Not quite the valiant successor to Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), although undeniably enchanting in its own way and throughout most of its 142 minute running time, Robert Stevenson’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) was, in hindsight, a project begun as a bench-warmer while Poppins’ creator, Pamela Travers, continued to make up her mind whether or not she would allow Walt to transform her ‘practically perfect’ nanny into a Disney-fied screen heroine. Travers’ humming and hawing gave Walt time to put his other idea into pre-production – just barely; assigning his resident composers, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman to come up with songs for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, under Don DaGradi’s inspired tutelage. Walt became increasingly frustrated with Travers’ delays; also, not at all impressed by the Sherman’s initial spate of songs for Bedknobs. As both projects languished in pre-production purgatory, Walt was to discover his studio’s finances stretched thin on a pair of movies he had neither the time, budget or – in the case of Poppins – the permission, to undertake. Thankfully, P.L. Travers eventually relenting and Mary Poppins received the necessary kick start to get underway. Poppins’ gain; Bedknobs’ loss.
While studio archives illustrate Walt had every intention to return to Bedknobs and Broomsticks at a later date, his untimely passing in 1966 seemed to preclude any chance for the project to see the light of day. By the mid-1960s musicals in general had already begun to fall out of favor with the public. And Disney Inc. – without Walt – was increasingly becoming just a flashy piece of real estate with a theme park: a studio more readily relying on the reissue of its former animated glories to shore up a badly hemorrhaging cash flow. By all accounts, the company was on the edge – either of a new creative epiphany or financial ruin. Thankfully, all evidence leaned toward a modest recovery; the studio’s creative personnel regrouping after a fallow period of mourning. In this anticlimactic aegis of renewal, the Shermans – who had departed the studio in 1968 – were recalled to their alma mater by producer, Bill Walsh; himself a Disney alumni and one of the driving forces behind Mary Poppins. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was green lit and Don DaGradi assigned to co-author the screenplay.
In many ways, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a reunion picture for the creatives that had toiled so diligently on Poppins; the aforementioned DaGradi and Walsh, and, the Shermans, reunited with musical supervisor, Irwin Kostal, special effects wizard, Eustace Lycette, art director and matte artist extraordinaire, Peter Ellenshaw and actor, David Tomlinson. Only in hindsight does the obviousness of the exercise become more transparent. In essence, what DaGradi and Walsh eventually wrote plays more like Mary Poppins Goes to War than a faithful adaptation of Mary Norton’s novel, The Magic Bed Knob & Bonfires and Broomsticks. Even the film’s structure, with its inserted animated/live action sequence below and above the mythical isle of Nambooboo, plays like a page ripped from the Poppins’ chalk pavement cartoon sequence playbook; the accompanying song, ‘The Beautiful Briny’ actually written for a magical journey Mary Poppins and the Banks children take, using a magic compass.
In casting Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Walsh and DaGradi made an inspired choice in Angela Lansbury; an actress possessing the cache of a bona fide movie star as well as the singing pipes of a Broadway legend: Lansbury, delighted at the prospect of bringing together the two arts that had remained irreconcilable in her own repertoire. And Bedknobs and Broomsticks would afford Lansbury a very splashy screen musical debut indeed; the Shermans committing to an exemplary score that included the Oscar-nominated ‘The Age of Not Believing’, the peppy ‘A Step in the Right Direction’ and the poignant ballad ‘Nobody’s Problem’. Begun as a lavishly appointed road show – and this, at a time when such lengthy excursions into musical fantasy were a very tough sell with audiences – Bedknobs was to have its original 142 minute run time clipped to just under two hours; thanks to the studio’s plum booking arrangement at Radio City Music Hall for the holiday season; Radio City’s own Christmas Spectacular live stage show preventing the girth of Bedknobs from remaining intact.
It was a blow to the creative team – also, arguably, to the picture. For although Bedknobs and Broomsticks proved a rousing success with audiences of all ages when it premiered in 1971 it was decidedly not the picture director, Robert Stevenson had intended his audiences to see. Nor did it satisfy the Shermans, who had written one of their best scores for any Disney movie since Mary Poppins, or Angela Lansbury, who lost two of her three solos, along with her portion of a musical bridge to another song, ‘Eglantine’. In the aggressive edits, Bedknobs succumbed to an almost anti-musical climax; reducing David Tomlinson’s song, ‘With A Flair’ to a mere trifle. Wholesale cuts were made to Donald McKayle’s meticulous choreography in the ‘Portobello Road’ number – pared down from ten to four minutes – while supporting costars, Roddy McDowell and Sam Jaffe saw their performances scaled down to mere cameos. Alas, the final blow went to Cindy O'Callaghan’s Carrie Rawlins who, in the extended version, tearfully explains how she and her brothers were left in the care of their beloved Aunt Bessie; a good woman killed in one of the London bombings, leaving these three orphaned charges to fend for themselves.
I can recall seeing Bedknobs for the first time theatrically as a child; even then, feeling let down by the film; expecting - but never getting - another Mary Poppins. The tempo of the piece just seemed to be off, as did the overall mood; too much exposition and not enough singing or dancing. The story just seemed to lack an emotional center in between the flashier vignettes, like Eglantine Price’s first experience riding her magic broom or the Charleston contest beneath the waves of the beautiful briny in Naboomboo Lagoon. While enjoyable, the film hardly seemed to have the staying power of Poppins or its kinetic effervescence. What a thrill then to experience the reconstruction achieved by restoration expert, Scott McQueen in 1995; a meticulously researched reinvention of the film, opening Disney’s vaults to unearth virtually all of the aforementioned missing pieces and reinstating practically everything into the body of the film.
The one tragic loss remained, ‘A Step in the Right Direction’; the number that in the spring of 1994 had prompted McQueen to undertake the restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks in the first place. Regrettably, it now seems likely the studio’s due diligence in archiving all excised footage from their features experienced a minor hiccup where this extraordinary number is concerned: only the audio portion having survived. Briefly, McQueen and his team contemplated reinserting the song back into the feature with accompanying still images, in much the same way Warner Bros.’ restoration of 1954’s A Star Is Born had successfully done for a handful of missing key sequences. Alas, since ‘A Step in the Right Direction’ remained the only moment in Bedknobs without accompanying visuals, the decision was made to leave the song on the cutting room floor; a bittersweet epitaph for a number Angela Lansbury considered one of her very best.
Even before Bedknobs’ theatrical debut, it had already lost two songs from the Sherman score; ‘Fundamental Element’ and ‘Solid Citizen’; also, a reprise of ‘Nobody’s Problem’ to have been sung by Carrie, Paul (Roy Snart) and Charles Rawlins (Ian Weighill); the forlorn orphans lamenting the absence of any parental supervision. ‘Fundamental’ was meant to illustrate Eglantine’s self-effacing charm as a woman unable to entirely immerse herself in the art of witchcraft, lacking the ‘fundamental element’ of all witches – hate – to successfully carry off her spells. A clever song with an equally clever lyric, it would have established empathy for the character, as well as to foreshadow and reinstate the impetus for Eglantine being able to muster up enough ire near the end to successfully challenge and defeat the threat of a Nazi invasion. As for ‘Solid Citizen’ – the song had been concocted by the Shermans as a means for Eglantine to distract the lion king of Naboomboo while Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson) steals the magical ‘star of Astaroth worn around his neck. Alas, in Bedknob’s incubation, the studio elected instead to indulge in an extended animated soccer game sequence between the animals on the Isle of Naboomboo (all of them designed by Ken Anderson, the animation supervised by Ward Kimball) with Mr. Brown as their bedraggled referee.
For the penultimate showdown between Eglantine and the Nazi invaders, costume designer Bill Thomas managed to pare down costs by renting and only slightly redressing the armor culled from Samuel Bronston’s mammoth epic, El Cid (1961); its various breastplates and chainmail already imported state’s side for Warner Bros. production of Camelot (1967). The best examples of Thomas’ costuming would also be left on the cutting room floor as his flashy and multi-cultural couture was lost in the pruning of Bedknobs’ ‘Portobello Road’ number.
In retrospect, Bedknobs and Broomsticks really was the last of a certain kind of Disney live-action feature; the aging craftsmen able to pull together one last great razzle-dazzle before the studio’s forsaking of the musical genre in totem and their cost-cutting measures effectively relegated their live-action output to a string of modest teen comedies like, The Strongest Man in the World (1975) and Freaky Friday (1976). Disney Inc. would, in fact, pull out all the stops only one more time, with Pete’s Dragon (1977); a movie musical abysmally failing to find its audience then, but since become a much beloved part of the studio’s classic canon. There are some fine sequences in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and, at least in the restored cut, the movie snaps together with a fitting evocation of ‘merry ole England’ at the cusp of the Second World War; the old home guard withstanding even the merciless threat of Nazi obliteration; thanks to a little supernatural help and an incantation known as ‘Substitutiary Locomotion’ – or rather, ‘Treguna, Mekoides, Trecorum, Satis Dee’.
Our story begins in the slavishly backward enclave of Pepperidge Eye, a remote town on the shores near Dover, where reclusive apprentice witch, Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury) has been feverishly toiling in her correspondence college witchcraft studies. For the most part, her spells are harmless and temporary. However, the college’s graduation bonus spell- ‘Substitutiary Locomotion’ promises to bring inanimate objects to life. To her dismay, Eglantine receives a letter from the college’s headmaster, Prof. Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson) informing her that due to the London blitz the college has been forced to close down immediately.
Eglantine is informed by Mrs. Hobday (Tessie O’Shea) she will be required by law to harbor three refugee children from London in her home; Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan), Charles (Ian Weighill) and Paul Rawlins (Roy Snart). It is an indefinite internment – for the children too, who cannot abide Elgantine’s rigid ‘health food’ diet. In the meantime, the corrupt Reverend Jelk (Roddy McDowell) plots to lighten Eglantine’s purse of what he misperceives as her formidable wealth; encouraging her to reconsider the children’s spiritual welfare with a rich endowment to the church. However, after discovering Eglantine is a witch, who inadvertently and only temporarily manages to transform Charles into a white fluffy rabbit, the children unite behind the idea to help her seek out Prof. Browne in London. Previously, Eglantine had made a present to Paul of the knob belonging to her upstairs bed. The knob exhibits magical properties capable of inducing the famous ‘traveling spell’. Alas, only Paul can work it. So Elgantine now cajoles the child into helping her in her efforts. Paul agrees, the knob is reaffixed to the bed and everyone climbs aboard for a psychedelic journey across the English countryside.
Arriving in the sooty heart of London, Eglantine soon discovers Mr. Browne is nothing less than a fraud; a failed showman who has resorted to performing bad magic tricks on street corners and who has misappropriated a nearby mansion for his own; its front path marred by an unexploded bomb wedged between its fence posts; thus, rendering the property a hazard, it nevertheless keeps away the locals as well as the police. While Carrie, Paul and Charles delight in the pleasures they’ve never known as children inside the manor house’s nursery, Mr. Browne’s opinion of Eglantine shifts from mere amusement to elation upon discovering she can, indeed, work magic with the spells he has been providing her, taken from a book he pilfered in the market square. Alas, the last pages of the book are missing, hence, his inability to send Eglantine the final spell she desperately needs to help protect England from the advent of war.
Mr. Browne suggests a trip to Portobello Road; street where the riches of ages are bartered and sold. After some fruitless investigation of its byways and various sellers, Eglantine’s inquiries garner the interest of Swinburne (Bruce Forsythe); a roué in the employ of the spurious Bookman (Sam Jaffe) who is already in possession of the other half of Mr. Browne’s manuscript. Alas, bringing the two halves of the torn book together fails to produce the very last page containing the secret incantation derived from the Star of Astaroth. Paul reveals he knows where they might find the answers; Eglantine encouraging everyone, except Swinburne and Bookman, to get on the bed that has brought them to London and coaxing Paul to command the bed to take them to Naboomboo Island. The instructions unclear, the bed instead drops everyone into Naboomboo Lagoon; Eglantine and Mr. Browne indulging in – and winning – a dance competition below the cresting waves of the beautiful briny before the bed is hooked by a fishing rod and dragged to the surface by the island’s lion king.
It seems the lion king commands with an iron fist, forcing Mr. Browne to referee their soccer game. In the ensuing hoof stomp Mr. Browne is repeatedly trampled; managing to swipe the star of Astaroth and trade it for his own referee’s whistle; the bait and switch remaining undiscovered until Eglantine and the children have all managed to climb aboard the bed once again. When the lion king discovers he has been had he attempts to reclaim his most prized possession; Eglantine transforming him into a white fluffy rabbit at the last possible moment before she, Mr. Browne and the children make their escape back to Pepperidge Eye. Tragically, the star – a figment of this cartoon realm – has not survived the journey. All seems lost until Paul informs everyone he knows the magic words ascribed on the star - ‘Treguna, Mekoides, Trecorum, Satis Dee’ – all of them readily available in a children’s book Paul took from the nursery.
Eglantine tests the spell and discovers it does indeed work; though arguably, not as it should – her petticoat and other household implements and various pieces of clothing momentarily coming to life, only to create havoc in her workroom before collapsing to the floor in a heap. Afterward, Eglantine contemplates the validity of remaining an apprentice witch; her thoughts shifting to Mr. Browne whom the children have grown extremely fond of and would like to regard as their surrogate father. True to form, Mr. Browne gets cold feet and elects to return to London immediately instead. His journey is thwarted by the arrival of the Nazis, testing their ability to take a small English town hostage before launching a full scale invasion of the country.
Alas, Eglantine has another surprise in store for her captors; resurrecting the ancient armor in the town’s local museum with ‘Substitutiary Locomotion’; the Nazis driven back by the shock and surprise of seeing century old uniforms come to life with nobody wearing them; the ghosts of the past rising up to meet the challenge of this modern mechanized army and driving the Germans from the coastline. Too bad Eglantine’s workroom, where all of her spells are kept, is dynamited by the Nazis, thus putting an end to her enterprising career as an apprentice witch. The next day the incident is reported in all the papers and Mr. Browne – who has ostensibly decided to return to Eglantine – first, does the noble thing by enlisting in the war effort; promising to return to them safely at war’s end. Our story ends with the old home guard coming to collect Mr. Browne, sending him on toward an uncertain future with their patriotic march.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the sort of deliriously ambitious fantasy yarn the Disney Studios used to thrive on for their bread and butter. In its reassembled form, the film has all the tangible elements and staying power of a true Disney classic; one, Walt undeniably would have been proud to call his own. Regrettably, after having given audiences a taste of this reincarnated ‘almost’ complete version of the movie (remember, ‘A Step in the Right Direction remains MIA) the denizens at Disney Inc. have reelected to take a decided step back in the wrong direction by issuing Bedknobs and Broomsticks to Blu-ray in its truncated 117 min. theatrical cut.
Having had the opportunity to view an advanced copy of this disc I have a few words to say regarding my recommendation herein. First, Walt Disney Home Video has done an exceptional job in restoring and remastering Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1080p. Colors are robust beyond all previous incarnations and expectations. There is a richness, vibrancy and clarity to this transfer we have not seen before and it speaks to the studio’s renewed efforts to pay strict attention in the way their vintage catalog is brought to home video in hi-def. Contrast is superb and there appears to be no untoward digital manipulations (edge effects, de-graining, et al). Better still, the soundtrack elements have also been given a meticulous 5.1 DTS upgrade. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was released theatrically only in flat mono, but has been available in stereo on home video for some years. However, this audio mix appears to be a ground up remastering effort with all the bells and whistles added to ensure the movie sounds superior to anything heard before. So what we have here is absolutely a reference quality transfer anyone would be proud to add to their home video library.
However, to release Bedknobs and Broomsticks ONLY in its abbreviated version, particularly after illustrating another – better – longer version exists, is tantamount to either some very poor planning at the Mouse House or merely a deliberate smack in the kisser - not only to collectors and casual fans of this movie, but also to virtually all the surviving talents who worked on the picture – as well as the restoration efforts of Scott McQueen – all of whom are on hand to trumpet the ‘restored edition’ in the featurette: Music Magic - The Sherman Brothers. At 20 min. this skimmed over ‘making of’ the film and resurrection of the restored 139 min. cut was included as an extra on the previously issued ‘restored edition’ DVD. Why Disney chose to include it here is a puzzlement since we don’t have the restored version of the movie as its’ necessary counterpart. Dumb! Really dumb!
What we do get is the five deleted songs, including the reconstructed, ‘A Step in the Right Direction’ made available as an extra feature. All of the numbers have been scanned in at the same high resolution, begging the question why Disney Inc. did not offer us a seamless branching option so that the viewer could choose whether or not to watch the movie with them properly reinserted, as in an ‘extended cut’ vs. the ‘theatrical cut’. Again, just silly – and misguided – and yes; dumb! Really dumb!!! Especially since we’re still missing the snippets of dramatic dialogue like Carrie’s homage to Aunt Bessie and Reverend Jelk’s sinister plotting to connive Eglantine out of her spinster’s pot of money.
The other extra culled from the previously issued DVD is a very brief glimpse at David Tomlinson prerecording his tag to ‘Portobello Road’ with Irwin Kostal conducting and Richard Sherman looking on. New to this Blu-ray is an extremely brief tribute to Eustace Lycette’s special effects, hosted by Jennifer Stone with sound bytes from historians, Les Perkins and Greg Kimble and John Allison. There’s also four theatrical trailers and two shameless promos for the upcoming Sleeping Beauty reissue and a new film, Legend of the Neverbeast. Pass.
Bottom line: as I always believe in being fair and judging a disc by what’s on it rather than what I’d prefer, I have to give a favorable grade to the quality standards met herein. They are, in a word, exemplary. However, I would like to reiterate that Disney’s decision to release only the truncated version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks in hi-def is an incalculable misfire and emphatically NOT supported by yours truly or this blog. Personally, I do not recommend anyone buy this release as it DOES NOT represent the most comprehensive edition of the movie; the one intended for a road show Christmas release before the wholesale cuts were made merely to squeeze it into Radio City.
I feel I am safe in assuming the late Robert Stevenson was NOT of the opinion this version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks was the one he intended to be seen. Given Scott McQueen’s formidable efforts in putting the movie back together in 1995, I also believe I can state with a degree of certainty he too would not support Disney’s current decision to dismantle all of his hard work for this hi-def release. So, my personal grade – again – is a definite fail. Not recommended for this reason alone. Alas, the actual grade for the disc transfer must rate some very high marks. Please note below and judge your purchase accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)