This post is part of the What A Character! Blogathon. It runs September 22 through 24. It celebrates the character actors who helped make classic film as great as it was.
One of my favorite movies to watch at Christmas-time is Bell, Book and Candle. Growing up, I’d often watch it with my family as we trimmed our tree. It starts off at Christmas time, so that’s how a film about New York City witches and romance came to be associated with the holiday for me. I would have watched it anyway and at other times, and I did. Like many little girls I was impressed by the image and intensity that Kim Novak brought to her role of Gillian Holroyd. Here was an antidote to suburban life. She had a Jean Louis wardrobe to die for. She dressed in mostly knits or velvet in rich or dark jewel tones with a lot of black thrown in. She had a talkative cat as her best friend. She could live and do what she wanted, and she could cast spells. She was anything but boring at first. Repeated viewings of the film made me appreciate another character—that of Elsa Lanchester’s Aunt Queenie—and the actress that played her.
Many best remember Elsa Lanchester for her performance in The Bride of Frankenstein. Despite playing the titular role, she filled a supporting part. Even counting the sometimes cut from the print dual role of Mary Shelley, she had far less screen time than any of the leads, and her bride only appeared at film’s end. She was friends with the director James Whale, another British expatriate who cast her in the role. When Lanchester was younger and skinnier, she seemed a little more exotic than eccentric, and the role makes good use of that, but she made better use of the role. Her body language doesn’t seem human. Her head-twisting is bird-like, and her unnatural scream at the sight of Frankenstein’s monster is deeply disturbing. Lanchester’s long experience as an actress and a dancer was another element at Whale’s disposal to make his superior sequel. Lanchester made her bride more than her now iconic hairstyle, and a lesser actress couldn’t have succeeded under so much “look.”
Elsa Lanchester had both the blessing and misfortune to be married to another actor, Charles Laughton. Both were talented, but Laughton was the more marketable and employed one. People tend to say he was a success despite his lack of leading man looks, but I’d argue that his looks complemented that types of roles he excelled at, ones usually calling for big personalities and employment of actorly tics, but he could be more subtle under the right direction. Before their marriage, Laughton was cast in three silent films starring Lanchester expressly written for her by H.G. Wells. After their marriage, he often would get her cast in his latest production. Sometimes she would appear in featured role, but at other times it was more of a bit part. Not counting their stage roles, they appeared in over a dozen movies together. Via a photographic cameo, he even intruded into her only billed lead, Passport to Destiny.
She outlived her husband, but their much speculated upon marriage and its effect on her career appeared to have a lasting effect on her. She wrote two memoirs, Charles Laughton and I and Elsa Lanchester, Herself, but both focused more on her husband, his career, and their relationship than her career. The first was published when he was alive, and the second was published after his death and not too long before hers. Maybe she was giving the public what she knew they wanted, or maybe she had a hard time distinguishing herself as an individual after a while? Both books are out-of-print, and it may be telling that his biography sells for a much steeper price as a collectible than hers.
Before it segues into their marriage, her memoir details her hard childhood. Her mother Edith Lanchester fled her bourgeois life to cohabit with working-class socialist James Sullivan. Her family responded by kidnapping and institutionalizing her, but political pressure led to her release. Edith was the more extreme of the pair. She forced her children into a life of poverty and trying to live off the radar. Elsa learned how to evade landlords, bailiffs, and the census man before she learned some other childhood skills. She wore shabby handmade clothes. She wasn’t allowed meat, even though her father ate the cheap garbage cuts, because her mother was a vegetarian. Going to school was an adjustment for her, but her mother was supportive of Lanchester learning and managed to get her arts and dance lessons. She began to work as a child to earn money for her family and her independence. In some ways it looked like she escaped one strong personality only to be grabbed into the orbit of another, but she seemed to like her mother much less than she loved her husband.
One of the ironies of Lanchester’s career is that for a woman so famous for being married in real life to Laughton and in reel life to Frankenstein’s monster, she ended up playing many spinsters, some of them painters (Come to the Stable), nurses (Witness for the Prosecution), servants (The Spiral Staircase, Mary Poppins, Les Misérables, The Bishop’s Wife), social secretaries (The Razor’s Edge), mad sisters (Ladies in Retirement), aunts (Bell, Book and Candle), and even a bearded lady (3 Ring Circus). She did play some wives and widows as well, and not all of them were married to her husband’s screen characters (Lassie Come Home), but a good deal were (The Private Life of Henry the VIII, Passport to Destiny). Out of her many roles, she received two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress—in 1949 as the religious painter in Come to the Stable and in 1957 as barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts frustrated nurse in Witness for the Prosecution. Neither were the showy type of supporting roles that normally win the supporting Oscar, and she lost to Mercedes McCambridge in All The King’s Men and Miyoshi Umeki for Sayanora respectively.
In Bell, Book and Candle, she plays one of her aunt roles. The opening credits give us a hint of what type. Each actor in the film has their name shown next to an African mask or sculpture. When Lanchester’s name appears next to a mask with a beard, the soundtrack briefly shifts from melody to a funny-sounding cacophony. Her role is full of all the disorder that implies; she plays a comedic part. Queenie Holroyd is aunt to Gillian and Nicky Holroyd (Jack Lemmon). They come from an old Massachusetts family, which might be a hint at Salem origins. All three live in New York City. Queenie lives in an upstairs apartment in Gillian’s building. Gillian lives in the ground floor combination flat and shop. We would imagine that Aunt Queenie looks after her niece and nephew, but really Gillian looks after the other two. She’s the most responsible one.
We’re introduced to Queenie right away. Jimmy Stewart’s Shep Henderson has returned home to his apartment in the Holroyd building. He unlocks and opens his door to discover Queenie behind his desk. She tries to act as though everything is normal, and she claims she was being helpful. He had left his window open, so she shut it to prevent the snow from coming in and ruining his belongings. He doesn’t understand why his door was locked then, and she offers no explanation. He assumes she is studying dramatics, and he asks her what she is reciting at night. She’s most relieved when he can’t understand what she has been saying. After she lets it slip she not only tidied his desk, but also read his correspondence, he kicks her out for some “personal telephoning.” She tells him her version of an insult, “Before you moved in here, a theosophist lived here, and he was very pleasant.” Before she leaves, she stares at his phone and thinks an incantation. His phone then makes otherworldly sounds.
His phone problem forces him to go downstairs and ask to use Gillian’s phone. She’s pleased she gets to speak to him. She’s been fancying him through her windows. Queenie intrudes again. This time to beg Gillian to accompany her to a nightclub called the Zodiac. She talks it up and enlists Shep to persuade Gillian to go. She also confesses to both that she’s “afraid he thinks I’ve been naughty.” Before long Gillian deduces that Queenie fixed his phone. Once Shep leaves, Gillian angrily reminds Queenie of her promise to be careful. Queenie claims no harm was done, all she did was read his letters. She then claims not to make use of them, but in the next breath tells an interested Gillian he’s about to be married. She’s too ethical to pursue another woman’s man.
Through all of this, we see that Queenie loves being a witch. She takes advantage of her powers to snoop and play pranks and to gossip. Even though she’s older than Gillian, she’s child-like and impulsive. She’s never quite grown up, and her amusements make her giggle to herself like a little girl. One of those amusements is hiding in plain sight. When she talks about how unsuspecting and unimaginative humans are, she says, “I sit in the subways sometimes, on buses, or in the movies, and I look at the people next to me, and I think what would you say if I told you I was a witch?” She laughs and continues, “And I know they would never believe it.” All this makes Queenie a wildcard, and Gillian makes her vow not to do any more magic in the home, lest they get discovered.
We next see Queenie at the Zodiac. Drink in hand, she flits from table to table and then pauses at that of Bianca de Passe (Hermione Gingold). Like Queenie, Bianca is another redheaded witch. She’s not the least child-like. She has a crazy mop of what’s either hennaed hair or a wig, and she’s dressed the part of a grande dame in all her scenes. She tends to wear lace, velvet, bold prints, and statement jewelry. Her garb is less modern looking than Queenie’s and very aging compared to Gillians’. She’s friendly to Queenie, who’s not perceived as a rival, but Bianca dislikes Gillian, who’s a stronger, less hammy in performance witch. Unlike either Holroyd female, Bianca attempts to profit from the craft which gets her labeled as mail order sorceress by Gillian.
Queenie returns to her table and finds a moping Gillian. She wants to cheer her niece up, and she cannot understand why Gillian would like to be in a church on Christmas Eve hearing carols for once instead of bongo drums in a nightclub. They’re interrupted when Queenie discovers her hyping up the nightclub has led to Shep bringing his date to the club. She’s snobby and laughs that one of the other patrons would never be spotted at El Morocco. Before they make it to the Holroyd table, Queenie says the woman must be the fiancée because Queenie saw the woman’s snapshot in his desk. Gillian is astonished to recognize the redhead. She’s Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule), an old rival from Wellesley College that reported Gillian to the dean for not wearing shoes.
After the woman insults Nicky, who’s playing with the band onstage, without know he’s Gillian’s brother, Gillian admits that “all the Holroyds are a little sinister.” Maybe that’s what having access to magic can do to someone, the power is easy to access, abuse, and become addicted to. Gillian in anger and maybe jealousy brings up Merle’s quirk of being afraid of thunderstorms. She talks about all the awful storms that happened during one of their terms. During this, she’s signaled Nicky to switch to stormy weather. They play an uptempo version with horns blaring, and the band surrounds the table as the lights happen to flicker mimicking lightning. It’s too much for Merle who gets up to leave and flees after Nicky screams. Queenie is delighted and cackles.
So now we have three redheaded woman who all contrast each other–impulsive and magic-abusing Queenie, the charlatan-like Bianca, and the very human, but witchy in personality Merle. They represent paths that Gillian could take. Does she continue to live differently and selfishly, try to profit from her craft professionally, or does she not use magic, but settle an old score out of revenge? Two out of the three are spinsters that live alone, and the third uses feminine tricks to get her man.
During the following street scene when the Holroyd’s walk home, Gillian explains her history with Merle, while Nicky demonstrates his new trick of turning off streetlights. Queenie thinks him clever, while Gillian thinks him juvenile and asks him if he will ever grow up. Gillian is considering whether to compete with Merle on a fair playing ground and not use her powers to get him. Queenie becomes scared that Gillian has fallen in love with him and lost her powers, but Gillian says that’s an old wives’ tale, and it’s the other way around. They can’t fall in love. Queenie’s served another one of her purposes of saying expository dialogue that will become important later on.
After the reach Gillian’s apartment, they go inside to exchange Christmas presents. They discuss why previous witches were never rich if they had powers. Queenie says that they weren’t any good at it any more” they are. “We can turn out street lights, but we can’t make anything turn to gold.” Nicky believes Gil could because she’s the most powerful of them, but she’s afraid of the repercussions. They then exchange presents. Nicky gets records from Gillian, but he hasn’t a phonograph. He’s sold his. Gillian says he’ll find one at home. When he wants to know if she bought it or conjured it, Queenie hushes him for being rude. When Queenie opens her present, and finds a beautiful, black, lace scarf, she says, “This is delightful. What does it do?” She can’t conceive of an object not having a magical purpose, so when Gillian replies it makes Queenie look fascinating, she momentarily believes it has glamouring powers. She’s confused when Gillian tells her it has no powers, that she thought it was pretty. Queenie agrees, “It is. It’s very pretty. I love it.” Again magic is thought of as getting or supplying something.
Nicky has the bad taste to regift a magic potion that failed to work for him and to admit it to Gillian. She gets it to work to her family’s delight, and it puts on a strange light show. She uses the potion to summon the author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) that Shep wants to sign. First it brings Shep, who’s convinced her place is on fire. Queenie rushes Nicky out with her to Gillian and Shep time alone. Gillian then tries embarrassing lines that a woman as beautiful as she shouldn’t have to utter. She’s so used to making magic her shortcut to get what she wants that she’s failing in her seduction of him. When she hears Merle has moved up their wedding date to that day, perhaps out of nervousness to Gillian’s close proximity to him, she becomes desperate and grabs Pyewacket. She uses her familiar to cast a spell over Shep. She resorts to magic to get what she wants despite telling her family they are better than that. She’s backslid.
When we next see Queenie, she’s seated on the sofa with her family, and all three are looking very uncomfortable. Gillian’s summoning spell worked, and she made Sidney Redlitch go to Shep, and he in turn has brought the author into Gillian’s home. She doesn’t like him saying he’s going to write a book about the witches of Manhattan, and he knows just enough to maybe make this book more realistic than his previous one. Redlitch claims to be able to recognize witches, yet he has no sense that three are in the room with him at that very moment. He happens to mention the Zodiac as a witch hang-out, and then he mentions how cats are used as familiars when he sees Pyewacket. Queenie departs, lying that she forgot something on the stove. Gillian doesn’t want their family secret uncovered. She sets Nicky the task of throwing Redlitch off their trail, but Nicky hopes to cash in on his heritage and partners with Redlitch on his book.
Later Shep proposes, but Gillian doesn’t want to change her lifestyle. She says she’s “lived for and by the special, not the ordinary.” Shep can’t understand her refusal to accept his proposal and commit. Suddenly she changes her mind and accepts. She’s chosen her path to be different from what she knows, even if that difference is being ordinary. The trouble is she’s used magic to get revenge on Merle like Queenie wanted; she’s profiting from it like Bianca by getting married; and she’s dishonestly snagging a man like Merle. Gillian’s too honest to let Shep marry her without knowing who she is and what she did. She goes to his office and confesses she’s a witch who has put him under her spell. Shep won’t believe her, and he brushes off her incidents of proof as the fantastical imaginings of her female mind. In this scene, Gillian appears her most stereotypically “witchy.” She’s dressed all in black and even wears a cowl over her head. While she’s baring all verbally, she’s the most covered we’ve seen her indoors.
Queenie bumps into Shep soon after. She’s thrilled. She cannot believe that Gillian is getting married to an outsider to whom she’s revealed herself. She exclaims that is unprecedented. She tells Shep to call her Auntie now. Shep’s confused. Gillian didn’t reveal that her family are witches to him, only that she is. He asks Queenie if she believes herself to be one, too. She tries to prove it by replying how else could she get into his locked apartment. He tries to get her to unlock the front door, but she refuses saying she took the oath for Gillian, who’s the gifted one in the family. Strangely Shep isn’t too bothered until Queenie accidentally reveals that Merle and Gillian had a history and that Gillian swiped him out of revenge. When he hears his first attempted marriage was precluded because Gillian only liked him, that’s when he becomes angry. Queenie worsens it by saying that liking someone is a big deal for them, that and hot blood are allowed, but not love. Queenie’s talking leads to a fight between Shep and Gillian that causes them to break-up, once he’s used Bianca to break the love spell.
When he visits Gillian for a final insult, she get angry and threatens revenge, but she can’t find Pyewacket to cast a spell against Merle. Shep flees to check on Merle. Meanwhile Queenie finds the cat. He was on the roof, so she brings him back to Gillian. He flees from her and climbs up the statues on the wall. She gets him down, but he leaps away from her and runs out his cat door into the city streets. Gillian is crying, and when she returns home. Queenie stares at her in amazement. There are “tears, real tears.” She picks one up on her finger and stares at it as Gillian collapses crying in front of a mirror. She’s done something else Queenie has never been able to do, fall in love. She wants to know, “What is it like, Gillian? I’ve never has it. Is it wonderful?” Gillian feels awful.
The following scene takes place in the Zodiac, where Queenie and Nicky are hanging out. Queenie has her head in her hands and looks down. When she says that Gillian has looked so sad the last couple of months, we know time has passed. Pyewacket won’t go back to her, and Gillian won’t go out. She tries to plot how to help Gillian, but Nicky can’t understand that Gillian’s in love. He wonders if she wouldn’t “rather be dead?” Queenie has been forbidden to tell Shep what has happened, but she thinks aloud that “nature might take its course” if the two of them are in a room together. When we see Pyewacket enter Shep’s office in the very next scene we know Queenie decided to meddle, only without using magic. She sent the cat to bring back the man.
When Shep arrives at Gillian’s, we see her shop is now called Flowers of the Sea. She sells seashells and arrangements that look like floral displays, but are crafted with seashells and other natural materials. Gillian is wearing a white dress. It’s the first time we’ve seen her dressed in that color. She admits that Pyewacket is not her cat anymore, and she apologizes for Queenie’s meddling. It doesn’t take Shep long to notice that Gillian is changed and that she’s lost her powers, which only happens for one reason. Nature does take its course as Queenie and Nicky watch through the window. Queenie looks delighted to have made her niece happy, and she looks a little wistful. Nicky makes a disgusted expression. The two of them head off into the night, and Nicky shuts off the streetlights they pass, including the one that Pyewacket, mission accomplished, sits upon.