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Bell Book and Candle – and Other-ing
Bar Harbor
Majorkestrell and I recently re-watched Bell Book and Candle (1958). It’s a mostly fun, if problematic, romantic comedy with Jimmy Stewart essentially playing Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak playing a sophisticated modern day witch who casts a spell on him. Also a great supporting cast, including Jack Lemmon (on the bongos!), Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs, and Hermione Gingold.

The major problematic aspect is that, by the rules of this movie, witches are literally “not human” and are incapable of love. If a witch does fall in love, then she loses all her witch powers and “becomes human”. Naturally, lots of Wiccans and Wiccan-friendly people take offense at this. The offensiveness actually gets worse, in my mind anyways, once you realize that “witch” is a wafer thin metaphor for “homosexual”. Though I admit it does lead to some very funny moments, such as when Ernie Kovacs (playing an alleged expert on magic) confidently tells a room full of closeted witches that he can “just tell” if someone is actually a witch.

As we watched, I often felt myself strongly reminded of another movie which on the surface looks very different, but actually isn’t: Chasing Amy (1997). Both of them are about a straight white guy who has troubles with his romantic relationship, because she’s queer. They even both feature scenes where the woman loses support from her queer community due to her new relationship.

Of course, the endings are quite different. In 1958 Hollywood, the only possible “happy ending” to such a story is for the queer woman to become a normal straight woman. Chasing Amy has a more honest ending: the relationship ends up failing because the straight white guy, despite having a somewhat-raised consciousness, is fundamentally unable to cope with someone so outside his experience.

I do like both movies. But they do make me long for more stories that show the possibility of happy relationships between two people who celebrate their differences. Season two of Sense8 can’t come soon enough!

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You're not the first to notice this (just Google John van Druten Bell, Book, and Candle and homosexuality). Van Druten was a (not very effectively) closeted homosexual, and his play--the source of the movie--ran on Broadway in 1950, at a time when Communists and homosexuals were the target of McCarthy and the HUAC, which was referred to even then as--what a coincidence!--a witch-hunt. So Van Druten writes a comedy about witches, and three years later, Arthur Miller writes a tragedy about the Salem witch hunt. Both enjoyed great commercial success. . .guess the McCarthyites didn't go to the Theahtuh--or wouldn't know a subtext if it bit them.

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