Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

This was the first time that we sat down to watch a film together that didn’t have the safe introduction of a familiar TV series! Daniel did mostly well, but we had to take a short intermission break because this movie was a lot longer than I expected. It’s not fair to say that I was familiar with a shorter version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but the one time that I saw it, back around 1979-1980, it sure was shorter than this.

B & B was originally released in 1971 and was made by many of the crew and team who’d worked on Mary Poppins. This was, it turned out, a backup plan had Disney not been able to acquire the rights to Poppins. As dramatized with some considerable liberty in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, that was a real possibility.

B & B is a pretty fun movie about Miss Price, an “apprentice witch” who has been burdened with three orphans who’ve been evacuated from London during the Blitz. Simultaneously, her witchcraft correspondence course has been closed down. Searching for answers turns up her professor, who has actually been running a mail-order scam, having no idea that his spells actually work. Now that they realize that, in the right hands, the magic will work, they set off to find the missing half of the old book from which he’d been pilfering the incantations.

In its present form, the movie is badly bloated. I didn’t spot the problem until we realized that some of the film footage within the agonizing ten-minute (!!) “Portobello Road” musical number is of markedly inferior quality to the rest of the movie. Apparently the original cut of the film for the 1971 release is 117 minutes, the one that was reissued in 1979 was 96 minutes, and this is 139 minutes, which is way too long. They tried to restore everything, including cut scenes that no longer had an existing soundtrack and had to be redubbed entirely. (Another scene, which had a soundtrack but no film footage, is included as a reconstruction as a bonus feature.) To the Disney team’s, and the voice actors’, considerable credit, the only two times that I noticed that a scene was redubbed was when the fellow with David Tomlinson’s part read his lines. The imitation was good, but not quite right.

So the first half of the film is far too bloated and slow for a four year-old to embrace it, and so we took a break midway through the scene where Sam Jaffe and Bruce Forsyth, playing a shady book dealer and his criminal associate, briefly antagonize our heroes, but also give them a clue that the magic words that they need can be found on a fantasy island. The first half has some cute magical moments, but they were not paced well enough to hold his attention, and the long “Portobello Road” number destroyed what was left.

The animated section of the film livened things considerably after our break. It’s centered around a bad-tempered lion king engaging David Tomlinson as the referee for a soccer match. Nobody wants to referee his matches; they all get trampled underneath elephants and hippos and rhinos passing the ball around. Anybody who ever wondered why this movie, and Mary Poppins, have animated portions never watched them with four year-olds. He loved it, roared with laughter, and his interest was reignited at precisely the right time.

Anyway, Angela Lansbury is incredibly fun as Miss Price. I’m so used to her playing supremely confident and assured characters that it’s a complete delight to see her strung along by a con man and slowly – very, very slowly – falling in love. She and Tomlinson are really fun together and have a lot of genuine, believable chemistry. Other than the children, everybody else is really here in bit parts. Roddy McDowall has a small and insignificant role as the new village vicar. Jaffe and Forsyth had maybe a day on the set and that was that. Lennie Weinrib at least sounds like he got to have some fun with a couple of voiceovers for the cartoon animals.

Daniel enjoyed the movie, even if he did need an intermission, and while I think that the original, shorter theatrical cut must have been better, I enjoyed revisiting it. Now I want to read more about the restoration; it all seems really fascinating!

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