If you think about it: each decade of the 20th century yielded (motion-picture-wise) at least one Quintessential Image of the Archetypal Witch; and if you read these images, you can decipher (a bit) what the 20th century had going on, Witch-wise. For instance: I think you will agree that the early 20th century (the 1930s-50s), for all that they possessed few motion-picture Instances of Witches, presented Witches in a very Romantic Light. Then, in the 1960s, Witchcraft grew into a dark and troubling affair. However, since the 1990s, Witchcraft has (with one memorable exception) been seen as an Empowerment of Womanhood.
Obviously, the first notable instance of a “Witch” movie is one of the most beloved of Hollywood classics: MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz. Possessing two memorable portrayals of Witches- one Good, the other Bad- the film reads, I think, as an Initiation into the Craft of the Witch, undergone by a remarkably visionary child named Dorothy. All of the elements of the Shamanic Initiation are there: Dorothy is carried through the elemental force of a cyclone; to a strange, new world, populated with fantastical creatures; where she undergoes a mystical journey, fraught with peril; before she experiences the terrifying Death Ordeal in the Witch’s castle. Rewarded and lauded at the end, she understands abilities within her previously unknown: all of this is revealed to have been a dream at the end; a dream, or a Shamanic Vision?
Governing this unique experience is a kindly Good Witch- as much a Goddess as exists in Oz, who as memento of Dorothy’s adventure, Magickally places upon her feet a (Freudianly suggestive) pair of ruby-red slippers. (This is also one of the call-outs to the Shamanic Experience, as anything to do with feet is significant, in Shaman-Legend.) As these ruby slippers had previously belonged to the Witch of the East, they symbolically count as Initiation Objects into the Sisterhood of Witchcraft: demonstrated to Dorothy in both its Good and Wicked forms. In all ways, The Wizard of Oz is the quintessential American Movie-Faerey-Tale; its enduring power is demonstrated by the fact that we keep retelling it. It also shows, in an interesting way, how myth can develop and grow, mutating first into this form, and then into that.
There has been an off-shoot retelling of The Wizard of Oz (perhaps you have heard of it) called Wicked: first a runaway best-seller novel, and then a blockbuster Broadway show. It too tells the story of an Initiation into Witchcraft; only this time, considering the point-of-view of the Witch of the West, and taking the position that her inherent powers are exploited by unscrupulous individuals (such as the Wizard), earning her the raw deal of being unjustly called “Wicked.” Clearly, the soil of this 1930s Witch-Myth continues to grow in fertility as the decades wear on.
The 1940s found its Witch in femme fatale Veronica Lake’s 1942 romantic-comedy I Married a Witch. A screen-siren of the time, Ms. Lake’s presentation as a beautiful and seductive Witch who falls in love with a Mortal plays up the idea of the Female as the Seductress-Enchantress, making courtship between a Woman and a Man as mysterious a thing as Witchcraft. In many ways, the heart of screw-ball comedy lies in the ways that Women and Men will be both drawn to one another, and mystified by one another at the same time. It’s a little like that “Women are from Venus, Men from Mars” thing, rendered in metaphor as “Women are [beautiful] Witches, Men are Mortals- and yet they will fall in Love.” So satisfying is this concept, it is borrowed as the basis for the 1960s television series Bewitched, one of the most beloved depictions of Witches in American pop-culture. I Married a Witch: an intriguing and rather romantic premise for a light-hearted ’40s classic Hollywood comedy.
The same romantic premise forms the basis for the ’50s preeminent Witch: Kim Novak in 1958′s Bell, Book, and Candle. Originally a Broadway play from 1950 starring English actress Lilli Palmer, and then a sturdy touring vehicle for actresses such as Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Lana Turner, Bell, Book, and Candle equally follows a beautiful Witch (Ms. Novak is perhaps the most beautiful woman to play a Witch onscreen) as she pursues the Mortal man of her desire. It is interesting that Bell, Book, and Candle provides Ms. Novak’s Witch with a background community of Witches, envisioning a bohemian Greenwich Village setting for this secret, underground society. The movie (and original play) is the first time that metaphor can be read into a dramatic use of Witches: on the one hand, the Witches of BBC are clearly presented in terms of Beatnik culture, as well as the emerging counterculture; the Witches also can easily be read as metaphoric for the underground societies of Homosexuals (situated largely in Greenwich Village) at the time. In the curious sort of way, it almost appears as if BBC is laying the groundwork for the emerging Witch/ Wicca/ Pagan scene, portraying modern Witches living amongst Mortals, for however much the Mortals may be unaware (again, this dynamic is borrowed for Bewitched). One of my favorite moments is when Elsa Lanchester (an English character-actress whom I love, playing Kim Novak’s Witch-Aunt) describes watching the people around her in New York, and wondering to herself, “What would you do if I told you that I am a Witch?” A sublime scene for Pagans, as Pagans often find themselves in the same Secret Society position (Ms. Lanchester, by the way, is otherwise famous in motion pictures for playing the Bride of Frankenstein).
For all that American society was undergoing the Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War from the ’30s-’50s, it seems to have retained a certain Romantic sensibility, to judge from the three Witch-Movies representative of each decade. Ah, but the ’60s- that is another matter, reflected in the Witch-films of that period.