Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

| September 12, 2009

I probably saw Bedknobs and Broomsticks as a child – my parents had a habit of dragging me to every new Disney thing that came out – but I never really remember much of it beyond the empty suits of armor marching around near the end, which had creeped me out. I hadn’t seen the film again in the intervening years until the current DVD release, the Enchanted Musical Edition, which is a re-release of the restored 25th (and 30th) anniversary editions, yanked out of the vaults yet again and tarted up with new special features and rather nice packaging. Like its previous incarnations, this Bedknobs and Broomsticks restores some essential pieces that were missing in the original theatrical release, more on which below. And, watching as an adult, I have to say that it was quite fun in its own right. I see now why the film has remained a classic, because it’s one of those kids’ films that manages to work on two levels. The kids will see one thing, the adults another.
Going in, I wondered whether the movie would work for modern children. After all, it’s long (nearly two hours and twenty minutes), and the effects, while state-of-the-art for the time, aren’t even up to low-budget TV standards of today, and it’s a musical, sort of. But it wasn’t very long into the film that I realized something about this tale of the apprentice witch, Miss Price, who has just received her first broom and is anxiously awaiting her next lesson. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, based on the book “Bed-knob and Broomstick” by Mary Norton, is the literary and filmic mother of Harry Potter, so of course kids today will get into it. From Miss Price’s first disastrous attempt to ride her new broom to the use of magic to fight evil forces (Nazis instead of the Death Eaters), and the titular bedknob itself echoed in the portkey that features most prominently, filmically, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, this could almost be considered Harry Potter 0. There’s even Portobello Road, which will immediately remind modern viewers of Rowling’s Diagon Alley. Throw in the three siblings, two boys and a girl, provided as kid-ident, and Miss Price’s witchcraft mentor Emelius Brown, and you have the Ur-versions of Harry, Ron, Hemione, Miss McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore.
The plot itself is very simple. We’re in a village in the north of England in the summer of 1940, and on the very day that Miss Price (Angela Lansbury, Nanny McPhee, The Picture of Dorian Gray) receives word she has now earned her title as an apprentice witch, she also winds up with something else: three children from London, Carrie, Paul and Charlie (Cindy O’Callaghan, ”Eastenders, and Roy Snart and Ian Weighill, for both of whom this is their only credit, although Snart wins the “Rupert Grint Strange Name Award”, 70s edition) who have been evacuated to the countryside to escape the German’s bombing of the City. Miss Price is reluctant, but forced to do her duty for King and Country, so takes in the children. They are just as unwilling to be there – she eats weird food that we would call vegan – and oldest sibling Paul quickly plots their escape back to London. But when they discover that Miss Price is a witch, Paul’s thoughts turn to blackmail and profit, and the prospect of staying and making some money in the bargain holds them back.
In short order, Miss Price learns that Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson, Mary Poppins) has shut down his self-named Correspondence College of Witchcraft because of the war and she is devastated. She was hoping to learn the next spell, which she wants to use in the war effort. Casting a different spell on the bedknob that Charlie has liberated for his collection of odd things, she turns the entire bed into a sort of magical carpet, and the quartet whooshes back to London to find Professor Brown and learn the secret of “substitutiary locomotion”. This is not quite as easy as it seems, though – Professor Brown only has half of the book with the spell in it, and the half he has is not the half with the spell. After a colorful trip to Portobello Road, they try to negotiate with the menacing Bookman (Sam Jaffe, Gunga Din), accidentally learning the location of the missing spell via a comic book Charlie has found, and head off to the Isle of Naboombu, where Professor Brown leads an unlikely team including a kangaroo and an ostrich in a soccer game designed to distract the King (Lennie Weinrib (voice), ”H.R. Pufnstuf”) so they can steal his medallion, which has the all-important spell. You can probably figure out the rest from there.
What’s remarkable about the film is that it really is quite subversive, at least as restored in 1996. Some of that subversion isn’t even subtle, the key piece being the number in which we first meet Professor Brown – one that was missing from the film for twenty-five years, perhaps because Disney (the company, not the man, who died five years before the film’s original release) saw right through it and didn’t like it one bit.
David Tomlinson, who also played the benign father figure in Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, bears a more than passing resemblance to old Walt himself, making him a stand-in. When we first meet him as Professor Brown, he is performing on the street for passers-by, badly doing bad magic tricks but singing “And of course you all see through it, you love me ’cause I do it… with a flair!” The song continues in a similar vein, Professor Brown basically calling himself a fraud but daring his audience to call him out on it, because he does it in such a flashy manner – and if that is not a capsule summary of Disney’s entire corporate history, I don’t know what is. But, while Professor Brown is singing to his street audience, he’s always performing for us, the viewing audience, and takes us in because the whole number is so brilliantly staged and realized, so it becomes a meta-moment, in which we’re reminded of the inherent artistic fraud performed by any major corporation, then buy into anyway. The counterpart is provided by Miss Price, for whom Professor Brown’s magic does work (as it does for youngest sibling Paul), even if he claims that his spells were never anything other than made up gibberish. Miss Price doesn’t care if the source is a fraud, so she’s the kind of girl who’d buy anything with “Disney Princess” stamped on it. This part of the film survived the original release, of course.
Another subversive moment occurs in Portobello Road, which quickly turns into a wild dance number in which soldiers dance with whores, British sailors dance with each other (naturally), and Punjabis dance for their British masters. There are even (gasp) black people in a Disney film, in a New Orleans funeral by way of a Jamaican steel band, and the whole thing is just one big, flashy Technicolor orgy. You guessed it – cut in the original release. But the message of Portobello Road is that you can find anything there – a sign reads “Anything or Everything”, Carrie plays dress-up alternating between princess and whore, and Charlie stomps gleefully on a bed (though not the magic one) until the mattress collapses through the frame and he skulks away in shame. It’s hard to not read that as a masturbation metaphor, actually, and the number doesn’t end until a white-coated bell ringer marches through announcing “Closing Time”, although it isn’t clear whether he’s a milkman or a psychiatrist. The kids will see it as just a lot of innocent dancing and fun. As a grown-up, you can’t not see the other implications.
This brings up the other key to the film, which is pretty much the first song to appear, and pretty far into the action. ( Soldiers of the Old Home Guard, also cut in ’71, does appear first, but is more organic to the setting as a marching song for old soldiers, so doesn’t feel like it’s part of a musical.) The song is The Age of Not Believing, addressed to Charlie, “eleven going on twelve”, by Miss Price, and although it is never stated explicitly, this is the key moment in every classic fairytale, at least in the Brothers Grimm and E.T.A. Hoffmann versions you’ve never read because Disney got to them first and whitewashed them. The hero or heroine was always right on the edge of puberty, and the warning was always the same. “Don’t wander into the dark woods (of adult sexuality) because, if you’re a girl, you’ll meet wolves or dwarves (rape or pregnancy), and if you’re a boy, you’ll meet worse (castration).” And, in all cases, your step-mom, dad’s hot new trophy wife, wants to kill you. This is probably the age at which most classic Disney fare started to lose audience as well, and Charlie is made fun of in this number as a way of keeping that important market share by, again, shame.
While Carrie and Paul eagerly hop onto the bed with Miss Price to see where it will take them, Charlie refuses, finally only scared there by Miss Price’s ugly hissing pussy… cat – but while the four-poster bed is a place of innocent dreams for the virginal Miss P and the younger kids, it has probably taken on quite different connotations for this walking hormone bomb. After all, Charlie is the one whose thoughts turned to adult larceny and blackmail as soon as they learned a little dirt about Miss Price.
Incidentally, Professor Brown lives in a London squat, an abandoned house taken over because there’s an unexploded bomb buried in the front yard. He likes it because it keeps people away. Make of that metaphor what you will – but when an aged biddy tries to hook him up with Miss Price late in the game, he recoils in horror, because woman is the most dangerous of species. Could this be why J.K. Rowling made Dumbledore gay? Later on, Miss Price also decides to keep the children despite the opportunity to let them go, and says that there’s “no one to call me his ball and chain.” Perhaps another bit of early 70s counterculture tweaking of Disney right under its three-fingered nose, the empowered single mom?
And yet, for all of the between-the-lines going on, the film is still completely quaint and innocent, and bedecked with stereotypes (mostly white, this time) that are laughable. Keeping in mind that the film is set in 1940, for example, we early on meet a parade of World War I Veterans who are all cast as at least sixty, mostly eighty. However, that war ended only 22 years before the setting of this film, so setting aside career officers, most of this “old” Home Guard would have been under forty. That, and the dialogue of the children sounds like bad 60s American “Brit-Speak” that became popular in the wake of The Beatles, an attempt at Cockney informed entirely by one viewing of My Fair Lady and a deep study of Dick van Dyke’s horrendous attempt at same in Mary Poppins. Hint: if they were really speaking Cockney, no American then or now could have understood them. But the biggest clue to the writers’ lack of a British ear comes in what is also the most incredibly unintentionally funny line of the movie.
If you know British slang, I dare you to not shoot milk out your nose when young Paul protests, “What’s that got to do with my knob?” Apparently, this film has quite a lot to do with knobs (just tap it three times and twist it to the left), but, like all good fairytales, it’s well-hidden – hidden enough that your younger kids won’t get it, not so hidden that your older kids won’t love it and think they’re pulling one over on you, end result a family film that is still enjoyable. But that’s the sleight-of-hand that Disney has been pulling quite transparently since the 1920s. Damn them. Grab this one while it’s out of the vault now. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait to grab it when it comes out of the vault again in 2019.
Side note: The bonus features on this disc ain’t all that. A bit on the special effects of the film starts off promising, with a description of the Sodium Vapor Light technique – in effect, a proto-green screen which used a backlight Sodium Vapor Light screen in yellow, a two-strip Technicolor camera and a prism to split the light and create a color image and a moving matte simultaneously, but that’s about as technical as the description gets, and the whole bit comes off as nothing but a plug for the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, since the second half discusses modern green screen with no technical description beyond an editor clicking in various elements for an effects shot. An interview documentary with the Brothers Sherman, who composed the music for this and other Disney classics such as Jungle Book and Mary Poppins is worthwhile. The reconstruction of the lost musical number “A Step in the Right Direction” is pretty much still photos of Angela Lansbury over the tune, and not really worth the time. The Portobello Road recording session is shorter than your average YouTube video, mostly notable for revealing that David Tomlinson dyed his hair and probably glued on the moustache, and vibed more like Anthony Hopkins than Walt Disney off-screen. A final bonus feature, “Dylan and Cole”, is nothing more than another shameless plug for Disney Channel characters and Blu-Ray. Your daughters and gay sons will want to watch it for the “cute if you’re thirteen siblings”. Otherwise, it’s just a commercial, and someone should explain that selling Blu-Ray on DVD doesn’t exactly work – it’s kind of like advertising color TV on a black and white set. (But don’t get me started on Blu-Ray. Really. Don’t.)

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