Dick.) Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,
    Alvin.) Jack, Earl, and Someone don’t come.

    Down the dark stairs drifts the steaming cha-
    cha-cha. Through the urine and smoke we charge
    to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide.

    (It’s heaven!) Button lindys with me. (It’s
    heaven!) Joe’s two-steps, too, are incredible,
    and then a fast rhumba with Alvin, like skipping
    on toothpicks. And the interminable intermissions,

    we have them. Jack, Earl and Someone drift
    guiltily in. “I knew they were gay
    the minute I laid eyes on them!” screams John.
    How ashamed they are of us! we hope.”

    This poem was written in 1955 but not published until 1969 –three years after O’Hara’s death. As you can see it’s about a clandestine dance club. In tose days gays and lesbians risked arrest for merely CONGREGATING. Dancing was of course Verboten in the extreme.
    As the leading light of the “New York Poets” and a major booster ofAbrract Expressionuism O’Hara led quite a charmed life. Read Brad Gooch’s bio “City Poet” for all the details and dish.

    O’Hara’s death was quite sudden. He was walking back from one party to go to anoter on Fire Island when he was hit by a slow-moving beach buggy. He was chatting with J.J. Mitchell (a great beauty of the day he was in the process of acquiring) when he was struck in mid-conversation. Mtchell didn’t know what had happened at first. Frank had simply stopped tlaking. e turnedaround and there he was on the sand. He was flown by helicopter to a hospital in new York, but his internal injuries were so severe he died a few ays later trying, reportedly, to calm his sobbing friends. He left a zillion widowers in his wake.

    And yes, he adored Kim Novak.

  10. david wingrove Says:

    How could anyone not adore Kim Novak?!

    Vertigo, BB&C, Lylah Clare, Kiss Me Stupid, Picnic, Strangers When We Meet, Pushover…her lack of any major reputation at all has never ceased to amaze me

  11. Well now that Vertigo has been voted “Best-est Movie EVAH” that should change.

    I quite agree that Bell Book and Candle is the apex of Quine’s career asa visual stylist. I artcularly love the pastel lights in the sequence where the French warlock performs. Quine was the Numer One “House Director” at Columbia and Harry Cohen apparently gave him a lot of free reign here. Raymond Durgnat always spoke of Quine in the same breath as Minnelli and this film shows why.

  12. Strangers When We Meet is lovely, and perhaps his most Minnelli-like film: the romantic faith in art as expression of characters’ emotions is there in the treatment for the house Kirk Douglas designs, and which somehow captures his feelings for La Novak.

  13. John Seal Says:

    Lemmon is reasonably macho in Save the Tiger, but of course he’s cast opposite the even more effete Jack Gilford.

  14. Oh, Lemmon could toughen up when the role required it, with no obvious sense of strain. In fact, he’s arguably more natural when he suppresses the light comedy. Love him either way.

  15. chris schneider Says:

    I love it when Stewart tries to tell Janice Rule that his beloved is a witch, provoking the response “You never could spell, could you?”

  16. Just realized that Kim Novak took Janice Rule’s Broadway role in the film of Holiday, which must have made that on-screen rivalry all the more convincing.

  17. I recently saw a beautiful print of Strangers When We Meet. It’s gorgeous, and I agree with your assessment of the use of the architecture in the home’s construction. Now I need to see B, B & B onscreen.

  18. I meant B, B & C, of course.

  19. I should think a big screen viewing would be quite something. The more I think of it, the more I think it’s the most overt gay-coded film ever.

  20. NOT THAT IT NEGLECTS HETEROSEXUALITY ENTIRELY

  21. No Kim Novak movie can leave the straight folks entirely out in the cold.

    Just watched her TCM interview and found her very likable.

  22. She’s unique. The Thinking Person’s Goddess.

  23. And she’s of Czech descent and from Chicago, so I have to love her.

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