Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Director: Robert Stevenson / Screenplay: Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi (from book by Mary Norton) / Editing: Cotton Warburton / DP: Frank V. Phillips
Cast: Angela Lansbury / David Tomlinson / Roddy McDowall / Sam Jaffe / Bruce Forsyth / Cindy O’Callaghan / Roy Snart / Ian Weighill / Tessie O’Shea
Have you ever heard of a ‘rich witch’?
Nostalgia can be a tricky thing for the middle-aged to navigate around. I mean, it’s all well and good to revisit bits of your childhood and wallow in reverie, but what if that thing you’ve been carrying a torch for all these years, turns out to be, actually, a little bit rubbish? It can go the other way, of course. Something you might’ve detested as a child, say the taste of Brussels Sprouts, turns-out to have been great all along…
Well, no. Sprouts were, remain and always will be the food of Satan. Films, on the other hand, are something entirely richer and more rewarding to consume. I was never really exposed to movies as a kid, beyond what might turn-up on TV of a Sunday afternoon, or the (occasional) trip ‘to the pictures’, so my critical faculty never had much of a chance. I’d happily soak-up a dodgy Western or period-drama (usually starring Bette Davis, it seemed) because it was a film, not some piece of disposable television. Whether any of it was good or bad, I couldn’t tell you.
I think Bedknobs and Broomsticks (‘B&B’) is in there somewhere. I have a dim memory of watching this in a fleapit during a summer holiday around 1980 and being impressed by the mix of live-action with animation. More than that, I’ve nothing to give. I think it rained at some point, if that helps?
Little did I know, then, that B&B actually began pre-production at Disney, at around the same time as Mary Poppins, but Pamela Travers’ reluctance to grant approval for Walt’s interpretation, caused the great man to hustle B&B into pole-position instead. I heartily recommend Saving Mr. Banks (2013) for a glimpse into the Disney studio of that era and the work of the Sherman brothers, in particular; watch that and you’ll have a good idea of the creative hothouse that Disney had fostered. Another thought: what are the odds, that Walt had managed to find two properties that were so close in tone, that they might’ve had the same author…
Of course, history records that not only did Ms. Travers sign-on-the-dotted-line, but the resultant film of Mary Poppins (1964) would go on to be a definitive children’s classic, unravaged by time. But what of B&B?
Following Walt’s death in 1966, the studio had to re-organise and find its soul once again. With the release of The Jungle Book (1967), the last animation overseen by Walt himself, it was down to Poppins’ producer and co-writer Bill Walsh, to pick up the rhythm with B&B and tap any affection still lingering for Poppins’s approach of mixing live action with animation.
The resulting film, is based on a pair of children’s novels by the English author Mary Norton, who’d later be better known for The Borrowers series, but who wrote these two books while the country was fighting World War 2. The over-arching theme, is of a trio of London siblings evacuated from the City to avoid the bombs, who end-up in the care of Miss Eglantine Price.
Ms. Price, it turns-out, is an apprentice witch, who’s learnt her skills from a correspondence course run by a genial con-man, Emelius Brown. The war has ended the course prematurely, leaving Ms Price short of the last, vital lesson. With the help of the kids, she turns a bed into a ‘teleportation’ device, travels to London to meet both Brown and the source of his spells (note: NO bombs, but lots of ethnic dancing), then on to a cartoon island called ‘Naboombu’. There, they’ll acquire a mystical amulet from the island’s temperamental King; the words inscribed on it, forming the last spell. Ms. Price will then use it, to animate a museum’s collection of antique suits of armour and rebuff a Nazi raiding party in the process.
Oh, and all the while, she conducts a burgeoning romance with this con-man, in full-view of her three, impressionable wards; finally accepting him – and the three kids – into her life as an instant-family. As you do. It’s a shame therefore, that they’ll soon return to their parents in the Smoke, but that’s life…
I’m compressing matters, of course, but that’s pretty much it from soup-to-nuts and, chances are, if you’re of a certain age, you’ll know most of this already, even if on a subliminal level. It’s as if we absorbed all this stuff through cultural osmosis…
What’s of interest to me, is the version I watched for this review, given it’s about twenty minutes longer that what I saw all those years ago. The story goes that Disney executives wanted B&B to occupy the same prestigious slots in-theatres, as Poppins, thanks to a generous running-time that would make it ‘an event picture’. However, after its 1971 premiere, they changed their minds and had the film drastically trimmed to less than a hundred minutes, the better to fit-in with ‘regular’ screenings. The cuts included much of the elaborate dance sequence around the song ‘Portobello Road’, a sub-plot involving Roddy McDowall (who’s presence in the picture was then reduced to little more than throwaway-cameos) and three songs; this must’ve been the version I saw.
Eventually, thanks to the rise of home-video and a commensurate desire on the part of a younger generation of Disney executives to ‘do the right thing’ (a-k-a ‘making money’) a full restoration was mounted in the late-Nineties, with an initial release in 2001, on DVD & VHS (remember that?). The Blu-Ray watched for this review, is the same re-constructed print, but remastered both visually & sonically (I’m no judge, but it looks clean & crisp and sounds ‘full’). An even longer version containing several other deleted scenes and yet another song by Miss Price that runs to 140 minutes, is unavailable on Blu-Ray, so I’ll settle for this; besides, all those extra scenes are on the disc as extras; they’re just not woven into the picture’s fabric…
But what of the film itself? When you break it down, what do you have? A pagan white witch. A trio of dispersed children. A shiftless squatter of a con-man. Nazi soldiers. Bruce Forsyth as a knife-wielding henchman: quite the disparate collection. Miss Price herself, is an adept of the occult, even though, by her own admission she’s too ‘kind-hearted’ to be a ‘proper’ witch. For all that, she’s not above turning children and Mr. Brown into white rabbits, if they displease her…
With the underlying realities of war as a foundation to proceedings, I wonder if this was an attempt by Mary Norton to conjure a little magic – innocent magic, at that – into the lives of a wartime generation of kids in need of a little escapism? Remember, families had been separated for years by the evacuation of children out of London, but that also led to adjustment on the part of those who’d taken-in children (history doesn’t relate if Londoners ever worried that they were entrusting the welfare of their children to the clutches of rural occultists). What Norton was doing, therefore, was weaving a narrative that would lend meaning to a young audience; a reassurance that all would be well in the end and a reminder, that Britain’s history was long and proud. No matter what Hitler and his cronies would throw at the country, the national spirit would endure.
One could almost argue a connection with B&B to our recent convulsions over Brexit. Why? There’s only one occurrence of a foreign invader – the dreaded Germans – and they’re soon sent packing, with a little British nous, a dollop of heritage and lashings of pagan savvy: not dissimilar to the tactics currently being employed by Her Majesty’s Government in Brussels. I’m sure that if flying broomsticks were a thing, Theresa May would have squadrons in lurid high-vis, patrolling the White Cliffs of Dover.
Alas, like Brexit, the film is not without its problems. Firstly, although billed & marketed as including Disney’s ‘signature’ animation, there’s probably less than fifteen minutes of it and what there is, is of poor quality. Backgrounds are simplistic and almost ‘impressionistic’ in their style. The voice-talent used seems odd as well, as if ill-suited to their dialogue and/or visual character design. Plus, I’m a long-term fan of Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) that would follow two years later and it’s clear, that B&B ‘inspired’ several designs (if not their animators) for that later film. The ‘Lion King’ here, would reappear as ‘Prince John’, along with the bear as ‘Little John’, rhinos as John’s guards and even the two vultures in B&B would feature in ‘Hood. It’s as if their animators were granted a ‘warm-up’ gig in B&B to prove their worth, as much as from production expediency.
There are just two main animated sequences. The first is underwater, off the island of Naboombu and features the ‘Beautiful Briny Ballroom’, in which a pre-Little Mermaid (1989) fishy big-band, plays a ragtime dance-number (the catchy ‘Bobbing Along’) that’s mugged along to, by Miss Price and Mr. Brown. It’s charming, but too short.
The opposite could be said of the other sequence: a soccer match between the King’s own ‘Dirty Yellows’ (a team of top-level predators) and the ‘True Blues’ (featuring animals of a more timid disposition). Mr. Brown referees and boy, does it drag. It’s an unrelenting bore-fest of sight gags, off-screen crowd noises and Hanna-Barbera levels of background repetition and all-round sketchiness. In one of the extras on the disc, composer Dick Sherman expressed his own loathing of the sequence, as it replaced one of his comedic songs that might’ve lifted the piece instead of sinking-it. But, as Sherman put it: ‘They wanted the soccer game. I’ve nothing against soccer, but…’ Exactly, Mr. Sherman. Exactly.
I’m also at-odds with the casting. Angela Lansbury is merely ‘okay’ as Miss Price, but at no time did I buy-into the notion of her as a witch, even an apprentice. Lansbury is too matronly; too regal to wing-it. Julie Andrews was able to convince as Poppins, because her character came fully-formed. She didn’t have to believe that her magic might work; the script had it as commonplace and everyone else around her, ended-up buying into that same conviction.
Likewise, David Tomlinson as Mr. Brown. In Poppins, he’d played the repressed father-figure who’d forgotten how to live irresponsibly. In B&B, Tomlinson was given a role almost its mirror-image: he’s an expressive, irresponsible loser, who’d forgotten how to live responsibly. A kindly figure, who lacked the menace needed to pull-off a street-smart role. The three kids also grated with their affected ‘Cockerney’ accents. They did have my sympathy however, as all the leads apparently found it tough to act against non-existent animations or other special effects.
My last grip of note, is with that restored ‘Portobello road’ dance sequence. As presented now, we have a succession of uniformed men, reflecting the diverse cultural make-up, of both London and the Allied forces, that fought in the war. So, we get a few turbaned Sikhs, some Afro-Caribbeans, a few kilted Scots and some athletic (native Caucasian?) sailors, who all dance a few steps before being sublimated to the whole: and isn’t that like London today? That said, for all the khaki-clad steel drummers and allusions to the country’s diversity as a key to our strength, it went on forever… What with that and the footy-match, I could almost, almost make a case for another re-cut. And I didn’t mention the bonkers finale either, which is its own flavour of madness (or whimsical British eccentricity, if you prefer).
My over-riding impression, is that Bill Walsh left it too-late to cash-in on the legacy of Poppins. Without Walt’s keen eye and grounding in cultural first-principles, B&B is an unfocused mess of a film, knocked-together by Disney’s B-Team. Its story is too threadbare, populated by thinly-drawn characters who’re possessed of next-to-no motivation. Tighter quality-control would’ve trimmed-down bloated elements before filming and would’ve boosted others that, as things stand, are too slight. One can only imagine what Walt would’ve done with the material, had he lived to see this intro-production…
If I were ten again and watching this for the first time, I might very well equate it to Citizen Kane, but as I’ve already admitted, that wouldn’t be saying much. Watching it for only the second time, some forty years-on, was an effort. Part of me wanted to give-in to its undoubted charms – go back to being ten again – but I couldn’t help but see it as just a film. And that’s where the problems began. Viewer? You’ve been warned!
That’s my nightdress and I’m not responsible for its actions!