Bedknobs and Broomsticks Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Perhaps the most quintessential film in the Walt Disney Pictures canon is Mary Poppins. You know the music, whether you like it or not. Mary Poppins turned its eponymous lead, Julie Andrews, into a legitimate, out-and-out worldwide star, garnering her a well-deserved Academy Award. The film was a smash success, and arguably served as one of the last great triumphs of Walt Disney’s career and life before his passing in 1966. It’s influenced filmmakers, performers, and encouraged parodies over the last 55 years and counting.

And, like any successful film, it’s also inspired a few non-parody films to follow in its footsteps. The success of Mary Poppins led to other family-friendly studio musicals with a British touch, within and outside of the House of Mouse. Although the two movies were being developed concurrently, Mary Poppins most certainly inspired the existence of the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The Pitch

The premise of Bedknobs and Broomsticks seems like it would be catnip for a Disney live-action film. During World War II, three orphans are taken in by an enigmatic and solitary woman, who reveals herself to be a witch intending to use her powers to stop the Nazis before they attempt to invade the United Kingdom. On their journey, they get involved with a sly con artist and even dive into a world of animation. Plus, there are songs, dancing sequences, and more. But Bedknobs and Broomsticks had an arduous, decades-long path to arrive at a point of completion.

As far back as 1938, Walt Disney wanted to turn P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins stories into a film, but the author firmly rebuffed him all the way until 1961. By the mid-1940s, Disney had shifted his priorities to the work of Mary Norton, who published two different children’s books: The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks. When those two stories were combined into one title in the 1950s, Disney got more involved, to the point where Bedknobs and Broomsticks was developed as an alternative to Mary Poppins. But in the end, Travers relented on the practically perfect English nanny being adapted for the silver screen, getting her film premiere in 1964. So Bedknobs and Broomsticks was placed on the back burner, but never quite entirely.

Though the film wouldn’t be released until 1971, five years after he died, Disney was still part of the long-gestating production period for Bedknobs. Granted, that wasn’t always a positive thing. Like Poppins, Bedknobs was designed to have plenty of songs written by songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman. One of the songs, “Eglantine”, is one they chose to perform for Disney during a production meeting; as Richard Sherman later recounted, the producer nodded off during the performance.

The Movie

When it arrived in theaters in 1971, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was arriving at the tail end of an era of big, splashy musical movie events. Mary Poppins wasn’t the first of its kind, merely the first from Disney. Also in 1964, Warner Bros. released its cinematic adaptation of My Fair Lady (famously, Jack Warner refused to cast Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle even though she originated the role on Broadway, only to see Andrews win an Oscar as Poppins over Audrey Hepburn’s performance as Doolittle). And prior to that, adaptations of West Side Story, The Music Man, and others had been wildly successful in lengthy touring roadshow presentations. These were cinematic events, with long running times, intermissions, and more. 

Mary Poppins wasn’t quite long enough to merit an intermission, but it fell in line with the event-style musicals of the era. Another such film was The Happiest Millionaire, a Walt Disney Pictures release arriving mere months after the death of the man whose name adorned the studio. The sprawling musical — which is on Disney+, but I wouldn’t go so far as recommending it — originally clocked in at 164 minutes long at its Los Angeles premiere, before being trimmed down to 118 minutes for general audiences. (A director’s cut of the film is even longer, at 172 minutes.) That film was costly, but also not a hit with audiences or critics.

I mention The Happiest Millionaire here because it’s worth considering in context with Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Why? it might well explain both the darker story of the 1971 film as well as its truncated length. (Regarding The Happiest Millionaire: it’s about an eccentric rich man in World War I, his odd habits, his live alligators, and his human family. It ends with this avuncular figure enlisting in the Army, and his adult daughter driving off with her new husband into a grim, smog-filled horizon, headed for Detroit, where he’ll work as an automaker. I promise you, I am not kidding.) Bedknobs, depending on the version you watch, is either 2 hours long or close to 2 ½ hours long. The version on Disney+ is just 117 minutes long, but a reconstructed version that was available on DVD for years is more than 20 minutes longer, including additional songs and subplots. 

The truncated version has its charms, of course, but it’s also unexpectedly and sometimes unpleasantly dark. Within the setup of the film, there’s tragedy, and it doesn’t get much happier by the end. Set in 1940, during the Blitz period when Germany bombed the United Kingdom to hell, Bedknobs begins with the orphaned Rawlins siblings: Charlie, Carrie, and Paul. They’re the essential last kid picked for gym: handed off by a local committee last, to Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), only to find out of her witchy abilities after she begrudgingly agrees to take the children in. Though they soon take to Eglantine as a surrogate mother, the unavoidably grim setup — there’s a reason why the Rawlins are living with a strange woman, and it’s not because their parents sent them to the countryside on purpose — is hard to get over.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is odd, too, because very little happens in this movie. Let’s run down the entire story: after the Rawlins learn that Eglantine is a witch, she imbues a loose bedknob with the ability to transport them anywhere in exchange for them not telling people of her powers. When Eglantine — who’s learning her magic through a correspondence program — learns her witchy school has closed, she convinces the kids to use the bedknob to transport them all to meet the headmaster, Dr. Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson, of Mary Poppins). 

Eglantine needs the last spell in her syllabus to become a full witch, but learns Emelius is a con artist who used an old book to make up his spells (not realizing they actually worked). To find the book, the group travels into a fictional, animated world where they believe it’s located. Once they get the details of the spell (back in the mainland), Eglantine learns that it allows her to bring life to inanimate objects, which she uses to fend off an attempted Nazi invasion. Then, Emelius, having both fallen for Eglantine and gained a moral sense of duty, enlists in the war effort, leaves the family behind…and that’s the end of the movie.

In short, the plot of Bedknobs and Broomsticks is not its strong suit. What does work — and largely, I would recommend this film — is its lead adults, its music, and other elements. I don’t know who needs to hear it, but Dame Angela Lansbury is a global treasure, and there’ll be absolutely no criticizing her in this space. She is perfect, full stop. Just as Julie Andrews treated the material in Mary Poppins with grace, charm, and dignity, so too does Lansbury here. Eglantine Price is a fascinating character, making it all the more frustrating when she inexplicably renounces her witchy ways at the end of the film, for no good reason. 

Lansbury and Tomlinson — whose presence here suggests a Poppins connection, even though Emelius Browne is vastly different from George Banks — strike the right balance between silliness and wit in their performances. Songs like “The Beautiful Briny” and “Eglantine” are made doubly charming because of their energy. The lengthy musical sequence “Portobello Road”, in which Emelius takes his visitors to a puffed-up flea market to look for the old spellbook, is fun, if overlong. (And it’s longer in the reconstructed version.) Of course, the flip side to this is that the three child actors playing the Rawlins inevitably fall into the background of the story — their heartbreak sets up the story, but Eglantine and Emelius are way more compelling figures.

Yet just as heartbreak opens the story, it closes the story as well. We’re meant to see Emelius’ choice to take up arms with his fellow Brits as a noble decision and an attempt to reverse his past cowardice. And that’s all well and good. But as I’ll remind you, the story is set in 1940, and you may recall that World War II extended for five more years. The horizon that Emelius marches off into isn’t quite as visually murky as that of the conclusion of The Happiest Millionaire, but it’s not exactly upbeat. His noble choice seems like a product of the filmmakers needing to wrap up the film, instead of a logical character choice.

The Legacy

Bedknobs and Broomsticks did decently well at the box office in the later months of 1971. (The film premiered to general audiences just one week before the passing of Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and the then-head of Walt Disney Pictures.) It wasn’t the same kind of smashing success for the studio that Mary Poppins was — Lansbury, legend that she was, wouldn’t appear in another film for seven years, and Tomlinson never appeared in another Disney title. Producer and co-writer Bill Walsh only worked on a few more live-action credits, and co-writer Don DaGradi retired soon after. Director Robert Stevenson did helm four more live-action films for Disney, but none were remotely as fascinating as this.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is an odd film, and when you watch it now, it’s easy enough to see that a longer version might have filled in some holes. (I haven’t even mentioned the local priest played by Roddy McDowall, whose character was heavily cut out of the theatrical version, thus making it so he appears in…maybe two minutes of the version you can see on Disney+.) But while there are flaws in this film, there are also plenty of charming elements, from the special effects involved in making it look like coats of armor are attacking Nazis to the animation sequence in which humans dance underwater before officiating in a raucous soccer match. Bedknobs and Broomsticks may be a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess nonetheless.

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