It has been a several months since the last installment in my series on Hollywood’s witches. Last May I explored the period from 1939 to 1950. During that time the witch evolved from a cartoon hag into a signifier of the empowered, sexualized woman (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937 and I Married a Witch 1942). Now I will pick back up in 1950 just as television enters its Golden Age. During the subsequent eighteen years, the American film industry undergoes radical changes affecting its structure and product. The period ends in 1968 with the death of the Production Code and the birth of an entirely new Hollywood.
There are four significant factors that forced that well-oiled Hollywood Studio System to break down. The most obvious is commercial television. In reaction to this new form of popular entertainment, the Studios had to rethink their processes. While aggressively competing for viewership, they also realized that TV could be a new venue for their films – both new and old. This led to a positive, long-lasting and lucrative partnership between broadcasters and Hollywood.
The other three factors were external to American entertainment. First, the Cold War Era’s House of Un-American Activities Committee indirectly censored movies and interfered in industry business forcing many “talented people to leave Hollywood.” Secondly, the 1948 Supreme Court Paramount anti-trust ruling required all Studios to relinquish their theater holdings. Fox Studios could no longer own the chain of Fox Theaters. Finally there was an increase in foreign film imports – none of which were censored by the Breen office. Their growing popularity forced the Production Code Administration to repeatedly revise the restrictions in hopes of selling more tickets. (Basinger, American Cinema, Rizzoli, 1994)
With all of that change and the impending Cultural Revolution, it is easy to understand how the Hollywood of 1950 was not the Hollywood of 1968. What happened to the witch between 1950 and 1968?
Between television and Hollywood, there were over fifty narrative programs containing a witch. More than any previously studied period. This increase is due to an overall increase in production. The witch begins to move beyond the realm of fantasy and cartoons into new genres. As a result, she transforms.
From 1950-1960, the dominant witch character is a “Folk Witch.” She is derivative of the old “hag in rags” without the iconic pointy hat and other trifles. She is the reclusive crone who lives at the edge of town and dabbles in herbs. Often the folk witch talks to animals and speaks in rhyme. She is mischievous and morally ambiguous.
The first appearance of this witch is in Comin’ Round the Mountain (1951). In this Abbott and Costello comedy, the Folk Witch is played by none other than Margret Hamilton, the same actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West. This casting was very conscious.
Most of the other folk witches appear in popular western TV shows such as Gene Autry Show (1951), The Adventures of Kit Carson (1953), Wanted Dead or Alive (1958) or Maverick (1960). In “Healing Woman,” an episode of Wanted Dead or Alive, Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) tries to convince a man to see a medical doctor rather than the town’s “healing woman.” Randall says: “If you think that witch is going to cure a stomach full of poison with a handful of frogs, well…”
The folk witch isn’t the only evolutionary change in the witch. In 1957 the film The Undead set two precedents. Not only is this the first Hollywood Horror film to introduce a strong witchcraft narrative1, it is also the first film that re-marries witchcraft with Satan. The Undead has two witches: Meg, the helpful folk witch and Livia, the evil femme fatale witch. Through this film, these two wise woman archetypes are immersed in European mythology and a theological thematic that define their morality. Goodly Meg makes the sign of the cross. Evil Livia is his servant and, as such, one of the first Satanic Witches.
Up until this point the evil witch is bad without reason. The production code strictly controlled the representation of evil, especially that connected to female sexuality. The Code read, “No plot should present evil alluringly.” But times change.
From 1960-1968, the number of witch-themed horror films increase. However, the majority of these films were imports from countries like Mexico, Italy and the UK (The City of the Dead 1960). In such narratives witchcraft exists as an historical leftover – a long-forgotten “evil” that is unearthed from its proverbial tomb to haunt present day (The Naked Witch 1961.) Christianity is the moral counterpoint.
By the mid 1960s, even the otherwise harmless folk witch had become an agent of Satan ( The Terror 1963; Twilight Zone’s “JessBelle” 1961.) In The Terror, the folk witch burns up at a church entrance. In “Jess Belle,” the witch talks about selling one’s soul. The Satanic theme eventually affected the representation of witches outside of the Horror Film. (Alcoa Presents, “Make Me Not a Witch” 1959; Bonanza “Dark Star” 1960.)Another interesting change is the increased presence of male witches or warlocks to use Hollywood’s term. In comedy, the warlock is either a “clown,” as in Jack Lemmon’s Nicky (Bell Book and Candle 1956), or he’s an ornately-dressed male “occultist.”2 (Jack the Giant Slayer 1962; Star Trek “Cats Paw” 1967.) In dramatic stories, the warlock is always Satanic. (House of Black Death 1965; Twilight Zone “Still Valley” 1961).
The construction of the witch is mostly genre dependent. The “occultist” is usually found in revisionist fantasy or science-fiction where there is room for fantastical caricatures and shiny costumes. The folk witch appears mostly in westerns that depict frontier life. The Satanic witch, male or female, finds its home in horror or the like.
What about the classic Halloween Witch? Over this entire period, there is a marked decrease in the retelling of classic fairy tales. However, there is an increase in cartoons. This is where the Halloween Witch lives (Popeye; Milton the Monster; Tom and Jerry; Underdog; Caspar; Story of Hansel and Gretel 1951; Sword in the Stone 1963, e.g.) In some cases, the hag is the antagonist (Return to Oz 1964) and in other times she’s a helpful imp (Trick or Treat 1952.) In two cartoons, the witch is actually good: Caspar (Wendy) and Honey Half Witch. Bad or Good, all of these witches are reflections of American Halloween secular mythology.
There is one other genre that I have yet to discuss – the woman’s film. In 1942, I Married a Witch broke ground by introducing a live-action femme fatale witch (Jennifer) within a romantic-comedy. In the 1958, the story manifests again in the melodrama Bell Book and Candle. A young witch, Gillian, gives up her power for love and marriage. In the earlier film, witchcraft is clearly defined as bad through its connection to Salem. In Bell Book and Candle, witches are likable eccentrics and witchcraft is harmless child’s play. Gillian even celebrates Christmas, a Hollywood marker of a good person.
Finally, this period wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the second most iconic, fictional American Witch: Bewitched’s Samantha Stevens. Samantha, a traditional housewife, is the focal point of the sitcom. She propels the narrative and routinely saves the day. Unlike Gillian and Jennifer, Samantha retains her magical power in marriage and interacts with both the human and Witch world.
Bewitched is loaded with hidden cultural meaning that define the late 1960s. It is largely considered the first feminist show because of the challenges posed to the nuclear family and gender politics. Witchcraft is just a playful mask to attract audiences. The show is an allegory for the growing feminist movement and the battle for Civil Rights. Film Studies Professor Walter Metz remarks in his book Bewitched:
Bewitched also turns out to be an adult delight, engaging in a strong willed critique of discrimination of those who cannot or will not abide by conventional social mores.
This is a sign of things to come. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America removes the restrictive Production Code. It is replaced by the rating system that is still used today. In the next installment, we’ll enter the Post Production Code 1970s – the era that birthed the teen slasher film. It is time when films radically change and things begin to get darker.
1 Most early Horror films were monster-focused with a few mentions of Voodoo or the Occult.
2 I use the term “Occultist” here to differentiate this type male witch from the others. It seems that these recurring archtypes are based on a gypsy motif or perhaps inspired in some way by photos and media caricatures of Aleister Crowley.