“Filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee!” | Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

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It is the year 1940. An apprentice witch-in-training attempts to master a spell that will enable her to animate soldiers’ uniforms and send an unstoppable magical army into Nazi Germany. Her quest to discover the correct words for the spell take her from rural England to London and back, with a side-trip to an animated tropical island ruled by talking animals. All the while she is accompanied by three child evacuees and a roguish con artist.

This is the premise of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a 1971 children’s film directed by Robert Stevenson for the Walt Disney studio. The film stars Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson, and features a wealth of musical numbers, special effects and a lengthy sequence blending live-action and animated characters. For decades it has been a standard of mid-afternoon television broadcasts, watched and enjoyed by successive generations of children.

Since its release Bedknobs and Broomsticks has lived underneath the shadow of its more successful and more popular stablemate Mary Poppins (1964); also directed by Stevenson for Walt Disney. This seems a shame, because while the earlier film remains the superior of the two there is much in Bedknobs to enjoy and recommend. It is forty-five years since it was first released, and it continues to offer breezy and spirited entertainment for all ages.

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The similarities between Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Mary Poppins run much deeper than sharing a director and a film studio. In truth, the existence of one is entirely the result of the existence of the other.

The development of Mary Poppins from a popular novel into a motion picture was a tortured and lengthy process. As early as 1938 Walt Disney had attempted to secure the film rights to the novel from its Australian author P.L. Travers. Travers had rebuffed Disney’s offer on multiple occasions, seeing him purely as a maker of cartoons and believing that no film adaptation of the book would do her character justice. Disney doggedly pursued the rights for more than two decades before finally convincing Travers to move ahead with a film in 1961. At this point Disney had expanded his studio significantly, notably through the introduction of live-action films alongside his animated features.

With the final negotiations with Travers over Mary Poppins ongoing in 1961, it became clear that a back-up project might be required in case the deal collapsed in the final stages. With that in mind, studio staff set out to find an alternative book to adapt. The requirements were simple: a family-friendly fantasy adventure, set in England, and able to incorporate musical numbers and a showcase animation sequence.

The studio rapidly focused on two books by English author Mary Norton. Norton was born in London in 1903. It was while working for the British Purchasing Commission in New York during World War II that she completed her debut novel: The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons. It was published in 1943 by J.M. Dent, and two years later Dent published its sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks. The two novels had been re-issued in an omnibus edition in 1957 under the title Bed-knob and Broomstick.

The books followed the adventures of Miss Price, a witch training herself via a correspondence course. To persuade three nosy children from revealing her secrets, Price enchants the knob on the end of their bed. Armed with the magical bed-knob, the children are able to travel the world and have exciting adventures.

While Norton went on to much greater success with her Carnegie Medal-winning novel The Borrowers in 1952, it was the two Miss Price novels that most interested Walt Disney. He had the film rights purchased, and assigned screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi to adapt them into a workable script. At the time Walsh and DaGradi were also developing the screenplay for Mary Poppins, and for a brief period they developed both projects side-by-side. The Miss Price novels were cherry-picked for concepts and assembled together into an entirely new storyline. That combined screenplay was titled Bedknobs and Broomsticks. ‘We took the basic idea,’ said Walsh, ‘a lady witch living in England who is getting lessons from a correspondence course. […] There’s kind of a nice, homey, folksy quality about an English witch.’[1]

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As with Mary Poppins the story conferences, in which the plot of Bedknobs was developed and workshopped, were attended by Walsh, DaGradi, Disney himself, and the song-writing team of Richard and Robert Sherman. Richard Sherman recalled: ‘We started with a concept which was kind of fun: an amateur witch who wants to do something with her magic to help the war effort. What we felt was that we were more interested in the premise of the book, which we found wonderful, than in the story itself. The characters were wonderful. So, instead of having them go back in time, to a magician centuries ago, to find some of his magic power, we decided to have her go to a phony magician, which is fun. He sells magic tricks and he has no ability himself. Instead of being a magician of the dark ages, we changed Emelius Brown to a fellow in London who is kind of a snake-oil salesman. Basically, it gave this character a lot of fun. The hero of this story truly has to be Bill Walsh. He was the guy who made the conversion and made the story viable which, I thought, was kind of special.’[2]

Bill Walsh said: ‘I remembered a newspaper story of 1940, when it looked like Hitler was going to invade England, about how all the witches were gathered together. A week later the air raids on England began to subside. No one ever really quite understood why the country wasn’t attacked, but the witches claimed credit for turning back the Luftwaffe. So I began to wonder if the witch lady in Bedknobs and Broomsticks might not have had something to do with facing off Hitler.’[3]

By the end of 1961 P.L. Travers had finally agreed to sign over the Mary Poppins screen rights in return for script approval rights. With Bedknobs and Broomsticks now surplus to requirements, it was put on the back burner. While additional work was undertaken to prepare the film for production after Mary Poppins was complete, Disney himself had the project shelved out of a concern audiences would think he was repeating himself – a common concern Disney held throughout his career, hence the paucity of sequels among Disney’s 20th century film productions.

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Jump forward to 1968, and the Walt Disney Company was in a very different place. Disney himself had died of lung cancer in 1966, and without his presence the company was beginning to creatively flounder. The early 1960s had seen a wave of popular commercial hits, including Swiss Family Robinson, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, In Search of the Castaways, The Sword in the Stone, Son of Flubber and Mary Poppins. Since Walt’s death the studio had enjoyed just two major hits with The Jungle Book and The Love Bug. Another 11 films released in 1967 and 1968 had failed to perform. Looking for an old-fashion Disney production to turn into a much-needed smash hit, Bill Walsh revived the dormant Bedknobs and Broomsticks proposal and pushed it back into production.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks was produced in what had become the traditional fashion for a live-action Disney feature. Tasks were highly compartmentalised under the creative control of the producer, in this case Bill Walsh, rather than the director, Robert Stevenson. Stevenson controlled the live-action portions of the film, but ceded creative control to the animation team for the Island of Naboombu sequence. Stevenson did not attend recording sessions of the film’s musical numbers at all, giving creative control to the Sherman brothers.

This highly corporatized production technique was key to developing Disney’s brand: with creative control situated at the executive rather than creative level, there was a broad homogeneity among the company’s live-action films. Moviegoers considering seeing a Disney production could be comfortable in knowing precisely what they would get, because the films all followed a broadly similar house style and tone.

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The actress at the top of the list to play Eglantine Price was Julie Andrews; those within the company hoped to capitalise on her immense popularity as Mary Poppins. Andrews, however, was in the middle of shooting the film Darling Lili and turned the role down. After considering Leslie Caron, Lynn Redgrave, Wendy Craig and Judy Carne, the production went with Angela Lansbury.

Lansbury was born in London in 1925; the daughter of an actress and a politician. She followed her mother into the performing arts, studying theatre in New York from 1940. After finishing her studies she signed under contract to MGM, appearing in Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) – both of which earned her an Academy Award nomination. After working as a supporting performer in film and theatre in the USA, she enjoyed a career resurgence in 1966 when she starred in the hit Broadway musical Mame. With a fresh profile as a musical performer and a renewed popularity, Angela Lansbury was perfectly placed to star in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

‘The story reminded me of my teens,’ said Lansbury. ‘Like Miss Price, I was in England when World War II broke out. My mother gave me a choice of being evacuated from London to a boarding school in the country or studying acting at home. I chose the latter without hesitation.’[4]

In late 1969 Julie Andrews contacted the Walt Disney Company via her agent to offer her services as Miss Price after all. By this stage Lansbury had already signed her contract and it was too late for Andrews to be cast.

Despite liking the role of Miss Price, Lansbury disliked the production process intensely. Due to the combination of special effects and animated sequences, the entire film had been extensively storyboarded in advance, leaving the actors little latitude to explore their characters or improvise on set.

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The original choice for the roguish fake wizard Emelius Browne was British actor Ron Moody, then much in demand due to his Oscar-nominated performance as Fagin in Oliver! (1968). While Moody initially accepted the role, he ultimately backed out – reportedly due to disagreements with the studio over his billing on publicity materials. With limited time before shooting commencement, Bill Walsh cast Disney regular David Tomlinson.

Of David Tomlinson Noël Coward once remarked: ‘He looks like a very old baby.’[5] Born in 1917, David Tomlinson had long established a career playing a range of self-proclaimed ‘dim-witted upper-class twit performances’ for motion pictures, the BBC and the British theatre – where he gained his first major break understudying for Alec Guinness. When he was cast as the reserved and fussy Mr Brown in Mary Poppins, Tomlinson made an immediate impact on Walt Disney and found himself warmly embraced into the studio head’s extended family of friends. It led to him returning to work for the studio twice: first in the 1969 comedy The Love Bug, where he played the villain, and again in 1971 as Emelius Browne. Even in retirement Tomlinson remained immensely proud of his Disney work. He would sing “Let’s Fly a Kite” upon request in restaurants and would brag to small children that he was cast in Bedknobs and Broomsticks because he was the only actor who could sing underwater.

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The three Rawlins children – Charlie, Carrie and Paul – were played by Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan and Roy Snart respectively. In the original novel the Rawlins childrens were sent out of London by their mother to live with their aunt. In the film they were turned into orphans.

With Bedknobs and Broomsticks 14 year-old Cindy O’Callaghan launched a lengthy film and television career, including roles in Hanover Street, Triangle, The Bill and EastEnders. In 2004 she retired from acting to become a child psychologist. Of her Bedknobs role, O’Callaghan said: ‘I got the role after casting directors trawled schools looking for children with London accents. I was asked to attend an audition at Pinewood, where I had to stand up and tell a funny story. I talked about how horrible my older brothers were to me. I was a big fan of Mary Poppins and couldn’t believe I was going to be in a Disney film.’[6]

For Ian Weighill and Roy Snart, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was their only film.

To ensure American audiences would better understand the children’s Cockney accents, Robert Stevenson ensured their dialogue was almost always shot in close-up.

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There are a few notable faces among the film’s supporting cast.

Reginald Owen played Sir Brian Teagler, the retired general who leads the Home Guard in the film. Owen had previously played the delusional retired Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins.

Roddy McDowall played the town pastor, Mr Rowan Jelk, who aspires to marry Miss Price in order to gain her valuable estate. McDowall was a former child star, having appeared in both How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lassie Come Home (1943). As an adult he had established a lucrative career in American television, and by the time of Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ production he was in the middle of a multi-film run starring in the 20th Century Fox Planet of the Apes films. Despite being the third credited actor in the film, the bulk of McDowall’s scenes were cut from the theatrical edit of the film.

Sam Jaffe played “the Bookman”, a pseudonymous criminal keen to track down Miss Price’s ‘substitutiary locomotion’ spell for himself. Jaffe was best known as the star of the 1939 adventure film Gunga Din, and had also appeared in Lost Horizon (1937), The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). As a New York-born American, Jaffe was the only non-British member of the film’s principal cast. The Bookman’s henchman, a knife-wielding spiv named Swinburne, was played by English television entertainer Bruce Forsyth.

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks commenced shooting on location in Dorset, England in March 1970, with the production then moving to Disney’s Burbank studios until the following June.

The film, it must be said, is an inferior sibling to Mary Poppins. Many scenes lack the energy of the older work, and the subtle undercurrent of serious drama that works beneath Mary Poppins’ surface simply are not as evident in Bedknobs. Both Lansbury and Tomlinson, however, are delightful. It seems a particularly pleasant film for Tomlinson, who plays a much more heightened and humorous character here.

With Lansbury’s Miss Price the film successfully delivers another strong, intelligent female protagonist. She may stand alongside Mary Poppins, but is a rather different character. She is only a witch-in-training, after all, and lacks the near-omniscient powers of Poppins. She does have confidence and purpose, however, and drives the narrative forward in a wilful fashion. To an extent she does rather seem a feminist icon-in-waiting: the single woman living on her own with plans to single-handedly defeat the Nazis.

It is also interesting to consider the fact that Price is a self-proclaimed witch. Walt Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, also prominently featured a witch – although in that and many subsequent cases it was in the form of a villain. Price seems an unexpected inversion of a well-established Disney stereotype: the friendly witch instead of the wicked variety. She is an outstanding protagonist.

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Beyond its characters the film is most interesting for three stand-out sequences. There is the visit to Portebello Road, which heralds one of Disney’s longest and most elaborate musical numbers. There is the half-animated journey to the Island of Naboombu. Finally there is the film’s climax, in which an enchanted army of antique suits of armour face off against an invading platoon of German soldiers.

The Portobello Road sequence is a marvellous showcase of song and dance. Three blocks of Portobello Road were reproduced on a soundstage, with period-appropriate carts rented from genuine Portobello Road supplier A. Keehn. More than 200 extras were hired for the extended musical sequence, which ran for more than 10 minutes in the original edit. The majority of dancers hired were former music and dance hall performers from the United Kingdom that had subsequently moved to Los Angeles.

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This sort of extended collection of dance routines and vignettes was once commonplace in Hollywood, but by the 1970s had fallen considerably out of favour. Its inclusion in Bedknobs and Broomsticks stands out as a result. Not even Mary Poppins had a sequence as long or with as many different elements. It is a generally wonderful sequence, although one or two of the routines edge perilously close to mildly racist depictions of people of colour, including dancers from the Caribbean and India. The presence of the Indian soldiers in the marking is a fascinating one, on the other hand, since it remains comparatively unusual for any film or television production to note the presence of Indian soldiers among the Allied military during World War II.

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The adventure on Naboombu revisits the blend of live-action actors and animated backgrounds that was so famously showcased in Mary Poppins. To a large extent it feels like a fairly cynical attempt to recapture the popularity of that film’s sequence. Even the song “The Beautiful Briny Sea” was originally composed for Mary Poppins. Fortunately the Bedknobs sequence does feel tonally different. There is a great emphasis on narrative and characters.

The sequence was directed by Ward Kimball, with character designs cribbed heavily from The Jungle Book by character animator Milt Kahl. This particular design aesthetic would also be carried over to Disney’s Robin Hood two years later.

During production Kimball became concerned that the quality of the animation was slipping in comparison to earlier Disney works. A memo was sent to all animators and assistants working on the sequence, stating: ‘The cooperation of all concerned is solicited in order to insure [sic] the quality of imagery that is tantamount to the success of any Walt Disney picture.’[7]

The animation was produced using a ‘Xerox’ method that had been perfected during the making of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Rather than have artists trace and ink the pencil drawings for each frame, the original pencil drawings could be photocopied at a high contrast to cheaply and efficiently replicate the inking process at a much faster rate. While the technique had been developed specifically to make it feasible to animate large crowds of spotted dogs, subsequent Disney animations of the 1960s and 1970s continued to use the method purely as a cost saver. The Xerox technique resulted in thick and obvious black lines around all of the animated characters, and tended to give them a slightly sketchy, ‘shaggy’ look. While it brought costs down and shortened production schedules, it also resulted in an inferior look to the hand-inked animations of earlier decades.

Where the animation does excel in Bedknobs and Broomsticks is in the manner in which the live-action performers are integrated into the action. It represents a strong leap forward from the similar scenes produced for Mary Poppins seven years earlier.

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For a sequence in which the heroes stole the Star of Azeroth from King Leo, the Sherman brothers had devised a Cockney-inspired song for Miss Price to sing as a distraction. This song, named “Solid Citizen”, was ultimately not recorded when the production team elected to feature an animated soccer match instead. ‘What we had originally,’ said Richard Sherman, ‘was gonna be a wonderful sequence and they said, “Oh, no, no! We’re gonna do a different kind of thing. We’re gonna have a soccer game.” And so, they had a soccer game. So, you lose the entire interest of why Eglantine is even there. The focus was screwed over. I’m not knocking the sequence. I mean it was a very funny sequence, but doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the story.’[8]

By the time Bedknobs and Broomsticks re-entered pre-production the Shermans had actually left the Walt Disney company. Following Walt Disney’s death, and with several disappointing experiences seeing their songs and scores cut and re-arranged without their approval, they had moved on to working independently. Their most prominent production while away was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) for MGM, which earned them their third Oscar nomination for Best Song. After contributing the songs and score to Bedknobs and Broomsticks the Shermans stuck around to contribute songs for The Aristocats before leaving a second time. They did not return to Disney until they were persuaded to write songs for The Tigger Movie in 2000.

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The film’s climax sees Miss Price finally use her spell-casting abilities to animate an army of medieval armour to drive back a small German invasion force. The sequence, which was predominantly shot in the studio, used a combination of puppetry and composites.

Many of the medieval suits of armour used during the film’s climax had originally been constructed for Anthony Mann’s 1961 film El Cid. They were subsequently shipped to the USA for Joshua Logan’s 1967 musical film Camelot before being hired by Disney for Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The exceptional skill with which this scene was brought to life was one of the main factors in the film being award Best Visual Effects at the 1972 Academy Awards. It was the final Oscar that Walt Disney Pictures would win until The Little Mermaid in 1989.

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While Bedknobs and Broomsticks enjoyed a relatively smooth and unproblematic shoot, it suffered a much more difficult experience in the editing room. In the lead-up to the film’s New York premiere it was decided that, at more than two-and-a-half hours long, the film was too lengthy to appeal to America’s cinema operators. A shorter film could be screened more times per day in a theatre, increasing the daily revenue generated at each cinema. As a result roughly half an hour of footage was cut, including three of the musical numbers. The Portobello Road showcase was cut from 10 minutes down to six.

At 1979 theatrical re-release cut the film still further, removing all of the songs save for “Portobello Road”, “Beautiful Briny Sea” and an even short version of “Portobello Road”. This shortened version ran for just 97 minutes.

In 1996 the film was restored for its 25th anniversary, incorporating footage cut before the initial theatrical release and redubbing some additional dialogue with the original cast where available – Angela Lansbury returned, for one – or using sound-alikes for those either unavailable or who had died in the intervening years. This extended edition ran for 139 minutes and was released to home video on DVD in 2001. A 2014 digitally restored bluray edition of the film reverted back to the original theatrical cut of 1971.

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Today it seems impossible for Bedknobs and Broomsticks to be mentioned outside of a conversation about Mary Poppins; the two films simply seem irreparably linked in the minds of viewers. While much can be made of the films’ similarities, there is a more interesting discussion to be had on their differences. The two films were produced in significantly different circumstances. Mary Poppins was the work of Walt Disney at the height of his career and prestige. Bedknobs was the work of the studio left behind after his death, trying to find its direction in his wake and struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing film industry and audience.

Despite moderate commercial success – it became the 10th highest-grossing film of its year – Bedknobs and Broomsticks was seen as a disappointment within Disney, having failed to measure up to Mary Poppins’ earlier success. It formed another step in the gradual decline of the studio through the 1970s and early 1980s. Between Bedknobs in 1971 and the release of Splash in 1984, Disney scored just one other live-action hit with The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975). For a solid fifteen-year period after Bedknobs and Broomsticks the studio floundered.

Today the film remains fondly remembered by successive generations of viewers, even if that fondness is perhaps a little less enthused than the film deserves. ‘It was my passport to an entire generation of youngsters,’ said Angela Lansbury, ‘and now those children are grown up and they’re showing Bedknobs and Broomsticks to their kids.’[9]

It seems likely that future generations will continue to enjoy this charming fantasy adventure as well.

 

[1] Jim Fanning, “Bewitching”, Sketches, Winter 2006.

[2] Jeremie Noyer, “Richard M. Sherman on Bedknobs and Broomsticks: a solid song-writer!”, Animated Views, 21 September 1999.

[3] Jim Fanning, “Bewitching”, Sketches, Winter 2006.

[4] Jim Fanning, “Bewitching”, Sketches, Winter 2006.

[5] Quoted in “David Tomlinson”, The Guardian, 26 June 2000.

[6] Quoted in “A great future behind us! How Britain’s most famous child stars finally found obscurity – and happiness”, Daily Mail, 27 March 2004.

[7] Brian J. Robb, A Brief History of Walt Disney, Running Press, London, 2014.

[8] Jeremie Noyer, “Richard M. Sherman on Bedknobs and Broomsticks: a solid song-writer!”, Animated Views, 21 September 1999.

[9] Quoted in Vault Disney: Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Walt Disney, 2001.

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