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Bedknobs and Broomsticks
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Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Based on two novels by Mary Norton, The Magic Bed-Knob (1945) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1957), about the adventures of an apprentice witch and the three children she looks after during World War II, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) was a project first envisioned by Walt Disney when he first purchased the rights to The Magic Bed-Knob the year it was published. It would not become a film until five years after Disney's death.

Between 1945 and 1971 various mentions were made in the trade press regarding Disney's intention to film Norton's novels. At various times, the working title was The Magic Bedpost but eventually it was changed to incorporate both of the books titles. The composing team of brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, who had written the score for Mary Poppins (1964), said in an interview for the thirtieth anniversary of the film's release that while waiting for Disney to get permission to film Mary Poppins by the author P. L. Travers, they were told by Disney that if he couldn't get permission for Poppins, their songs could be used in another film about magic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, for which he did have the rights. The song The Beautiful Briny was one of the songs that was written for Mary Poppins but was used in Bedknobs. When Mary Poppins became a smash hit, Disney decided to put Bedknobs on the back burner for a few years because the stories were similar. Walt Disney died in December 1966 and the project languished in limbo.

Finally, in 1969 the Shermans were given approval to start composing for Bedknobs and Broomsticks and pre-production on the film began. David Tomlinson, who had become popular because of his role in Mary Poppins, was given the role of Emelius Browne over other actors such as Ron Moody. Angela Lansbury won the role of apprentice witch Eglantine after Lynn Redgrave, Leslie Caron and Judy Carne were tested. Julie Andrews was approached by Disney, but refused the role. Several months later, she phoned the Disney company to say she'd changed her mind and wanted to do the film because she felt that she owed Disney for her success. By then, however, Lansbury had already secured the part.

Shot entirely at the Disney Studios in Los Angeles from early March until June 10, 1970, Bedknobs and Broomsticks faithfully recreated London's Portobello Road as it was in 1940 including authentic carts by A. Keehn, the company that had rented them to Portobello merchants for over a hundred years. Originally the dance sequence on Portobello Road lasted a full ten minutes but was cut down to four. When the film was complete it ran 140 minutes but the studio decided to cut twenty-three minutes for the premiere in New York at the Radio City Music Hall, supposedly because they were contractually obligated to accommodate for the Radio City stage show that accompanied the film. When Bedknobs and Broomsticks was restored twenty-five years later, much of the missing footage was put back, with missing audio re-looped by Lansbury and other actors to replace those who were unavailable for the voice session or had died since 1971.

Author Martin Gottfried wrote in his biography of Angela Lansbury that "As a singing and dancing apprentice witch, Angela is game at best, but uncharacteristically detached from the material at hand. At times, she seems downright bored with the picture, and is virtually blank-faced during a long stretch of stupid animated action late in the proceedings." But the picture was a great commercial hit and Angela is partial to it, saying, "It secured an enormous audience for me." Lansbury once explained that it was "all peaches and cream, an introduction for me to movie audiences singing and dancing, which turned the corner for me. It's not an acting role, it's a performing role. There's a difference. The techniques used in shooting a Disney picture are specific and quite unique. They pre-plan every shot. There's no room for improvisations...the trick is to make it seem alive and fresh and improvisational."

Critics noticed the similarity between the film and Mary Poppins and the comparisons were not always flattering. Roger Ebert was lukewarm on the film at its release in November 1971, "Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the new Disney production from the team that made Mary Poppins, and it has the same technical skill and professional polish. It doesn't have much of a heart, though, and toward the end you wonder why the Poppins team thought kids would like it much. They sit still for part of it; they like the flying bed and the scenes with animated animals, and when the empty suits of armor attack the Nazis there's a kind of Creature Features enjoyment. But what are Nazis doing in this picture, anyway? And why is it necessary for a character to exclaim, toward the end of the movie: "We have driven the Hun into the sea"? What do kids known from Huns anyway?...Kids like villains they have been introduced to. They like to meet evil old queens and tyrannical kings and pirates and alligators. They KNOW these types are up to no good. But...Nazis? And without character development? Nazis can be used as shorthand in adult movies, where it's unnecessary to establish their villainy, but 5 year-olds don't automatically know Nazis are bad guys (and a Disney movie is the wrong place for them to learn, anyway). So the Hun is driven to the sea and the kids to the john and the candy counter."

Bedknobs and Broomsticks was nominated for six Academy Awards – Best Music Scoring and Adaptation, Best Music Original Song for "The Age of Not Believing," Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction-Set Direction and won for Best Effects, Special Visual Effects. For the Shermans, it would be the last Disney feature film they worked on until The Tigger Movie in 2000.

Producer: Bill Walsh
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi (screenplay), Mary Norton (book), Ralph Wright and Ted Berman (animation story)
Cinematography: Frank Phillips
Art Direction: Peter Ellenshaw and John B. Mansbridge
Film Editing: Cotton Warburton
Cast: Angela Lansbury (Eglantine Price), David Tomlinson (Mr. Emelius Browne), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Jelk), Sam Jaffe (Bookman), John Ericson (Colonel Heller).
C-118m. Closed Captioning.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Sources:
Balancing Act: The Authorized Biography of Angela Lansbury by Martin Gottfried
Bedknobs and Broomsticks review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times November 24, 1971
Angela Lansbury: A Life on Stage and Screen by Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferber
www.afi.com

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