Although traditionally feared and despised, witches have also long provided the public with light-hearted entertainment – one only has to look at the stereotypical image of the witch, with the pointed hat, green face, black cat and flying broomstick, an image that is impossible to take seriously. Hollywood has long seen witches as comical characters, and it was perhaps inevitable that they would become the subject of a television sitcom in the Sixties.
Bewitched debuted in 1964, and told the story of Samantha Stevens, who – on her wedding night – reveals to husband Darrin that she is a witch, complete with magical powers. Darrin asks her not to use these powers, and so the scene is set for assorted comic mishaps. Each week, Sam’s magical powers, or those of her gaggle of witch and warlock relatives, would cause chaos and result in twenty five minutes or so of frantic attempt to restore normality and find plausible explanations to give to neighbours, friends and relatives for the strange things that have been happening.
Bewitched was produced by William Asher (better known for I Love Lucy), and starred his wife Elizabeth Montgomery, who took the part in order to work with him. Asher also directed most of the all important first season, which established the show as a hit. The cast also included Dick York as Sam’s long-suffering husband, David White as his boss, and Agnes Moorehead as Sam’s constantly interfering mother Endora, who dissaproved of her daughter’s marriage to a mortal. The antogonism between Moorehead and Sargent formed the basis for much of the humour – Endora would constantly use her magic to put Darrin in difficult positions. Darrin’s boss, Larry Tate (played by David White) was usually on hand to get caught up in some hard-to-explain hocus-pocus, while Sam’s Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne) regularly popped up to bungle spells and then forget how to put things right. And to cause even greater headaches for Sam and Darrin, nosy neighbour Gladys Kravitz (played by both Alice Pearce and Sandra Gould) was usually snooping about – though things would always return to (relatively) normal before her husband Abner (George Tobias) turned up, to dismiss her claims as crazy.
The show was inspired by Rene Clair’s 1942 film I Married a Witch, and it’s interesting to compare Montgomery’s character to that of Veronica Lake in Clair’s movie (or even Kim Novak in Bell, Book and Candle, another important inspiration). Lake is a lively, mischivious and rather sexy hex in I Married a Witch (itself a rather toned down version of Thorne Smith’s risque novel The Passionate Witch), but Sam is the picture of motherly domesticity, even before she has kids. In fact, Bewitched is so wholesome, it seems incongrous that Darrin and Sam would eventually have two children, Tabitha and Adam (both of whom also had supernatural powers). The idea of them actually having sex seems hard to swallow – perhaps this was the ultimate magic trick from Sam?
Bewitched very much reflects the suburban American Dream of the Sixties. The family unit is as solid as a rock here – there’s no fear of Sam wanting to have a career beyond raising kids, cleaning the house or getting meals ready for Darrin and his various work clients – after all, this is a woman who happily gave up her witchy heritage for domestic tedium (an unlikely idea… but then, even more unlikely is the idea that any man married to a woman with magical powers wouldn’t want to make full use of them…).
In the post-feminist Nineties, it’s tempting to read much into this, but that would be a mistake. The simple fact is that Bewitched was very much of its time in style. Even the fantasy concept wasn’t unique. This was one of a number of 1960s US sitcoms which utilized fantastical themes. These tended to split into two strands: The Addams Family and The Munsters were concerned with oddball characters who didn’t realise that they were any different from the rest of society, and the humour came from the inevitable culture clash. Bewitched, like I Dream of Jeannie, Mr Ed and My favorite Martian had bizarre characters who needed to be kept secret from the rest of the world, and the humour came from the increasingly desperate attempts to cover up their activities.
Like most sit-coms, Bewitched rarely bothered with character development, although it did add new characters along the way. The most significant were the aforementioned children – the childhood lack of guile gave the scriptwriters plenty of opportunities to put Sam and Darrin on the spot, as Tabitha and then later Adam would cause chaos with the various spells that they conjured up to amuse themselves. Towards the end of its run, Bewitched also added housekeeper Esmerelda to the witches brew. This scatty sorceress would create problems with her miscast spells, much as Aunt Clara had done earlier. Of course, TV shows often introduce new characters after a long run in an effort to pep things up and revive flagging ratings, and this was no exception. The show eventually lasted until 1972 – a respectable eight year run.
A few actors (rather than their characters) fell along the way. Most notable was the loss of Dick York, who had suffered with back problems for years and eventually had to quit the show. His replacement, Dick Sargent, appeared without explanation in 1969 (given the nature of the show, Darrin’s sudden change of face might have been explained away). Two actresses played Gladys Kravitz, and two others played Larry Tate’s wife Louise. The kids were also portrayed by different actors, though this was due to regulations regarding working hours for minors. Most TV shows of the time which featured children in the cast used twins to get around this problem, and Bewitched was no exception. Tabitha was played by no less than three sets of twins during the show’s run, before one girl from the final set, Erin Murphy, became old enough to take on the role full time.
Although Bewitched came to an end in 1972, re-runs kept the show alive for many. In 1977, Tabitha was given her own show (cleverly titled Tabitha), with Lisa Hartman playing the grown up witch, working as a Los Angeles TV weather girl, and getting into the expected scrapes. It wasn’t a success, and is barely remembered today, the late Seventies flatness of its approach failing to match the retro appeal of Bewitched, which, with it’s classic theme tune and dated look, has found a fresh new following amongst would-be lounge lizards the world over.
If Bewitched had a a more successful later offspring, it was probably Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the kids show which Tabitha probably should’ve been. This was one of several shows in the Nineties that returned to the fantastical for sit-com fun, suggesting that what goes around, comes around. Meanwhile, Bewitched would spawn a 2005 movie starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell that tried to be too clever with a story based around a remake of the original show. It wasn’t a success.
Posted by DF