Judge Maurice Cobbs went on a picnic with his pal Joey in the middle of the night and found Jeanne Eagels holding a bell, book and candle.
Our reviews of Bell Book And Candle (published April 10th, 2000), Bell, Book and Candle (Blu-ray) (published May 30th, 2012), Pal Joey (published December 20th, 1999), Pal Joey (1957) (Blu-ray) (published March 11th, 2012), Picnic (published April 24th, 2000), and Picnic (Blu-ray) (published February 1st, 2012) are also available.
"I had a lot of resentment for a while toward Kim Novak. But I don't mind her anymore. She's okay. We've become friends."—Kim Novak
Did you know that she was almost called Kit Marlowe?
It's true. They were grooming her, you see, trying to make her over into the next Marilyn. Trying to make her into what they used to call a "bombshell," like Rita Hayworth, just easier to handle (fat chance!). But this Marilyn Pauline Novak, the name had to go, said Harry Cohn, the big shot at Columbia—the vulgar old tyrant. Only the new Marilyn wanted something of her own to hold onto, something that was hers; her name, at least. So it was a compromise, you see. And so the new Marilyn was christened Kim Novak.
Except, look at her. Just look at her. She packs more sensual innuendo in one arched eyebrow than the first Marilyn could convey with her entire body. Dark eyebrows over soft brown eyes, a cool gaze radiating heat. Promising everything. Delivering. Yeah, she was the kind of woman your dad would have called a knockout; the kind a man could lose his head over (Just ask poor old Scottie Ferguson…he fell, hard, but then again, so did she). And do you know, I used to not like blondes? Ten years old, and I was already looking for the depth and intelligence and sensuality that only brunettes seemed to possess; certainly no blonde I had ever seen had ever appealed to me. I mean, Suzanne Sommers? Farrah Fawcett? Puh-leeeze! Besides, none of them had ever fought battles in space the way Carrie Fisher and Erin Gray had, and you know, to a ten year old boy, being able to wield a laser gun with deadly accuracy was actually a fairly important consideration when choosing a potential girlfriend. But I digress.
So it would be Kim Novak who convinced me that maybe blondes had something to offer after all, late one night, long after all well-behaved kids were in bed, getting a good night's sleep so as to be rested and alert at school the next day; the rest of us were in our respective dens, bleary-eyed, watching TV with the volume down so as not to incur the wrath of our Grannies, should they be awakened by the sound of whatever weird old movie we were watching at 3 in the morning. This particular 3 am it was Pal Joey—I was going through my Sinatra phase (I still am). And that's how I met Kim Novak. Beautiful, blonde, smoky-voiced, built like they don't build blondes anymore. They quit after Kim Novak…she was just about the last star the studio system would manufacture, the final masterpiece of a dying art, though she never wanted to be that. Like Madge Owens in Picnic, Novak chafed at the idea of being remembered just as The Pretty One. She argued with directors about it, challenged the scripts, butted heads even with the imperious Harry Cohn…Still, though, she played the part like a good actress—lifting her skirts to show off knee for the press, going out on the studio-arranged publicity dates, and so forth, but she never liked it. Unlike Marilyn, Kim Novak was a more introverted sex symbol, nowhere near as bubbly or superficial; if anything, Novak subverted the idea of the Hollywood sex symbol, bringing unexpected depth and even melancholy to roles that in other hands might have been nothing special apart from a shapely figure and a well-turned pair of legs.
Not that there's anything wrong with those legs, mind you, or any other part of her you could think of, and The Kim Novak Collection makes it even easier to appreciate her. Our friends at Sony have offered up top-notch restorations on all five of these films, three of which have been previously released on DVD with less than perfect transfers or aspect ratios; Picnic and Bell Book and Candle have both been digitally remastered so as to present them in their proper formats, with color that is as close as possible to that originally intended, serving to showcase James Wong Howe's gorgeous cinematography. Fans of Picnic, who have long suffered at having no other option but the unfortunate letterboxed DVD release from a few years ago, should be delighted to know that it has been restored to it's original 2.55:1 CinemaScope format. It's worth the upgrade. See? And you were beginning to think that 110-inch widescreen plasma TV was a waste of money.
The Kim Novak Collection does a fantastic job of illustrating Novak's resistance to being cast in the role of sex symbol, and how that resistance enhanced, rather than detracted from, her sex appeal. Actually, Pal Joey is a great example, though it's not the best thing that Novak ever did (or Sinatra, or Hayworth, for that matter), despite earning multiple Oscar nominations. Tenuously based on the Rogers and Hart stage musical, it's the story of an unrepentant cad and hustling two-bit crum-bum saloon singer, (Frank Sinatra, natch) who is torn romantically between a widowed ex-stripper socialite (Rita Hayworth, The Strawberry Blonde) and a naïve young chorus girl. Novak seems to be somewhat uncomfortable in the role of the ingénue, Linda English, and yet that apparent unease makes the character seem more real somehow than if Monroe had played the part. The scene in which Novak sings 'My Funny Valentine' into the camera (well, it's not really Kim, it's actually Trudy Stevens, but it's a hell of a good vocal match) is a movie-stealing moment, and it's not hard to see how having that directed full-force at a guy could make him into an honest man. It's such a shame that the movie isn't better, frankly, since the leads are all fantastic in it.
Which is how I feel about Picnic, frankly, it is a decent enough movie but rather suffers from the miscasting of William Holden as Hal Carter…Holden himself almost turned the role down, feeling that he was too old for the part, but it is a testament to the man's incredible talent that he carries the part off so well despite being too old for it. This is a portrait of Novak as the developing actress…and yet she's brings a great deal of authenticity to the part of Madge Owens, which is a large part of why the movie works (not to mention yet another out-of-the-park performance by Rosalind Russell, in a supporting role).
Bell, Book and Candle, one of my personal favorites, represents a more confident Kim Novak, a bohemian Greenwich Village sorceress smoldering with sex appeal as she puts a spell on hapless publisher Jimmy Stewart. She's a lot more at home in the skin of Gillian Holroyd, perhaps because there's more than a little bit of her in the character, right down to their mutually-shared preference for going barefoot when possible.
Two of the features in this set are new to DVD, and the world is the better for it. In Jeanne Eagels, Novak portrays the titular stage and silent film legend as best she can, hampered as she is by the absurdly contrived script and a story that paints it's lead character as anything but sympathetic. The facts of Eagels' life, interesting as they are on their own merits, get largely tossed out the window in favor of cliché and soap-opera salaciousness and trauma that seems to come out of nowhere to smack the audience in the face with the character's unattractiveness and pathological craving for fame. And yet this clunky star vehicle for Novak manages to work, partly because of what Novak herself brings to the role of Jeanne Eagels and partly because of the outstanding supporting cast, such as Jeff Chandler as the long-suffering love interest, Sal Satori, and a brief but particularly haunting performance by Virginia Grey (All That Heaven Allows) as a washed-up actress at the end of her rope. Still, it's not a great film, sagging even into the realm of hokiness from time to time (oh, look at that falling star behind her, it's obviously meant to symbolize…Eh, wait…did she just fall down the stairs? Oy vey!) but it's elevated on the strength of Novak's personality and beauty.
Middle of the Night, on the other hand, is a fantastic movie and a fantastic fit for Novak, a complex and heartrending drama about a May-December romance between widowed businessman Jerry Kingsley (Frederic March) and broken young divorcee Betty Preisser (Novak), thirty years his junior, who meet at what they perceive to be their lowest points and who then must meet the challenges of such an unconventional relationship, as well as the resentment of their friends and families. Filmed from a beautiful script by Paddy Chayefsky (who never shied away from the kind of realism that Novak craved to bring to the screen, who in fact eagerly listened to her input and incorporated her ideas) and ably directed by Delbert Mann, this is a wonderful showcase not only for the great Frederic March, already a Hollywood powerhouse with a score of memorable performances under his belt, but also for Novak, in the prime of her craft after films like Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle. At the time, Novak would be completely eclipsed by March in critical review of the film…all the better that this excellent film is now included as part of a showcase of Novak's career, because her raw, vulnerable performance must surely count as one of the best of her career. And as with Jeanne Eagels, this film benefits immensely from a top-notch supporting cast of brilliant character actors such as Joan Copeland as Jerry's neurotically possessive daughter; the great Martin Balsam (Psycho) as her quietly suffering husband; Edith Meiser as Jerry's spinster sister; Glenda Farrell (star of the Torchy Blane B-movies) as Betty's mother; and Lee Grant (In the Heat of the Night) as Betty's bitter best friend.
From Picnic to Middle of the Night, this an excellent overview of some choice moments from Kim Novak's all-too-brief moment in the spotlight. She would go on in Hollywood, doing the best work she could despite being cast in ridiculous films like The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders and being humiliated by that creep Robert Aldritch in garbage like The Legend of Lylah Clare; soon after she opted for solitude and stability instead, and her appearances in film and on TV dwindled dramatically. One of her last roles to date would be a recurring part on the prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest as a character named Kit Marlowe. Nobody ever said she didn't have a wry sense of humor.
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Scales of Justice, Picnic
Perp Profile, Picnic
Distinguishing Marks, Picnic
• Scene Commentary
Scales of Justice, Jeanne Eagels
Perp Profile, Jeanne Eagels
Distinguishing Marks, Jeanne Eagels
• Scene Commentary
Scales of Justice, Pal Joey
Perp Profile, Pal Joey
Distinguishing Marks, Pal Joey
• Scene Commentary
Scales of Justice, Bell, Book And Candle
Perp Profile, Bell, Book And Candle
Distinguishing Marks, Bell, Book And Candle
• Scene Commentary
Scales of Justice, Middle Of The Night
Perp Profile, Middle Of The Night
Distinguishing Marks, Middle Of The Night
• Scene Commentary
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