Oh, the cozy amber-tinted memories of youth. A simpler time of simpler tastes. As the cynical, crushing weight of adulthood often sends us nostalgically yearning to revisit the things we once held dear, we tend to find that those special things are not quite how we left them. Like a favorite climbing tree’s branches that we once had to leap for, now boringly coming up waist-high, the films we adored as children and tweens typically do not measure up the same now. Sometimes old favorites are best left to our memory. Yet now and then they miraculously hold up, or even prove to have hidden subtext we never realized. They say you can’t go home again, but I think it is high time that I tried.
The Artifact: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
What Is It: Theatrical feature film.
The Background: Mary Poppins was a monster hit for Disney, both critically and financially, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks was quite blatantly an attempt to duplicate that success. Once more Disney chose to adapt a series of books centering on a woman with magical powers, this time using the stories in Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks. Once more animation and live-action are mixed. Director Robert Stevenson is back at the helm. The Sherman Brothers are back writing the songs. Even actor David Tomlinson is back.
The Memory: While I have fairly vivid memories of the major set pieces in the film, I’m a bit fuzzy on the story specifics… some kids are staying with Angela Lansbury, but I don’t think they are her children. Neighbors? Wandering orphans? Visiting relatives? In any case, Lansbury is a witch. A crappy witch who is always bungling her spells. I think she’s always turning people into rabbits, but accidentally. There is also a man. I think he’s a witch too. They’re teaching the kids magic? I know one of the kids has a magic bedknob that makes their bed magic too, transporting our characters to far flung places.
Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t recall them going very man places. Which either means I remember less of the film than I thought, or they simply don’t use the bed that much. I know they travel to foggy London, to find the man. And most vividly I know they travel to an animated animal world, first partying with some fish under the sea, and then attending a soccer match between some talking animals. I can easily recall the animation style of all the creatures, which was very similar to the style of Disney’s Robin Hood.
The other set piece I vividly remember is when they use magic to animate a host of knights’ armor, so the suits of armor move around as though being worn by invisible men. Then the suits of armor fight Nazis. I remember a lot of silly gags from this. Like a Nazi getting his helmet dented by a mace (which would probably kill him, now that I’m reflecting on it), and a Nazi who is trying to stab a knight but the knight’s armor keeps floating apart wherever the Nazi jabs. Oh, and a Nazi who gets stuck butt-first in a pair of knight’s legs, which proceed to run off with him. Good stuff. I also remember something about an unexploded bomb, though my attempts to recall its circumstances are just bringing up a lot of confused memories of The Devil’s Backbone (thanks brain).
I really liked this film when I was a kid. For whatever reason, I was never huge on Mary Poppins. I guess they didn’t fight enough Nazis.
How Long Has It Been: A good 20 years or more.
The Reality: Ah, the Nazis are the reason the kids are staying with Angela Lansbury. That makes sense. The context of history didn’t mean much to me when I was a kid — that context being the London Blitz of 1940, when Germany was periodically bombing the shit out of the British city. Many people sent their children to go live in the country for safety. In the case of our trio of whippersnappers – Charlie, Carrie and Paul – their parents have died. Now they are foisted upon Miss Eglantine Price (Lansbury), who is training herself to become a witch through a correspondence course taught by a master wizard named Emelius Browne. Quite promptly the kids learn Miss Price’s secret, when they witness her trying to fly on her new broom. Miss Price reveals that she is learning to be a witch so she can master “substitutiary locomotion,” allowing her to give life to inanimate objects. She hopes this spell will help end the war.
When Emelius Browne sends a letter saying that his correspondence course is shutting down, Miss Price and the kids go to find him using the magic bed, which will go to whatever location Paul (the youngest kid) commands. It turns out that Browne is just a common street magician and lowend conman, who had been sending Miss Price what he believed was total nonsense that he copied from an old book. He is quite shocked to learn that actual magic exists. Now, together, they go on a quest to track down a series of magic words needed to do the substitutiary locomotion spell. Obviously they succeed by the end, using the spell to animated an entire museum of old military gear when Nazis attack their sleepy coastal town.
Holy cow. This movie is long for a kids flick. Though Mary Poppins is quite long too (I guess they were truly trying to replicate everything). The version that played on TV when I was a kid was the truncated theatrical cut Disney made, which removed a fairly pointless yet fun subplot involving Roddy McDowall as a conniving minister, as well as some musical numbers. The DVD has the restored 139 minute version, which is really just too long. I was in fact remembering all the set pieces correctly. There are not many events in the film, but several scenes go on for an excessive amount of time — in particular the musical number “Portobello Road,” which starts as a song and then devolves into a series of endless dance numbers.
I didn’t remember much about the music in the film. In fact, I wasn’t even entirely sure the film had musical numbers. I can see why. Most of the songs are fairly forgettable. Which isn’t to say they’re bad, or painful to sit through, but considering the crazy number of catchy hits the Sherman Brothers crammed into Mary Poppins – “Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – Bedknobs definitely contains lesser works. Though there are some charming numbers, like “The Beautiful Briny” which is sung during the groups’ animated under water adventure, and “Eglantine,” which is a cute half wooing, half sales pitch Browne sings to Price. The tragedy of “Portobello Road” is that it is fun at first, but just goes on and on and on.
I can’t say how much of the film is taken from Mary Norton’s books, but the script by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi is quite dandy. Possibly that’s why the musical numbers were wearing on me, because that was just more time away from the fun banter. Precociously verbal children are often obnoxious, but I like the kids here. Alas, the girl is never really allowed to develop a personality beyond reacting to her brothers. Lansbury is quite perfect for the lead, conveying both confidence and authority, while still being comically bumbling with her magic (she does indeed keep turning people into rabbits; the only thing she can seem to turn anyone into). But the real treasure here is David Tomlinson as Emelius Browne.
Even without Tomlinson’s performance, Browne is simply a great character. I’m a sucker for lovable charlatans in these kinds of films. His introductory scene, in which he sings “With a Flair,” finds him botching a series of magic tricks in front of an unamused crowd, but waxing on his philosophy that it doesn’t matter as long as he does it with panache. And I love that upon learning that Miss Price is an honest to goodness witch, his first thought it to try and talk her into being his magician’s assistant, so she can make his tricks look better. Browne is a resourceful and cheerful lowlife. Taking advantage of the German bombing, Browne lives inside a giant mansion abandoned by its owners. Why? Because of that unexploded bomb I had mentioned earlier, which sits ominously in the front yard. The best part of the gag is the utter pride with which Browne reveals the details of his living situation, all proudly explained as though he were talking about an amazing bargain his shrewdness had ferreted out. Tomlinson (who was a Disney regular during this period) is just fantastic as Browne, and really the life of the film. He plays the character as a scumbag that doesn’t seem to really know he’s a scumbag, which somehow makes him rather dapper and charming.
I’m not at all surprised the animated portion of the film was my favorite as a kid, but viewed now I found it to be one of the weaker portions of the film. The under water sequence is quite nice, but the soccer match drags a bit. Though it does feature some excellent Disney animation from the company’s later classic period. Speaking of soccer — even though this is an American film, it’s extremely weird to hear Brits say “soccer.” It’s also weird that the king of the animals talks like a pirate for some reason.
Overall though, the style and art direction in the film is wonderful. The FX used when the bed is teleporting from place to place are hilariously dated and very early 70’s, but that just adds to its vibe. And as the Harry Potter films have clearly demonstrated, scenes of characters trying and comically failing to master magic spells is just good ol’ movie fun. The big climax with the animated army of knights armor and other vintage military uniforms is the big shop-stopper. The English countryside looks very similar to a sound stage, but aside from that the practical FX work on the substitutiary locomotion is splendid. Seeing Nazis get beaten up is even fun in a family film, and all the more so when done by animated clothing and vintage weaponry. I may not be a kid anymore, but I’m still a fan of gags involving a hollow knight getting riddled with machine guns, then yanking off his boot to empty all the bullets out. Gold.
The one question I was left with from the film is why Miss Price’s cat (which was sent to her by Browne as part of her correspondence course) is so ratty and disgusting looking. She’s magic. Can’t she give that mangy thing a bath?
Paradise Lost or Magic Reborn: Magic reborn. Way too fucking long, but there is still a lot of great and fun stuff in here. Well worth revisiting for both nostalgia and otherwise.