Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Bewitched Craft

[Photo: Agnes Moorehead, Maurice Evans as Endora,Maurice]

I remember clearly when a neighbor told my mom about this new series Bewitched, already a few weeks into its first season.   I begged Mom to let me stay up late (8 pm, I guess -- I didn't learn time until second grade!) to watch it.  I identified those characters with my family, and my sense of myself to this day owes something to that light-hearted show (see "My Mountain of Mystery").  I latched onto the word "warlock" spoken with the first appearance of the character "Maurice" (pictured above), and hoped to discover I was one. That's why I never read the Harry Potter books: that story was my inner life for years.

The surprise in viewing some early episodes on DVD is the seriousness of the creators Sol Saks and frequent director William Asher (husband to the star, Elizabeth Montgomery) and its marvelous cast.   By the end of the series in 1972, we were seeing pretty much the same story every week (witch casts spell on Darrin but Samantha saves the day by explaining that it was all an idea for an ad campaign).  Here's a quick run-down on some moments that aren't funny or gimmicky at all, even though that Sixties laugh-track continues non-stop:
  • Husband Darrin (actor Dick York) is apprehensive about meeting his mother-in-law, who's a witch - ha, ha.  But he's the one who answers the doorbell when she's expected for dinner.  He opens the door, and there's Agnes Moorehead wrapped in some exotic shimmery thing, scowling.  The music goes soft with strings, and Darrin smiles.  Camera shifts to Endora, and her scowl softens.  They're cat and mouse for seasons afterward, so this beginning was a surprise. 
  • Same episode, just a minute later:  Endora fixes her own martini and challenges Darrin with rapid-fire questions:  What do you do, and why is it worth doing, and why are you preventing my daughter from being who she is?  Darrin keeps a tense smile, and tries to argue his perspective, that this is to be a normal family. "What's normal for you," Endora says, deadly serious, no laughs on the laugh track, "is asinine for us."
  • In an episode with the irrelevant title "A is for Aardvark," Darrin is bed-ridden, so Samantha magically arranges for the house to cooperate with Darrin's every whim.  With a little taste of power, Darrin embraces witchcraft, quits his job, arranges to sell the house, and plans a life of endless amusement.  Then there's a delivery at the door: flowers and a little engraved bracelet for Samantha.  He apologizes for how simple these items are: "I ordered them weeks ago."  With the camera tight on her face, Samantha bursts into tears as she smiles and thanks Darrin and pleads with him to see that this is all that matters to her, not the witchcraft or the fur coat or anything else. Nothing funny about this; and I'd swear Elizabeth Montgomery wasn't aware of the cameras or a script: it seems real.
  • There's nothing funny when Jack Warden as Darrin's client "Rex Barker," drunk at a dinner party, backs Samantha into a corner and gropes her just out of the camera's view.  She turns him into a poodle.  But when she tells Darrin what happened, he blames her and says she over-reacted.  Her indignation is not funny.  (I'm reminded uncomfortably of Elizabeth Montgomery's made-for-TV movie after the series.  In "A Case of Rape," she played a woman beaten and raped by an acquaintance, blamed by cops and husband for "asking for it.")
  • Actress Marion Lorne is "Aunt Clara," an elderly witch who can't do magic the way she used to.  The scriptwriters treat her character with care:  Samantha adores her, covers for her, and fiercely stands up for her when Darrin wants her out of the house.  When Aunt Clara causes friction during a visit from Darrin's parents, Darrin visits Aunt Clara in the guest room, intending to tell her -- nicely -- to clear out.  She dithers about her lovely door knob collection, and laughs and smiles.  He never says what he came to say.  Once the door is closed, Aunt Clara gets serious, and speaks to her luggage:  we're not wanted, we'd better leave.  It's not funny;  our hearts go out to her.
  • An episode "And Something Makes Three" is remarkable, first, because magic plays no part in the plot.  There's a disappearing swimming pool to excite the neighbor Mrs. Kravits in the first and last minutes of the show, and there's one of those wavy-screen visions, little witch children on broomsticks.  Otherwise, it's the story of Louise Tate's fear that her husband Larry (Darrin's boss, played by David White),  sixteen years married, won't be pleased to learn that she's having a baby.  Larry's a stock character, a suck-up to clients, obsessed with the ad agency, ogling younger women -- but his joy and a kiss to his wife when he learns her secret seem sincere. 
Aside from these specific episodes, I appreciate the decisions that the producers made from the start, casting Elizabeth Montgomery as the "witch," then surrounding her with actors of the vaudeville era. Everyone else seems to be playing a part on a stage -- wise guy, drunk, bully, glamour queen, haughty old lady.   She alone -- trained on screen, never on stage -- looks and speaks naturally. She focuses intently on the eyes of the person with her, not playing to an unseen audience.  Her makeup is subtle -- a huge contrast to the other women in the show -- and her clothing is appealing but plain -- even Tomboyish.   . 

Looking back on 1964,  I see how the creators picked up on the issues of the day, not for preaching, but just for resonance:
  • Samantha's father Maurice thunders his displeasure when he learns of his daughter's "mixed marriage," a phrase understood then to make the mortal husband analogous to a black man or some other ethnic minority. 
  • In another episode, Samantha carries a sign to protest stereotyping of witches -- which she calls a "minority group" -- mirroring the black Civil Rights movement of the day.  It's hard to believe that these episodes were filmed during "Freedom Summer," a year following Kennedy's assassination, in the year of the Civil Rights Act. 
  • Just a year or so before, Betty Friedan had written in The Feminine Mystique how men removed women from serious roles in society by setting them apart as magically "closer to nature" with their mysterious intuitions and unique power to give birth.  She made women aware how they had to suppress their education and talents to serve their husbands' careers.  Bewitched is that story, exaggerated just a bit.
  • Because the witches we meet are flamboyant men and women who hide in plain sight among "normal" people, there's a parallel to the world of gay men and women -- such as Agnes Moorhead, Paul "Uncle Arthur" Lynde -- involved and hidden in the world of entertainment.  "Why must my daughter hide who she really is?" anticipates the Stonewall "riots" of 1969. 
Finally, I appreciate the theme music credited to Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller.  It starts on a diminished chord, it incorporates the vibraphone used for magical effects in the show, it's perky, and it provides recognizable motifs for incidental music.  

Reflections on episodes from the first of eight seasons of Bewitched, originally televised between September 1964 and June 1965.

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