Judge Brett Cullum sets us straight on which witch is which.
Our reviews of Bewitched (published November 1st, 2005), Bewitched: The Complete Second Season (published December 14th, 2005), Bewitched: The Complete Sixth Season (published May 7th, 2008), and Bewitched: The Complete Eighth Season (published July 14th, 2009) are also available.
Samantha: I'm not a bad witch! I'm a good witch!
I'm amazed at the rate at which "TV on DVD" has grown, and how readily the studios have unleashed masses of half-baked, failed sitcoms and fantasy shows on us weekly. It's enough to make you want to scream for mercy when you peruse the "new releases" lists. But one look at the first episode of Bewitched: The Complete First Season (Black and White), and you'll wonder what took them so long to release this gem. Sad part is the timing indicates it was a tie-in with Sony's failed project this summer—the blockbuster bomb starring Nicole Kidman, where the sitcom was "reimagined" rather painfully up on the big screen. Bewitched the 1964 television series deserves much better, and thankfully we get that on this DVD. Let's forget that other version, and bask in the glory of Samantha Stephens, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, her dorky hubbie Darrin (Dick York), and her elegantly devilish mother Endora (Agnes Moorehead). Would it be trite to call it a magical sitcom? Sure would—but the show holds up very well, even after forty years. That's gotta involve some kind of spell. This is a great collection of episodes, some of which are rarely seen in syndication.
Facts of the Case
The plot is pretty simple, and you probably know it by heart. In Bewitched The Complete First Season (Black and White), we see hot shot advertising executive Darrin Stephens marry blonde girl-next-door Samantha (whose maiden name is unpronounceable according to her mother). On their honeymoon Samantha reveals she is a bona fide witch. Darrin is dismayed to learn this truth; the newlyweds quickly reach an agreement that Samantha will try to curb her magical habits and become a conventional housewife. Of course the spells are a hard habit to break, and, as viewers know (even after 8 years of wedded bliss and two children), Samantha will wriggle her nose any time the situation calls for it. She's the ultimate passive-aggressive witch, who will drive her husband and the nosy neighbors to the brink of insanity while making us all laugh at what will bring out her magic nose. You can't change who you are, and in the end the mortals will just have to learn to accept this mystical housewife.
Bewitched came about when two separate parties merged in a Hollywood deal in 1963. Sol Saks was shopping a pilot to networks about a man married to a witch. His timing was impeccable: television was moving towards sitcoms with fantasy themes such as The Munsters and The Addams Family, and this seemed to be right in line with the trend. He almost had the deal done, with Tammy Grimes and Dick Sergeant set to star in the show. At the same time, a married couple, director William Asher and television star Elizabeth Montgomery, were pitching a series in which a rich housewife would marry a man of modest means, and would have to learn how to avoid her instinct to use money to solve everything. They were adamant about working together as a team, and their agents were trying to seal a deal where they could work together. Eventually, Saks' pilot was combined with the Asher/Montgomery project; the rich girl would instead become a witch, and the use of money would be replaced with the use of magic.
With the concept solidified, casting was the next hurdle. Dick Sergeant and Tammy Grimes were out of the picture, but ironically another man named Dick would be cast as the husband—Dick York. Viewers of Bewitched know that York had to leave the show eventually in 1969 due to chronic back problems, and Sergeant would replace him as Darrin for the remainder of the series. York was Asher's first choice, and the actor agreed to come on board.
Agnes Moorehead was a different matter, and was a little harder to convince. She was a legendary Hollywood actress, known as "The Lavender Lady" for her love of purple, and was the first female co-host of the Academy Awards in 1948. She had been nominated four times for an Oscar, but never got the gold guy. Film buffs will recall many of her famous turns in movies like The Conqueror, The Magnificent Ambersons, Mrs. Parkington, and Citizen Kane (as the title character's mother). She was reluctant to take a television role, and was even more skeptical about portraying a witch. Moorehead was the daughter of a minister, and was devoutly Christian. Elizabeth Montgomery begged her to take the role after bumping into her in a department store, and she finally agreed. She was never overly fond of the role, which required her to be in the makeup chair at 4:45 am, and which often meant shooting until past eight in the evening. Agnes thought it was a silly show that would be lucky to last one season. Instead, it would become her legacy.
The studio originally cast Alice Pearce and Jim Backus (the voice of Mr. Magoo) for the supporting roles of neighbors Gladys and Abner Kravitz. Backus backed out in order to become a castaway named Thurston Howell on Gilligan's Island, and in stepped George Tobias. Tobias would remain with Bewitched for the entire run. His wife, though, would have to be recast (with Sandra Gould) when Alice Pearce died several seasons in.
In the original drafts of the pilot, Elizabeth Montgomery's character was named Cassandra. Several Christian groups from the "Bible Belt" were not happy with a show about witchcraft going into production, believing it would inspire devil worship and Satanic influences. It was decided to rename the character's after a story in the Bible to ease these protests. The basis for the names came from a passage found in the first book of Samuel; a story known as "The Witch of Endor." Samantha was named after Samuel, and Endora named after the medium consulted by Saul at Endor. The witches in the world of Bewitched would be magical beings who did not always use incantations, but rather usually waved their arms. Elizabeth Montgomery had a nervous habit of moving her upper lip back and forth rapidly, and they used that as her means to create magic. The title of the pilot was originally "The Westport Witch," since Samantha and Darrin lived in the trendy Connecticut hamlet of Westport. The show was set to begin rehearsals on November 22, 1963, but the Kennedy assassination stalled the production for a short time—William Asher was a close friend of the President's family. The show debuted on September 17th, 1964 where it soon became a staple of ABC's Thursday night lineup.
The show was shot in black and white until the last show of the second season. These initial episodes are not seen as frequently in the endless syndicated airings of Bewitched. Some stations air them in a colorized version, but they were always the least shown. What a pity, because the show was consistently strong even in the formative years. What's most surprising about Bewitched: The Complete First Season (Black and White) is how rock solid the writing on the show was, from the pilot throughout the first year. The honeymoon phase of Samantha and Darrin's relationship is a priceless mix of sweet, silly moments that will be revelatory for viewers who haven't been lucky enough to see the beginning. The writing on these episodes is smart and funny, and a sitcom that could have easily become gimmicky is nimble and spry throughout all the thirty-six shows presented here. I can't think of one stinker in the entire batch. The plots were so strong many of them were recycled in subsequent seasons when the writers were running out of ideas. There were 74 episodes in black and white followed by 180 in color, so they were bound to repeat themselves at some point, and they mined from the best batch of stories.
The writing was inspired, and the cast nails every episode. Samantha was the center of the show, and she's fully realized by the lead actress starting with the pilot. Elizabeth Montgomery was a beautiful woman who grew up appearing on television, and she knew how to exploit the medium to her best advantage. It's hard not to fall in love with her earthy charm and sexy spunk as the "in recovery" witch married to a mortal. Savvy viewers will note that in this season Elizabeth Montgomery was, in fact, pregnant with her first child. You'll notice how they hide this in the later episodes by using more and more close-ups of Elizabeth's face along with looser fitting costumes. Later on, with her second and third children, the pregnancies were worked into the story as Tabatha (or "Tabitha" as it was spelled later) and Adam. But Montgomery wasn't alone in her prowess. Agnes Moorehead is a deliciously sarcastic delight as Endora, and Dick York is hysterical as the screamingly neurotic husband. The Kravitzs are a rock solid comedy team, and David White and Irene Vernon add a touch of class as Larry and Louise Tate. We get the first glimpses of Marion Lorne as Aunt Clara, Reta Shaw as Bertha; and Paul Lynde appears not as Uncle Arthur, but as a nervous driving instructor in "Driving is the Only Way to Fly." Guests during the first season included June Lockhart, Raquel Welch, Adam West, Peggy Lipton, and Arte Johnson. Also see if you can spot a young Maureen McCormick in "And Something Makes Three."
Bewitched still has social relevance decades after it premiered. The story of a mortal marrying a witch was a thinly-veiled meditation on mixed marriage. Television wasn't ready for an interracial couple, but the fantasy world of the show made that concept more palatable and within reach. Sure, the idea that a spectacular magical woman would want to give up a life of independent adventure to marry and become a housewife seems a little antiquated. But the nice thing is Samantha Stephens chose that for herself, and she was never slow to put Darrin into his place when he was overly domineering or asking her to do things against her moral code. Elizabeth Montgomery played Samantha as smart, sexy, and willful. (The Stephens were also among the first television couples to share a bed.) Samantha was a fully realized woman even without a career. I'd like to imagine Ms. Montgomery demanding that her character be allowed to be smart, and her husband recognizing that it was time to put a housewife on the screen who was every bit as capable of wearing the pants as her spouse. Samantha could go toe-to-toe with anyone; even her wild and spunky mother had to respect her choices. Samantha Stephens was a role model, a woman who would do the right thing when push came to shove. She wasn't subservient like Barbara Eden's genie in I Dream of Jeannie. She was always a partner to Darrin, and an equal to any man that entered the show. And let's face it, she never kept that promise to never use her powers ever. She had Darrin so whipped he had to ignore her slips again and again. Samantha forced the world to reckon with her for who she was.
Bewitched: The Complete First Season (Black and White) is a nice package with solid presentation and a couple of extras. The transfers look as clean as a forty-year-old television show could be expected to look. You'll see some dirt and grain, along with the occasional nick or scratch. It's nothing severe, and for the most part the clarity is striking and far beyond what broadcast television or standard cable can offer. The sound is a standard mono mix that is free of distortion. There is a featurette, The Magic Unveiled, which is broken up into two parts of roughly 7 minutes each on Disc One and Disc Two. It features interviews with an author who has written about the show's history, one of the twins who played Tabatha (or Tabitha), and Mr. Asher. No commentaries are offered. Another short feature on Disc Three, Magic and Mishaps, offers a look at the technical gaffes that made it on the air in the first season, as well as the guest appearances. The final disc has previews for the remake and other Sony classic television series, and a look at D.E.B.S..
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A pair of strange inconsistencies crop up with the set, although they are minor. Oddly enough, the opening credits on every episode is not the original title sequence for the first season. The famous, best-known cartoon introduction was supplied later by the cartoon studios of Hanna-Barbera—the biggest tip-off is that it has a 1966 date next to the Screen Gems logo. The original animation had the cat shown as a lighter shade of gray, and the kitchen set was more fleshed out with a door and an oven. We're also missing promotional sponsors that opened the show like Quaker Oats and Chevrolet, as well as commercials cast members shot for these products. Originally the show would start with a short cartoon commercial endorsement, starting right after the cloud of Agnes Moorehead's credit would dissipate. Sometimes, as a gimmick to open the sales pitch, Samantha's broom would turn into a Chevrolet automobile. (Notice that every car seen in the show is a Chevrolet, out of consideration for their sponsor.) Also, on the first disc several of the shows are inexplicably out of broadcast order.
Sony has released two versions of this set—one in black and white and another which has been colorized. Purists will want to opt for the original black and white set, because as far as colorization has come, it still looks too pastel and unrealistic. In another surprising move the colorized version has more alternate language tracks and a whole extra slew of extra subtitle options. Anyone remember Ted Turner's "colorize the world" campaign? Looks like Sony took it to heart, and Asian and Spanish viewers will have to settle for the colorized edition. So check your boxes carefully, and make sure you get the one you want. Some people actually prefer the colorized versions, because they are close to what they saw on some syndicated airings (some channels aired the "color" versions). Still, it seems a strange move to me. On a recent trip to a local Circuit City, they only had the colorized sets on the shelves, so I took my hard earned cash elsewhere. I'm hoping they just sold out of the black and white, because I'd hate to think the color one was more popular.
Bewitched: The Complete First Season (Black and White) is what television on DVD was made for. It offers a truly classic series at a nice price point, and you couldn't ask for a better time. Bewitched holds up very well, and this look at its first season is surprisingly moving and very funny. Growing up I was a huge fan of fantasy sitcoms like Gilligan's Island, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Munsters. Sometimes when I watch those shows now I find them a little too formulaic, too simple to sustain my interest for more than an occasional fond viewing when I catch them on Nick at Nite or TV Land. Yet Bewitched surprised me by still speaking to the adult as well as my inner child. It was a well-written, well-acted show that transcended its own limitations as a show built around hokey special effects and a gimmick. It could stand next to sitcoms on the air today and still feel fresh even after almost half a century. Like its lead character, it's timeless, sexy, silly, smart fun, and…dare I say it?…Bewitching, even now.
Bewitched: The Complete First Season (Black and White) is free to go straight on to serious DVD collectors' shelves everywhere. It's only guilty of being magical even after four decades. It's classic television at its best.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: The Magic Unveiled
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