Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Bedknobs And Broomsticks
When a studio produces a movie that captures lightning in a bottle the way Disney did with Mary Poppins, you can’t blame them for trying to replicate the trick. But Walt’s follow-up musical, The Happiest Millionaire, had been an ambitious and costly misfire. So Bedknobs And Broomsticks would appear to be a take-no-chances attempt to completely recreate the creative alchemy that produced Mary Poppins. That’s sort of true but Bedknobs And Broomsticks isn’t exactly a Mary Poppins clone. It’s more like a fraternal twin.
Walt Disney tried for a long, long time to wrestle the film rights to Mary Poppins out of author P.L. Travers’ clutches. Negotiations were contentious and on more than one occasion, it appeared as though the project was doomed. Walt needed a backup plan in case Mary Poppins fell apart. One idea was a film based on a pair of children’s books by Mary Norton that Disney had acquired the rights to years earlier. The Magic Bed Knob and Bonfires And Broomsticks were Norton’s first published works. By 1957, the two books were collected under the title Bed-Knob And Broomstick. Norton’s most famous work is probably The Borrowers, which I’m frankly stunned Disney never made into a movie.
Walt instructed the Sherman Brothers to start coming up with songs for both Mary Poppins and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. Once Travers finally signed on the dotted line, Bedknobs was scrapped. The Shermans picked it up again in 1966, presumably assuming that it would make an obvious follow-up to Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, it was a little too obvious. Bedknobs And Broomsticks felt so much like Mary Poppins that it was abandoned a second time.
In 1968, the Shermans’ Disney contract was due to expire. The boys had always reported directly to Walt. Since his death in 1966, they’d been making plans to leave the studio. Before they left, producer Bill Walsh had them finish up their work on Bedknobs And Broomsticks. As they’d done on Mary Poppins, the Shermans worked closely with Walsh and cowriter Don DaGradi to crack the story.
Apparently Walsh had no intention of actually making Bedknobs And Broomsticks quite yet. He just wanted to make sure that the Shermans’ work wasn’t left unfinished while they were still on the hook for the studio. Once they had a finished script, the Shermans moved on to other projects elsewhere with an assurance from Walsh that they could come back if Disney ever did decide to make the movie.
Walsh returned to Bedknobs And Broomsticks in late 1969, after the Shermans had gone on to do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This time, he decided to embrace the project’s similarities to Mary Poppins. He brought in that film’s director, Robert Stevenson. Stevenson had become one of the studio’s most reliable filmmakers since Poppins, turning out blockbusters like Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Love Bug. Animator Hamilton Luske, who had been part of Mary Poppins’ Oscar-winning visual effects team, passed away in 1968, so Ward Kimball was put in charge of Bedknobs’ animated sequence.
Walsh’s first choice to play witch-in-training Eglantine Price was Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. Andrews’ career was about to hit a rough patch. Her 1968 musical Star! had been an expensive flop. Her next film, 1970’s Darling Lili directed by her husband Blake Edwards, didn’t fare much better. When she got the call from Disney, Andrews passed on the role, fearing it was too similar to Mary. She later reconsidered, figuring she owed Disney one for igniting her career and probably thinking she could use a hit, but by then it was too late. Walsh had already given the role to Angela Lansbury.
Lansbury had been in Hollywood since the 40s and it seemed as though she’d had to reinvent her career several times already. She’d received three Oscar nominations but studios frequently had no idea what to do with her. Bedknobs And Broomsticks was her first lead role in a movie musical, despite the fact that she was a regular presence on Broadway. Lansbury will be back in this column in vocal form but not for quite some time, so it’s a little surprising how associated she’s become with Disney. Apart from a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns, this is her only live-action Disney appearance.
To star opposite Lansbury, Walsh tried to get Ron Moody, another Broadway veteran who had just starred in the movie version of Oliver! But Moody wanted top billing and refused to budge on that point. So Walsh brought in David Tomlinson, another Mary Poppins star. This would be Tomlinson’s third and final Disney appearance following Poppins and The Love Bug. His last movie, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu, came out in 1980. After that, he enjoyed a happy retirement until his death in 2000 at the age of 83.
The plot of Bedknobs And Broomsticks is almost a funhouse mirror version of Mary Poppins. Instead of a practically perfect magical nanny coming to the aid of a 1910 family, we have three orphans escaping the German blitz in 1940 being foisted upon a correspondence school witch who doesn’t particularly care for children. Mary has seemingly limitless powers. Eglantine Price is still learning the handful of spells she’s been sent. Mary imparts valuable lessons to the Banks family but it’s the kids who have to teach Miss Price to open up.
The Rawlins children, Charlie, Carrie and Paul, are played by Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan and Roy Snart. All three had previously appeared in a few commercials but that was about the extent of their acting experience. Only Cindy O’Callaghan continued on in the profession, mostly in British TV shows like EastEnders. Snart evidently became a software entrepreneur, while nobody’s one hundred percent sure whatever happened to Ian Weighill. They’re all natural performers, so I hope that if nothing else, they’ve all led happy, productive, scandal-free lives unlike so many other child stars.
The story kicks into gear when the kids spot Miss Price learning to fly on a broomstick while trying to sneak out. Now that Miss Price seems more interesting, they decide to stick around. Charlie, the oldest and most cynical of the bunch, decides to push back against Miss Price’s strict rules by holding her witchy secret over her head. In exchange for their silence and cooperation, she gives them a transportation spell that only young Paul can operate by twisting an enchanted bedknob.
Miss Price has recently received word that Professor Emelius Browne’s Correspondence College of Witchcraft is closing, just as she was about to receive her final lesson in Substitutiary Locomotion. Determined to get the spell, she packs the kids onto the magic bed and has Paul take them to London. There they discover that “Professor” Browne is nothing more than an ordinary stage magician and not a very good one, at that. He’s thrilled to learn that Miss Price is actually able to make his spells work. Unfortunately, the book he’s been cribbing the spells from is incomplete, so he offers to help her track it down.
A search of the market at Portobello Road turns up nothing but attracts the attention of Bookman (Sam Jaffe) and his enforcer, Swinburne (British TV personality Bruce Forsyth). Bookman also wants the spell and had hoped Browne had it in his half of the book. He also reveals that the spell is engraved on the Star of Astaroth, a sorcerer’s medallion now supposedly kept on the legendary Isle of Naboombu. Naboombu is supposed to be off-limits to humans. But most humans don’t have access to a magical bedknob, so Paul whisks them away to Naboombu.
The bed splashes down in the animated Naboombu Lagoon. Mr. Browne and Miss Price have time to win an underwater dance contest judged by a codfish (voiced by Bob Holt, later the Lorax, Grape Ape and lots of others) before they’re fished out by a bear (Disney regular Dal McKennon). Browne demands to see King Leonidas (Lennie Weinrib, voice of H.R. Pufnstuf and many other favorites of the 1970s and 80s). Both the bear and Leonidas’ secretary (also Weinrib) advise against this. The king is in an even worse mood than usual because he can’t find a referee for his anything-goes soccer match.
Browne, an enthusiastic fan and former footballer himself, volunteers for the job. After a far-from-regulation match, Browne is able to palm the Star of Astaroth medallion. They hot-foot it back to the bed, which transports them safely home. Unfortunately, the medallion doesn’t survive the journey between realms. But that’s OK because Paul has had a picture of it, engraving and all, in his picture book the whole time, rendering about half of the movie up to this point completely pointless.
After a little practice to make sure the Substitutiary Locomotion spell works, the group’s dinner is interrupted by Mrs. Hobday (Tessie O’Shea), the local chairwoman of the War Activities Committee. She’s found a more suitable home for the children. But they’ve been having such a good time that now they want to stay, along with Mr. Browne as their new father. Both Mr. Browne and Miss Price want this, too. But they both freak out a little over how quickly things have happened and Mr. Browne opts to return to London.
He's spending a cold, uncomfortable night alone on the train platform when the town is invaded by Nazis. The Germans have picked a soft target like Pepperinge Eye as a warmup for a full-scale invasion of London. But between Miss Price’s magic and the village’s Home Guard of old-age pensioners, the Nazis are forced to retreat. In the end, Mr. Browne enlists in the army with a promise to return to Pepperinge Eye when the war is over.
Now, here’s the thing about Bedknobs And Broomsticks. This is, at best, a marginally successful picture, especially when held up against Mary Poppins. It doesn’t have a big emotional catharsis like “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”. Its supporting characters aren’t as colorful and lively. Its animated sequence is completely superfluous. (So is the one in Mary Poppins, by the way, but it has “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” so nobody seems to notice or care.) None of that bothers me one bit. I love this movie.
I am as susceptible to the siren song of nostalgia as the next person. For whatever reason, Bedknobs And Broomsticks pushes every one of those buttons in me. The movie was released in the States on December 13, 1971 (it premiered in England about two months earlier). So if my parents did take me to see it at the time, I would have been two years old. I have no specific memory of that, obviously. I do remember seeing it later, maybe as a children’s matinee or on a re-release. But it feels as though it has always been imprinted on my brain. From the moment it starts, I’m as hooked as a bed on a bear’s fishing pole.
Unlike a lot of other films, Bedknobs And Broomsticks’ biggest problem isn’t overlength. It’s underlength. Disney had not had much success with roadshow-style engagements since Mary Poppins. Radio City Music Hall, New York City’s premiere venue for major movie musicals, felt particularly empowered to request cuts to movies they felt were too long. The studio had already caved to Radio City’s demands for cuts to Follow Me, Boys!, The Happiest Millionaire and The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. Disney probably already had scissors in hand before they even started talking to Radio City about Bedknobs And Broomsticks.
Over twenty minutes were eliminated from the picture before it even premiered. This explains why Roddy McDowall, making his first Disney appearance since The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin, is on screen for maybe two minutes despite receiving third billing. It also explains why “Portobello Road”, the movie’s would-be show-stopper, is inelegantly chopped up into a series of vignettes that never builds any real momentum.
In addition, three whole musical numbers were dropped along the way. The cumulative effect of these cuts is a movie that never quite seems to get anywhere with characters whose motivations remain somewhat inscrutable. In 1996, Disney attempted a restoration with the materials that had been salvaged. It was a good-faith effort with some sequences using re-recorded audio and still photos to stand in for lost footage. But that’s not the version most readily available to audiences today. The “restored”, 140-minute cut is only available on a 2009 DVD. The familiar 117-minute cut is the one available on Disney+ and Blu-ray.
That first round of cuts didn’t help the movie with critics or audiences. When it grossed less than half of its original budget on its initial release, Disney chopped even more out of it and sent it back out on the re-release circuit. It never did become a popular favorite but eventually it began developing a cult following, including myself, who were dazzled by the animated sequence, loved the songs, and were charmed by its refreshingly low-key manner. Bedknobs And Broomsticks might not add up to much but its quirky individual parts are a delight.
It also did surprisingly well at the Academy Awards. The movie received five nominations, winning the Oscar for Best Special Visual Effects (its only competition in the category was Hammer Films’ When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth). The effects aren’t exactly revolutionary but they’re effective, fun and fit the tone of the film perfectly.
It was also nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, losing both of those to the now mostly-forgotten epic Nicholas And Alexandra. On the music front, it lost Best Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score to Fiddler On The Roof. The song “The Age Of Not Believing,” which is far from my favorite tune in the movie, lost the Best Original Song award to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” which, fair enough.
A lot of the folks who worked on Bedknobs And Broomsticks will be back in this column, including Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowall, director Robert Stevenson and producer Bill Walsh. Cowriter Don DaGradi retired after completing his work on the picture. He’d been with Disney since the 1930s, working as a background artist, animator, story developer and art director. He’d started writing live-action screenplays with Son Of Flubber and had been nominated for an Oscar for Mary Poppins. Don DaGradi passed away on August 4, 1991, at the age of 79 and was posthumously inducted as a Disney Legend later that same year.
This would also be the last Disney work from Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman for quite some time. They’d enjoyed a fruitful association with Disney but they felt it was time to move on. Over the next few years, they’d work on such films as Snoopy, Come Home and Charlotte’s Web and receive Oscar nominations for Tom Sawyer, The Slipper And The Rose and The Magic Of Lassie. Eventually they returned to Disney and, thanks to the studio’s policy of recycling old material into new feature films, we’ll see them again in this column soon enough.
The failure of Bedknobs And Broomsticks caused Disney to abandon the idea of doing big-budget musical spectaculars for a while. Going forward, Disney movies would be more modest in budget and ambition. But for some of us, Bedknobs And Broomsticks holds up as a high point of the Disney style and the Sherman Brothers’ music. If you read the words “Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee” in rhythm, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
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This movie IMO creates its world beautifully, you believe you are there. It never quite attains the critical mass of Mary Poppins, and the severe cuts do not help, but I love it so. I listen to the soundtrack album all the time.