"You'll beWITCHED! You'll beDAZZLED! You'll be swept into a world of enchantment BEYOND ANYTHING BEFORE!"
This film was directed by Robert Steveson, a veteran director of Disney live-action pictures, whose nineteen credits for the Disney company include Mary Poppins, Blackbeard’s Ghost, and That Darn Cat! His films regularly employ a mixture of animated and live-action elements, musical numbers written by the team of Sherman and Sherman, flight, and invisibility. The closest relative to this picture is of course Mary Poppins, which was similarly set in London and featured music by the Shermans. David Tomlinson, most famous for his role as George Banks in Mary Poppins, reappears as Professor Emelius Brown, and nearly steals the film from Angela Lansbury’s apprentice witch Miss Eglantine Price – he’s the only human to participate in the fantastic football tournament on Nabunbu Island, and is the most frequent victim of the film’s broad physical humor. Aside from the technical spectacles that dominate every scene in the film, the story manages to be genuinely touching – mostly in regards to believing in magic and yourself (hey, it’s a Disney movie, remember?) and the conflict between wanting to be alone and wanting a family (again, it’s a Disney movie).
What it is about:
Set in 1940, in the county of Dorset of the United Kingdom, the movie begins with a British army officer trying to find his way to a small seaside town. Nobody will tell him where it is, because they’re all afraid of a Nazi invasion.
Officer: You there, which way to Pepperidge Eye?
Workman: Couldn't say sir. It said on the wireless to paint out the sign posts in case the Nazis drop in.
Officer: I'm not a Nazi. I'm a British officer.
Workman: That's what you'd say if you was a Nazi, isn't it sir?
The officer manages to find his way to town, and we see the Home Guard marching along, singing a song about defending England. They march into town just as a woman on a motorcycle appears: Angela Lansbury as Miss Eglantine Price. She’s a lonely woman who tends to wear a lot of purple, has a cat for a best friend, rides a motorcycle. On this particular day, Eglantine has come into town to pick up her mail, which on this day, includes a special broom. The mail lady is nosy about Miss Price’s mail, and suspects that she’s somehow using a correspondence course in order to attract a Professor Emilius Browne in London. Of course, this being a Disney movie, finding a mate is the last thing on her mind: Miss Price has been studying to be a witch by way of a correspondence school of witchery, and she hopes to use her witchy powers to help bring an end to the war. Miss Eglangine Price also employs Socratic reasoning to explain the effectiveness of magic to unbelieving pubescents and party-poopers, which should endear her to philosophy buffs. Unfortunately, she also forgets things easily, like spells.
Eglantine also can't stand children, and because it’s a Disney movie, she is assigned to take in three children from London and provide them refuge from the bombings before she can get out of the post office. Unlike most Disney children, these kids have poor grammar and are capable of theft and pettiness – making them way more interesting than the Banks children of Mary Poppins. They soon discover that Miss Price is a witch when she recklessly takes off into the sky on her new broomstick – a pretty hilarious scene, in which Eglantine acknowledges the unladylike appearance of riding about with a big old phallic broom between her legs. Charlie, the eldest of the three little cockney thugs, tries to blackmail her: he threatens to reveal her secret unless she gives him some pocket money and other privileges. He dares her to turn him into a toad, and Miss Price calls his bluff, but accidentally turns him into white rabbit instead (remember, she’s only an apprentice witch) who is subsequently chased about the cottage by Miss Price's black cat, Cosmic Creepers. Fortunately, it’s a weak spell, and he’s back to being a snot-nosed English street urchin after a minute or so.
The children and Miss Price strike a deal - they’ll keep her secret in exchange for a spell of their own. She gives Paul, the youngest, the famous traveling spell, via a bedknob which Paul stole from a bed in Miss Price’s house. He need only replace the bedknob on the bed, tap it three times, and say where he wants to go, and the bed will take him there. Before they can try out the spell, they are interrupted by the ringing of the front door bell – it’s that nosey mail lady. Miss Price receives a letter from Professor Emilius Browne, the headmaster of the college of witchcraft, which explains that the college has closed due to the war and she cannot get the final lesson she needed: the spell for substitutiary locomotion - the power to make inanimate objects move of their own accord.
Miss Price and the children tell the bed to go to Professor Browne in London. The bed vanishes from the house, and travels through a series of amazing 1960s psychedelic visual effects before appearing in London. The children find Mr. Browne, who turns out to be a common street magician, who performs a song and dance number about fakery that rivals Orson Welles’ 1974 ode to charlatanism, F For Fake. By the end of the show, it’s painfully obvious that Emilius Browne has no magical abilities whatsoever, even though he has successfully plagiarized a book of spells and marketed its contents for his correspondence school. When it becomes clear that Miss Price is a genuine witch, Mr. Browne is overjoyed, and invites everyone over to a mansion he is squatting in – nobody else will go near it on account of an unexploded bomb in the yard from the Blitz.
In the mansion, which Mr. Browne doesn't actually own, the children explore the house and come across a nursery in which Paul finds a children's picture book about the Island of Nabunbu. He likes it so much that he takes it with him. In the library, Miss Price searches for the old book from which Mr. Browne got his spells, but he tries to distract her with his plans to open up a magic show with her as his fabulous assistant. She changes him into a rabbit and makes him get the book for her, which is actually torn in half – the other half presumably remains in the hands of the man with whom he fought over the book, a merchant in Portobello Road. They head down to Portobello road, which is like the best flea market you ever saw, and before long, Mr. Browne has instigated what might be the most dazzling dance-athon in the Disney canon between all the merchants, sailors, whores, and ethnic stereotypes who hang out in Portobello road for the sake of performing amazing dances. You must see it to believe it. The whole scene is about twenty minutes long, and is never dull or boring.
After the market closes, Miss Price and Mr. Browne meet Swinburne (played by Bruce Forsyth) and his boss, The Bookman, who has the other half of the book. Unfortunately, the spell Miss Price needs is not in either of the parts: the centre page with the vital magic words has been lost. The Bookman explains to Miss Price that the book once belonged to Astoroth, a legendary wizard who used the final spell to make animals he had into real animals. But the animals revolted, killed Astororth and escaped to an uncharted island, which just so happened to be the Island of Nabunbu. The Bookman tries to grab Paul's book, but Miss Price and the gang escape on the bed, on their way to the island.
Nabunbu, of course, is an animated place, and for no special reason, the bed plunges beneath the water of Nabunbu Lagoon rather than landing on the island proper. After a dazzling underwater scene that doesn’t really further the story in anyway – but nobody should mind because it’s so much fun – the bed gets caught on the end of a fishing hook, and everyone is hauled ashore by a dimwitted bear in a sailor suit, who takes them to see The King. The King won’t see them because he’s upset about the cancellation of a football match – nobody will referee when The King plays, for some reason – but Mr. Browne gains access once he reveals that he’s a football expert (not likely, but remember, he’s an expert charlatan). Mr. Browne emerges with The King, who turns out to be a lion who talks like Long John Silver. The group soon realizes that the king is wearing a medallion: the Star of Astoroth, which has the words to the final spell Miss Price needs, engraved upon it.
I’ll stop here – you should see this movie and surprise yourself - but what follows is an incredible animated soccer tournament, a return to the real world, and a magical showdown between a squadron of Nazi invaders and some enchanted, olde-fashioned suits of English armor.
The film's legacy:
As you can probably tell from my loving and detailed description of this film, and my lack of any criticism, I think this movie is amazing and wildly entertaining. In addition to being a fanastic movie, it seem like Bedknobs and Broomsticks would make an amazing dark ride at a Disney theme park. Think about it: you could ride in a bed-shaped car through London, under the sea, and to the Island of Nabunbu, and meet all of the characters along the way. For a finale, an animatronic Angela Lansbury could bring suits of armor to life to fight back animatronic Nazi invaders, and lead the charge while flying on a broomstick above the battlefield, waving the Union Jack.
I wondered why this film isn’t as well-known or beloved as Mary Poppins, so I sought out the film’s release history.
Though originally intended to be a large-scale epic holiday release, similar to the original release of Mary Poppins, after its original premiere it was decided instead to cut the film down from its near 2 and one half-hour length (while some sources say it was closer to 3 hours) to a more manageable (to movie theaters) 2 hours. Several songs were removed entirely, as was a minor subplot involving Roddy MacDowall's character, and the central dance number, Portobello Road, was cut down by more than 6 minutes. Upon rediscovering a cut song, "Step in the Right Direction", on the original soundtrack album, it was decided to attempt to reconstruct the original running length. In addition, the soundtrack for some of the spoken tracks was unrecoverable and ADR dubs were made by other actors (some sound alikes were criticized for not closely matching the original actors) to create an expanded 139-minute film, released as a laserdisc in 1997, and a DVD in 2001.
All of which means, the movie that’s on the DVD is not the movie that appeared in theaters. I’m guessing what exists now is superior to whatever was released in theaters – I can’t imagine this movie being significantly improved upon – and the fact that the company DOESN’T make the theatrical version available to the public suggests that they feel its better off stashed away somewhere. Fine by me.
On the DVD: This disc received much better treatment than most Disney releases, and is full of special features, including a recreation of a lost musical number, production notes, and a trailer. The picture quality is also top-notch, free of scratches and full of bright, crisp colors. The high quality of this disc draws attention to how shoddy many of the other Disney releases really are. In spite of the high quality of the disc, Disney still somehow managed to generate box art that looks amateurish, infantile and ridiculous.
Here's some merchandise from the film:
A little record.
Angela Lansbury atop a "Self-Propelled Action Bed".
A Little Golden Book.
A Viewmaster set.