Witchcraft Month: “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”

Year: 1971
Runtime: 117 minutes
Directors:  Robert Stevenson, Ward Kimball
Writers: Ralph Wright, Ted Berman, Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi, Mary Norton
Actors: Angela Lansbury, David Tomlinson, Roddy McDowall, Cindy O’Callaghan, Roy Snart, Ian Weighill

By Joan Amenn

There was a time when Disney was not the corporate behemoth it is today. After the death of founder Walt Disney, the company floundered a bit and its animation department suffered. Projects were shelved and those that had been shelved were resuscitated. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) was one on those on again, off again films in development. The uncertainty in its production shows a little in the quality of the adaptation from the books by Mary Norton but is charming and unique in its take on witches.

Long before a certain “Boy Who Lived” and his friends, Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury) studied magic in the early days of WWII. However, she had to resort to studying by correspondence and didn’t even have any friendly owls to help in delivering her lessons. To make matters worse, the British government had the brilliant idea of dumping orphan children from London on unsuspecting citizen who resided in nice, roomy houses in the countryside. She does what any patriotic but struggling witch would do and takes in the children who prove to be much more perceptive and craftier than she thought they would be. Soon her secret is out and the adventures begin for Carrie, Charlie, and Paul (Cindy O’ Callaghan, Ian Weighill and Roy Snart). Along the way, they enlist Miss Price’s somewhat shady instructor, Professor Browne (David Tomlinson) in a search for a powerful magical spell.

“Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is not top-drawer Disney, but it is a lot of fun to see a witch who is an independent and resourceful woman determined to do her part in the war effort.”

Fairly or not, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is frequently compared to “Mary Poppins” (1964). When P.L. Travers proved to be a thorny and demanding negotiator, “Bedknobs” was prepared to step in as designated hitter should Disney strike out in scoring the rights to her book. However, “Mary Poppins” was a huge hit, despite bitter misgivings by Travers and “Bedknobs” was in limbo for years. While not as saccharine as the movie “Poppins” which Travers herself detested the film for, “Bedknobs” lacks the memorable songs of the earlier film. The Sherman Brothers wrote the music for both but Richard and Robert seemed to have grown tired of the prolonged production time for “Bedknobs.”

The film perks up when the fun of the integrated live action and animation starts. Although not as polished or as cleanly edited as “Poppins” the animated sequences of “Bedknobs” are worth waiting for. The musical number, “The Beautiful Briny Sea” foreshadows the future underwater creatures of “The Little Mermaid” (1989). The soccer match on the island of Naboombu is a slapstick riot with Tomlinson enthusiastically serving as referee. Even now, the most impressive part of the film is the army of medieval armor rising up to defend their beloved England from a band of Nazi thugs with Miss Price leading the way on her broom. There is something stirring in their march across the heath as they relentlessly pursue the enemy back to their hidden submarine, no doubt wondering what kind of excuse they can give their superiors as to why they fled.

“Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is not top-drawer Disney, but it is a lot of fun to see a witch who is an independent and resourceful woman determined to do her part in the war effort. Lansbury may not have the vocal range of Julie Andrews but she was more than capable of carrying a film. Lansbury and Tomlinson have a nice chemistry that nudges the plot along whenever it drags and are pros at breaking into dance routines at the slightest hint. Also, if you were never a fan of brass beds before seeing this film, you will be afterwards. If you already own a brass bed, you might want to check to see if the knobs on each side can be turned. Who knows? They might be magical.

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