During the summer season of film that has now sadly ceased, the TV collection was expanded by two boxsets of complete series, both from that great Sixties period of sitcoms that I, the young boy, would watch in hilarious fascination, both along a similar theme. It’s all down to nostalgia and when it was possible to just be completely happy, without worries or fears, but despite the great sitcoms that have come out of the USA since, I don’t feel as if there was ever any better period, any more comprehensively funny time when it semed as if all of them were great.
Of course, as one of them was My Mother the Car, that can’t possibly be the case. Nevertheless, I’d watch any of them again at the drop of a hat, and some more than once, though I suspect my childish delight in things like Gilligan’s Island and The Beverley Hillbillies might not survive too much exposure to the evidence.
Nevertheless, some of them stand up, and Bewitched is obviously one. It was the no. 2 programme in America in its first year and top ten for two further years, eventually producing 254 episodes in eight seasons before it was cancelled due to very low ratings. I’ve watched it twice, though never in full: once in the Sixties and again in the Nineties when first it, the the other boxset series I acquired (of which more next Sunday), were stripped fivre days a week by Channel 4 at 9.30am, for which I set the video recorder every day.
The ‘sit’ is simple: a young, suburban couple, advertising executive Darrin Stephens (Dick York) and a secretarial-type blonde in a pink suit, Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) meet and marry. On their honeymoon, prodded by her disapproving mother Endora (Agne Moorehead), Samantha reveals to her newly-loving husand – before they enter the honeymoon bed, as you might expect – that she is in fact a witch. He refuses to believe it, she proves it, he decides he still loves her but makes her promise not to use magic any more. Samantha promises, willingly but, and this should be no surprise to anyone, finds the promise easier in the making than keeping. Much hilarity ensues.
Actually, it does. The idea isn’t original by any means, being inspired by the 1948 film I Married a Witch and the play-turned-1958-film, Bell, Book and Candle, but it had a lot going for it. The writing is fresh and sharp, and the very subject made room for subtext to underlay the farce, the budget was sufficient for what were for the times quite believable special effects, but most of all it had a sharp cast playing with expert timing.
Elizabeth Montgomery was the star. A former dancer, and wife of Producer William Asher, she was perfect for the role, a fresh-faced, beautiful blonde, the idealistic American suburban housewife that every male wished he had at home, Samantha bucked the trend for dumb, put-upon wives by being conspicuously smarter than her husband, and by being the problem-solver. You could see why Darren loved her and the first couple of episodes especially featured a lot of kissing (for which I was inordinately jealous of Dick York), but he was deliberately limited as a character. Darrin was human, he had no powers, he was completely vulnerable. In the human world he was good at his job, though prey to the nervousness of his boss, Larry Tate, and sometimes far too prone to compromise to the needs of his job, but in the magic world he was helpless, and the butt of disdain. There are already, and will be many more scenes of Darrin panicking, trying to get a situation under control, talking over Sam as he desperately tries to sweep things under the carpe, when all along she has everything sorted for him.
Ninety percent of that came from his mother-in-law, Endora. Agnes Moorehead was a long-established actress who’d been part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre who became most famous as Endora, a role about which she had mixed feelings. Indeed, she had negotiated a contract requiring her to appear in only eight out of every twelve episodes, lreaving her time for either projects. Nevertheless, she played the part with a brilliantly judged degree of OTT. Endora did not think that her daughter had married beneath her in marrying a mortal, she knew it, and she was going to treat Darrin with contempt. She was certain the marriage wouldn’t last and had no objections to hastening along its demise. As witches, she and Samantha were superior beings, and she generally could neither understand nor accept Samantha’s wish to wear herself out manually doing things her magic could achieve – far more successfully – without time or effort.
I’ve never seen the first three episodes before, though I have seen a YouTube clip from the first that I recognised. What surprised me most was that they were in colour: I’d always understood season 1 to have been in black & white, which it was: my DVD set has the colorised version. I’ve always avoided colorised stuff before, and I’ll go on doing so with films, but the process has been vastly improved since it was introduced, as this was, quite frankly, perfect.
There were minor differences that I noticed, including the theme music being slower that I was used to – which was quite irritating – but mainly that the first two episodes began with voiceover sequences giving the audience a narrative to alert them to the fact Sam was a witch (these were originally offered to Robert Montgomery, Elizabeth’s father, but he turned them down so they were done by an uncredited Jose Ferrer). This isn’t the case with episode 3 but I’ll have to wait to see if that was merely a blip.
The first three episodes had a bit of a serial aspect to them. In the first, Darren and Samantha marry, Endora disapproves, they set up home and then Darren’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Summers (Nancy Kovak), all glam and snideness, invites them to a dinner party intent on humiliating Sam and making her out to be a provincial nobody: Darrin, to his credit, knows what’s going on, even if politeness prevents him from calling it out. But it’s never wise to provoke a witch…
The second episode saw Darrin find a house for the pair to buy. Endora’s frankly disparaging, unable to understand why Sam should confine herself to a small place, with walls, and to a life of tightening belts and noses to the grindstone to afford it. But Sam wants it because Darrin wants it, and the heart of the episode is a lovely sequence where she and Endora visit the lot together and indulge themselves in interior design and furniture by magic until even Endora begrudgingly admits it has possibilities. It’s mother and daughter bonding, and it’s gentle and peacefu;l, the comedy coming both from the constantly changing scene and from the introduction of the Stephens’ neighbours opposite, retired Jewish couple Abner (George Tobias) and Gladys Kravitz (Alice Pearce).
Gladys, not to put too fine a point on it, is a nosy neighbour, or what the American would call a snoop. Gladys, poor Gladys, is going to be one of the very few witnesses to Sam’s magic, and Endora’s, though every sinmgle time, by the time she’s dragged the unimpressed Abner to see, it will have gone. Time for her medicine!
The third episode was a more normal one. To impress a potential client, babyfood seller Rex Barker (Jack Warden), Samantha hosts a superb dinner party, impressing everyone (including Barker’s girl friend, platinum blonde Baba, played by Grace Lee Whitney, the future Yeoman Rand). Unfortunately, she impresses Barker only too well and he makes a very aggressive pass at her. Which gets him turned into a dog.
When Darrin learns about it, he’s not too impressed. This is a client! This is $500,000! Sam may be his wife, but this is livelihood! And this is also sleeping on the couch tonight. This blow-up delights Endora, even as Darrin gets his act together later on when Barker, having finally been restored to manhood via a serious clipping that reveals him to be a poodle underneath all that hair, tries to corner Sam again, at which point Darrin punches him in the jaw and quits: it might be a bit late, and he is after all Organisation Man 1964, but he works out where his priorities really are (this week at any rate). And he gets the job back, and the account.
So there you go. Unlikely as it seems, Bewitched was in its way revolutionary, in showing the wife as so much more controlled and clever than the husband. By making Samantha so obviously thus, at the same time it was dealing with both marital relations generally, but more specifically repression. To conform to Darrin’s demands, Sam had to suppress who and what she was. The obvious metaphor was the then-illegal homosexuality, a significant topic given the many rumours that Agnes Moorehead was a lesbian, and Elizabeth Montgomery later confirmed this was a subject that was talked about among the team, though not on set.
With only another 251 episodes to go, I’m not going to be short of Sunday mornings for a while yet, and there’s another boxset series to start next weekend. No prizes for anyone who correctly predicts which one it is.
(I wonder if there are any affordable Get Smart boxsets going on eBay?)