Why “Bewitched” is the Heroin of TV Shows

Elizabeth Montgomery (1993-1995), born on April 15, that unlucky calendar date when the Titanic Sank and Abraham Lincoln succumbed to his gunshot wounds.

I suppose it’s a bias but I’ve traditionally tended to prefer refined comic actresses like Elizabeth Montgomery and Mary Tyler Moore (and all those singing singles from vaudeville) over low clowns like Lucille Ball or Imogene Coca. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why — it’s the sexual equivalent of preferring Cary Grant over Red Skelton. Elegance and beauty are as important to me as laughter, at least at times. Elizabeth Montgomery is an ideal, in the Greek sense, and it’s interesting (and sobering) to break that down to see what it might mean.

Montgomery is not just beautiful, she’s a blonde, blue-eyed white white WASP. Her grandfather was President of the New York Rubber Company. Both her parents were actors. Her father was movie and tv star and Republican activist Robert Montgomery; her mother was Elizabeth Bryan Allen, sister of the better known Broadway actress Martha Bryan Allen. Elizabeth was sent to posh private schools, the Westlake School for Girls (in California) and the Spence School in New York City, to which I attribute her tony diction and manner of speaking, probably ingrained before she even went to drama school. At any rate, I think her background, orientation and even her genetics heavily inform what Bewitched is largely about. Samantha Stephens is not an Asiatic, Semitic or African Circe, as attractive as women of every nation can be. She is more the golden-tressed star-stuff of Western European Fairy Tales — a princess.

Her first husband was socialite Frederick Gallatin Cammann, but it lasted only a year (1954-1955). Silly man! He expected her to quit acting!  Like her father, she managed to have her cake and eat it too and plunged into show business instead, acting in films and on television for about a decade before her more most famous role came along. Her second husband was actor Gig Young.

In 1963, Montgomery married sitcom wizard William Asher, who’d helmed Our Miss Brooks and hundreds of episodes of I Love Lucy. He was to direct many an episode of Bewitched and after a few seasons became its producer. (Interesting, yeah? All female-driven sitcoms). Bewitched ran from 1964 through 1972. Famously, the first episode began shooting on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated. The premise of the show seems largely to draw from the Rene Clair comedy I Married a Witch (1942), which was produced by Columbia Pictures, which also produced Bewitched under its ColGems imprimatur. Bell, Book and Candle (1958) also seems to be an influence. The simple premise is that young advertising executive Darren Stephens (Dick York, later Dick Sergeant) marries a beautiful woman named Samantha (Montgomery), whom he subsequently learns is an actual witch with magical powers. In every episode, “Sam” or her family members or old cohorts, cause no end of trouble for Darren with their spells and magical shenanigans, all of which will eventually be resolved by using magic to put things back where they were.

“Bewitched” cast and staff, towards the end of the series

The writing on the show is enjoyable, but its chief charm lay in the casting and the acting of both the main cast and a large number of recurring characters. To name but a few there were Agnes Moorehead as Samantha’s flashy, somewhat evil mother Endora; Maurice Evans, as her more easy-going but still snobbish father Maurice; David White as Darren’s slippery, unprincipled boss Larry Tate; Paul Lynde as the practical-joking Uncle Arthur; Marion Lorne as the senile Aunt Clara; Bernard Fox as the world traveling witch doctor Dr. Bombay; and Alice Ghostley as the timid babysitter Esmerelda. And Steve Franken played Bruce, the Loch Ness Monster! Ongoing bits of hilarious business included the neighbors across the street the Kravitzes, with the nosy, prying wife (first Alice Pearce, then Sandra Gould) always seeing weird things going on at the Stephens house out the window, and her husband (George Tobias), always engaged in some hobby and missing all the action, just writing it off to his wife being cuckoo. Darren’s father was played by both Robert F. Simon and Roy Roberts; his mother was memorably played by the hilarious Mabel Albertson, older sister of Jack Albertson. (Her constant refrain: “Frank, I’m getting one of my sick headaches”, is one of my favorite comedy tropes on the show.)

The wildest bit of casting on the show really had me going as a kid. Montgomery played her own wild and sexy cousin Sabrina on the show in a curly black wig and mini-skirt, and if I’m not mistaken, a beauty mark. This rang a variation on the fantasy — contrasted with Samantha, Sabrina WAS  a dark, exotic, “Eastern”, beauty — more a witch in the Medea mold than a domestic princess. When I say she “had me going” I don’t just mean to say she turned me on (although she did that) but that she had me FOOLED. I was totally bamboozled — I don’t know how old I was before I figured out or noticed that Montgomery also played Sabrina. So there’s a lesson for ya. It’s the sort of thing that makes Santa Claus possible — and theoretically makes those Shakespeare comedies at least semi-plausible. Sometimes the innocent do not see. 

A brief shout-out to the effects on the show are in order. Sam and Sabrina in the same frame at the same time are obviously a double exposure effect. There’s lots of vanishing and reappearing of humans and objects, and things floating around the room, or transforming from one thing to another. Particularly memorable are the sound effects, cleverly done with musical instruments. Sam’s little “teek-a-teek-a-teek” noise when she wiggled her mouth or nose to cast a spell was done on vibraphone (my friend Brian Fisherman showed me how it was done once). And a harp was often used, for example, when Endora vanishes with a flourish and wave of her arm.

I am one of those few who prefer Dick Sergeant over Dick York in the role of Darren, Samantha’s husband. They are an interesting contrast in approaches. York plays the action — he is constantly frantic, exasperated, losing his cool. With his bugging eyes, skull-like face, and womanly voice, I’ve always found him somewhat disturbing to look at, almost freakish, like a Lon Chaney character. Sergeant is more about coolly delivering acid one-liners and trading insults with Endora, almost as though they were in a Noel Coward play. He too had eyes that comically bugged  in surprise, anger, or terror, but somehow he didn’t explode into clouds of feathers like York did. York was like Donald or Daffy — he got as upset as a cartoon Duck.

In addition to the humor, ultimately even more powerful, is the tension conjured by the show’s premise. The idea of possessing magic, essentially unlimited power, is beyond stirring. As a motivation, as a desire, it is oceanic, with all other petty human wants as mere droplets. Most things in life we desire are low hanging fruit. To possess magic would be to have the entire tree, a whole garden, EVERYTHING. And that it comes in the form of a fantasy wife, who is not just beautiful, graceful, poised, warm, and even good-hearted — it’s almost like pornography for the soul. So there’s that aspect driving us mad the whole time. “WANT. WANT THAT. WANT.” It’s like Tolkien’s Ring, for God’s Sake. And at bottom this is surely akin to this basic American drive for consumerism, for material acquisition. And then note that the show is delivered to us on television, the ultimate machine for stoking material desire. The show is literally interrupted several times with messages that lure us into wanting things. Bewitched is the heroin of television shows. This is why the show ran for eight seasons, and often topped the ratings in its timeslot, and inspired copycat shows like I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970) and Nanny and the Professor (1970-71). 

But then there’s an added tension. At the same time we’re quietly stewing on planet earth with all this unfulfilled desire, Darren, our stand-in on the show as mortals, perversely DISAVOWS magic, says no to the power, and doesn’t allow his wife to make use of the full scope of her ability. That she agrees to this absurd thing, presumably on account of that ancient outmoded marriage vow that instructs her to “obey”, is part of the frustrating madness. I’m certain others have written about the show from the feminist angle, probably better than I could hope to.  But there’s another part to the madness — that Darren even insists on the insane proscription in the first place. You can absolutely see why this is part of the show’s structure. Without some sort of speed bump, logically the show would devolve rapidly into a maelstrom of decadence and sin. But America was still coasting on Puritanism at this stage. We don’t “cheat” to get things, Darren is constantly saying, getting things without effort is wrong. 40 years later we’ve clearly abandoned even this skimpy, scarcely credible pretense (nobody is THAT good, after all). Yet it’s not the worst thing to have in place, given the horrors around us in the age of the Prosperity Gospel, with a gangster as President of the United States. Work Ethic? Laughable! This is the age of saying prayers to GET stuff, and short of prayers, stealing, robbing, lying, and ultimately even killing, because everything is fair game when you’re doing business.

Anyway, that’s some of the unsuspected and volcanic psychological power that underlay Bewitched, I think.

The show ran for eight years, and only the break-up of Montgomery’s marriage to Asher resulted in its early cancellation. To fill its slot, Asher produced The Paul Lynde Show for a year.

As a lady cop with partner O.J. Simpson in the unintentionally hilarious “A Killing Affair”

Montgomery went on mostly to do very high profile made-for-tv movies after this. I’ve seen an absurdly high number  of them — when I was younger I watched them because I was a fan of her’s, more recently I confess I watch them mostly for camp. I’ve seen: A Case of Rape (1974); The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975); Dark Victory (1976); A Killing Affair (1977); Act of Violence (1979) Belle Starr (1980); When the Circus Came to Town (1981); Sins of the Mother (1991); and Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story (1993). Montgomery died of colon cancer in 1995, a fact I’ve always found eerily reminiscent of her role as cancer stricken tv producer Katherine Merrill in Dark Victory. Life imitates tv movie!

Every time we visit Salem we pay homage to the statue of her they erected there, to honor the two Bewitched episodes that were shot in that witchiest of all towns: