6/12/10

Oh My Stars!

While it never could be construed as a horror program, the television sitcom, Bewitched, was steeped in all kinds of supernatural shenanigans -  and was gayer than IKEA on Superbowl Sunday ; and that is as good a reason as any for us to celebrate this magical piece of popular culture for Gay Pride Month!
Loosely based  on the 1942 film, I Married a Witch, as well as 1958's Bell Book and Candle - Bewitched told the tale of All American Boy, Darrin Stephens, who meets a sexy, perky, (seemingly) All American Girl named, Samantha.  The couple have a whirlwind romance, marry, and then,  on their honeymoon, Samantha confesses to her husband that she is, "A real live house-haunting, broom-riding, cauldron-stirring, card-carrying witch."  His mind blown at this revelation, Darrin nonetheless agrees to give this marriage a go, provided his saucy sorceress of a wife forgoes any hocus pocus and at least tries to pretend to be nothing more than an ordinary suburban housewife - for whatever reason, she agrees...
...with her Barbie Doll shape, gorgeous green eyes and Kewpie doll nose , Elizabeth Montgomery's Samantha was the kind of witch that most heterosexual men (and probably quite a few lesbians) might have walked through fire for.  Magic aside, Samantha seemed the perfect wife.  She was a good  housekeeper, an excellent cook, and (later on in the series) a loving mother to her children.  But like most  married women in the late 60's and early 70's, she probably sometimes felt trapped in her suburban existence, and yearned to break free.  Unlike most women of her era, Sam had the ability to bewitch, bother, and bewilder anyone or anything.  One  twitch of that little nose, and the world could have been hers - alas, she was devoted to her husband, and kept (or at least tried to keep) a lid on her powers.
Dick York (and later Dick Sargent) as Darrin was your quintessential, post Eisenhower Era white male.  Uptight, always wanting to fit in, a workaholic; Darrin's way of dealing with a woman who could probably upset the space/time continuum if she so desired, was to simply  deny her the ability to be who she truly was ... because, well,  because that's the way things were.  Obviously, Samantha loved him, because if she did not, she could have easily turned him into a cockroach, stomped him into oblivion, and hexed everyone into forgetting he ever existed.  Darrin was very lucky that his wife loved him - Samantha's family, however, saw things in a whole other light.
Sam's uber bitch of a mother, Endora (Agnes Moorehead) despised her son-in-law so much, she could never say his name; referring to him as Dirweed, Dum Dum or any number of nonsensical names.  More than screwing up his name, Endora was fond of constantly putting spells on Darrin (usually under the pretense of proving to her daughter that he was no good), or sometimes changing him into a farm yard animal.  As hateful as this mother-in-law-from-hell was, you'd be hard pressed finding any  gay men of a certain age who did not worship this character.  Endora was, for many gay guys who came up in the 60's and 70's,  our first Grande Dame.  Sure, we may not have known what that meant, but we loved what we saw - a caustic, mean spirited, harpy who dressed outrageously, she was the sharp tongued bitch that a lot of us wished we were (and some of us grew up to become).  But besides from just being plain fabulous, there was something else about Endora that a gay kid might have noticed.  As cruel as she was, she was fighting the oppressive atmosphere fostered upon her daughter by her dull as dishwater husband.  Endora was from a world were magic, outrageousness and self identity were treasured traits, not things to be stifled.
If Endora was indicative of the inner gay man, then Endora's brother, Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde) was the screaming queen who did not give a fig what others thought.  Several years before the Stonewall Riots, Uncle Arthur was smashing down the walls of visibility with his campy, silly, bitchy sense of humor.  Portrayed as a bachelor (as if) and a practical joker, Uncle Arthur flamed out so much, he practically set the world of Bewitched on Fire.  Strangely enough, Uncle Arthur was one of the few relations of Samantha that did not have it in for Darrin - one supposes (at least by the later seasons) he might have felt that Darrin was a kindred soul.

If I had to pick my all time favorite character on Bewitched, it would have to have been Maurice (Maurice Evans), Sam's bigger than life father.  Classy, well dressed, eloquently spoken, and prone to Shakespearean fits of anger, this is the man I always wished I'd grow up to be.  Often wearing a top hat, cape and using a walking stick, Maurice was one theatrical, scene stealing suave mother fucker.  I loved that when ever he became angry, thunder would roll ominously in the  back ground.  Oddly, he never taunted Darrin as much as Endora did, but he grew irritated with his mortal son in law's ways and much like his estranged wife (it was always suggested that Maurice and Endora were not happily married), he often cast a spell on him (mostly out of anger).  Maurice was also one of the few people in the Bewitched universe who could shut down Endora (no easy feat).  Horror movie fans probably enjoyed the fact that while he played a Warlock on TV, Evans played something of a witch hunter in Rosemary's Baby (Evans played Rosemary's friend, Hutch).
My second favorite Bewitched character was kindly, bumbling, sweet-natured, absent minded Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne), Samantha's adorable maiden aunt who could never recall how to un-cast spells thereby causing folks like Ben Franklin to show up at the Stephens' house.  Sure, she could make problems, but none of them were intentional.  I never despised Darrin more than when he bad mouthed Aunt Clara.  I am pretty sure that a lot of us wished we had a sweetheart of a babysitter like this when we were kids.
 And then there was Samantha's jet setting, scenester cousin, Serena (also played by Elizabeth Montgomery but creatively credited to Pandora Spocks )  Incredibly, once Montgomery donned the black wig, and groovy clothes, she went from gal next door to looking like Grace Slick's sister.  Frankly, it would not have been difficult imagining Serena hanging out with the Warhol crowd, or dancing at The Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip.  Fun loving, mischievous, and always ready to help Endora gum up the works, Serena was yet another relative of Sam's who never understood how her cousin ended up with such a drag like Darrin.  
As outrageous as all of them witches were portrayed, it was interesting to note that the "mortals" in Bewitched, for the most part, were pretty much a less than endearing bunch.  Darrin's boss, Larry Tate (David White) was a self serving yutz who thought nothing of telling Darrin to ring up Sam and tell her that they'd be bringing over a client and his wife for dinner.  (Frankly, I give David White a lot of credit for turning Larry into such an iconic character - every rotten boss I've ever had in my life, I refer to as Larry Tate).
And how about Darrin's, stuffy,  miserable mother, Phyllis (Mabel Albertson), always playing passive aggressive, and coming down with one of her "sick headaches" whenever she caught a whiff of fire and brimstone at her son's house.
Last, but certainly not least, there was Mrs. Kravitz (Alice Pearce, and then Sandra Gould), the nosy neighbor from hell, always spying on Sam and Darrin, and constantly blowing a gasket when she saw something screwy...Another iconic character, for sure, and a constant reminder to the viewer that middle America saw suspicious activities as proof that their neatly idealized concept of The American Dream was fraying at the seams.    I think it was Dennis Miller who once asked, "When have we become a nation of Gladys Kravitz's?" - indeed.
Easily dismissed as nothing more than a farcical situation comedy, Bewitched often used its premise to portray the sort of problems "mixed marriage" couples some times faced.  In one celebrated episode "Sisters at Heart", the topic of racism was tackled head on.  But more than anything, Bewitched was a celebration of the outsider, the flamboyant, the left-of-center; and it's easy to understand why - for instance, consider that Dick Sargent, Paul Lynde, Maurice Evans and even Agnes Moorhead (who despite the fact that she married twice), were gay.  Sure, they were all closet cases (Sargent did not "come out" until 1991, but hey, how many "out" actors can you name off the top of your head appearing on network programs today - go ahead, I'll wait...). 
Clearly, I was not the only gay man who grew up loving and identifying with the characters of Bewitched, In fact I am pretty sure that there might be several generations of gay men who embraced Samantha's world, and probably wanted to be a part of it; the Witches Cotillion, the Warlock's Convention ... what a world that might have been...

 

5 comments:

Rob said...

I haven't watched Bewitched in years but Wow,did you do a great job of summarizing the show and its appeal to me as a kid. The entire post is great but:
"...once Montgomery donned the black wig, and groovy clothes, she went from gal next door to looking like Grace Slick's sister."
Perfect!

Pax Romano said...

Rob, first off - thanks for the comment and reading! Sometimes I think I am doing all of this for my own amusement. Oh, and your blog is incredible - Has Christina Crawford threatened you with a lawsuit yet? I have only skimmed the surface on I'M NOT PATTY - will comment over there when I am through.

As for Grace Slick; it hit me a few weeks ago, when I saw a rerun and Serena (Liz Montgomery)was telling her "cuz" all about the groovy time she had with "The Guru". Anyway, she really looked like Slick in that episode, and so it stuck in my mind.

Thanks again!

Jack Veasey said...

Wow! I loved Bewitched, yet I never thought about most of this stuff consciously. Very perceptive, Pax.

Pax Romano said...

Jack, as a kid, I could not put my finger on it - as an adult it seems as plain as the nose on my face. Funny thing how perspective changes with age.

Larissa said...

Oh my god, I'd forgotten how much I loved Bewitched as a child. I never did like Darren, but Uncle Arthur and Aunt Clara were made of win. Thanks for this - surprise nostalgia blasts are the best.