Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 9

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

What’s a Christmas movie starring Jimmy Stewart? No, not that one. What’s a movie where Jimmy Stewart becomes romantically obsessed with Kim Novak? No, not that one either. Turns out both of these questions have an unexpected answer. “Bell, Book and Candle” is a witchcraft themed romantic/comedy from 1958, back when they made rom-coms that were actually romantic and funny. Though not extremely highly regarded, the film does command a certain degree of respect among classic cinema buff. It was one of the few films my dad owned on VHS so I’ve always been curious about it. Time to give it a watch.

It’s Christmas time and Gillian Holroyd, a witch living in Greenwich Village among a subculture of witches and warlocks, is lonely. Her life has gotten a little boring and she longs for some romance. She’s attracted to her upstairs neighbor, book dealer Shep Henderson. Yet Shep is engaged. However, some enchantment fixes that. Soon, Shep falls into Gillian’s arms. The whirlwind romance eventually runs into trouble when Shep realizes that magic is responsible for his feelings. Gillian, meanwhile, realizes she’s actually falling in love with the guy.

What really makes “Bell, Book and Candle” worth checking out is the chemistry between Stewart and Novak. Though Stewart is enchanted by Novak, the attraction is real. After she casts her spell, causing him to fall for her, the two spend the night together. The next scene opens suggestively, the two talking intimately while the camera pans over the snowy park. It’s immediately revealed the two are hugging atop the Flatiron Building but you assume they were cuddling in bed. There’s at least one other scene like that, the lovers snuggling on a couch. And who could blame Stewart for falling for her? The scene where Novak holds her cat, a familiar named Pyewacket, focuses on her captivating eyes.

Being a film about witchcraft, there’s plenty of magical shenanigans to be had. Jack Lemmon has a showy role as Novak’s brother, a warlock named Nicky. Strictly for his own amusement, he tricks an author who writes phony books about witches. This subplot doesn’t go much of anywhere but it does lead to a few amusing scenes, such as when Lemmon magically messes with a kissing couple. Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein herself, also has a funny supporting part as Queenie, Novak’s aunt. Lanchester adds an eccentric spark, making the character flighty and full of quibs. A late film sequence, where Stewart goes to Lanchester for magical assistant, is a goofy lark.

Despite being a breezy comedy, “Bell, Book and Candle” summons some honest emotion by the end. Inevitably, Stewart discovers that Novak enchanted him. Yep, this forces a break-up. Of course, the two are destined to get back together. Usually, this end-of-the-second-act stuff in rom-coms makes me roll my eyes. It ends up working here, because the actors play up the absurdity. Novak is so angry she curses Stewart with blindness. After regaining his sight, he drives to her shop and gifts her a broom. The movie isn’t going for serious drama, even though it could’ve. Instead, it cranks up the wackiness. The sincerity helps too, after Novak realizes she really does love the guy. All of this leads to a more satisfying lovers reunion.

It’s true “Bell, Book and Candle” is only barely a Christmas movie. The first act is set on Christmas Eve, leading to an amusing sequence where the witches’ give each others gifts, around a very art deco Christmas tree. The rest of the film is presumably set in late December and January. Though the snow stays on the ground throughout, so at least it maintains a wintry atmosphere. For combining good-natured laughs, winning performances, and a sweet streak, “Bell, Book and Candle” emerges as a totally pleasant watch. It won’t fill you with as much Christmas cheer as “It’s a Wonderful Life” but it’s still a good time. [7/10]

Dinosaurs: Refrigerator Day

As a kid, I loved the series “Dinosaurs.” It was made to appeal to young’uns like me, who loved dinosaurs, elaborate puppetry, and sitcom bullshit. Re-watching the show as an adult, I see that some of the criticism leveled its way  – Yes, it owes a lot to “The Simpsons.” Yes, the baby is annoying. – is fair. But I’m still a fan. “Refrigerator Day” was the series’ oddball take on a Christmas episode. As in many sitcoms before, the family’s holiday is threatened when dad, Earl, doesn’t receive his seasonal bonus. (The “Simpsons” Christmas special I reviewed earlier in the month had an identical premise.) The big difference is that the dinosaurs don’t celebrate Christmas, obviously being a pre-Christian society. Instead, they celebrate Refrigerator Day, commemorating the invention of the fridge, so that dinosaurs everywhere didn’t have to spend all their days hunting food.

Some of the funniest stuff in “Refrigerator Day” concerns the Sinclair family’s financial woes. Before getting the bad news from his psychotic boss, Earl has a daydream about Mr. Richfield being nice to him, sharing his fireplace and a hot toddy with his underling. This is in stark contrast to the reality. When the family’s fridge is repossessed, Earl threatens to kill himself. This signals his mental breakdown. In one scene, he puts melted ice cube treys into the nonexistent fridge. Probably the biggest laugh occurs when the rest of the family decides to return to their gifts to the store, so that they’ll have the funds to buy back the fridge. It’s a common plot but, in the universe of “Dinosaurs,” return policies are foreign concepts. Fran and the kids have to badger the store staff into taking their product back, leading to some amusingly circular dialogue. My favorite of which is “Do you want to become a store? It’s a big responsibility.”

The ritual of Refrigerator Day itself takes precedence in the second half. The dinosaurs bake moldy pies, which are only eaten after two days of fasting. Earl’s breakfast, a small talking creature, thinks this is a great idea. Christmas carols have been rewritten into Fridge Day carols, including one that urges people to buy paints. After loosing their fridge, the family reenacts the Refrigerator Day pageant. This play tells the story of the invention of the fridge, when a dinosaur family, long ago, got tired of hunting food and built a box to keep things cold. Naturally, everyone’s performances in the play are very stiff and tired. The conclusion – let’s plug this thing into the wall – is a bit of a lame punchline. But “Dinosaurs” earns points for committing totally to an oddball skit.

If you can’t stand the ear-splitting voice of Baby Sinclair, you’ll be happy to know he plays a pretty small role in this episode. The puppetry effects are typically excellent, though there’s one or two moments when dino mouths aren’t moving perfectly in sync with the dialogue. I guess nostalgia plays a big role but I still enjoy “Dinosaurs” as a whole and this episode especially. Then again, I have soft spots for weirdo rewrites of Christmas traditions, if you haven’t noticed already… [7/10]

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