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BLU-RAY REVIEW: “Bedknobs And Broomsticks”

BLU-RAY REVIEW: "Bedknobs And Broomsticks"

One way to describe the new
Blu-ray release
of the Disney/Sherman Brothers musical fantasy Bedknobs and Broomsticks might be similar
to a beer commercial tag line:

“Looks great, less filling.”

More on that in a moment. Let’s
say “The Doctor” took you back to 1971/72 in his TARDIS. Being interested in
animation and Disney, you would be anxious to see the Studios’ first attempt at
musical fantasy since Mary Poppins, a
film with many of the same talents both in front of and behind the cameras.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks was a much-anticipated film, perhaps with less
fervor than Poppins, but this was
1971 and much had changed in entertainment and in the world itself. The Wonderful World of Disney broadcast
a re-edited version of the 1955 program with, among other highlights, Peggy Lee
demonstrating how she doubled her voice for “The Siamese Cat Song.” The finale
of the installment was “The Beautiful Briny” live-action/animated sequence. The
Bedknobs soundtrack album, along with
many other tie-in merchandise, was already in stores.

When the film opened, “most
critics spent their time making comparisons [to Poppins], which is unfair,” wrote Leonard Maltin in The Disney Films. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks can stand on its own, a thoroughly
entertaining fantasy…”

Yes, there are similarities
between Bedknobs and Poppins. But most of those are fairly
obvious and expected considering who was involved. They are essentially two
very different films. Bedknobs is a
darker, grittier affair, grounded in a very serious reality. The plot is almost
completely linear. Miss Price is committed to “doing her bit” for the war
effort and, except for some pleasant diversions, her mission is always in focus.
Even the animated sequence, which sidetracks wonderfully into the lagoon
frolics, is abruptly interrupted by danger with the characters getting back on
their fervent track.

The Naboombu sequence is unique,
especially in its audio treatment. Once the soccer game begins, there is no
music at all—something of a revolution in Disney films, which insistently employed
music to punctuate comedy gags. The soccer game a showcase for Ward Kimball’s
irreverent and less sentimental tone, a style reserved mostly for short
subjects. It’s also a showcase for the voice actors—Dal McKennon, Bob Holt and
especially Lennie Weinrib—who deliver exceptionally vivid performance. One need
only compare their voice work in this film to that of their television work at
the time (which, to be fair, had smaller budgets offering little opportunity
for honing and retakes) and the difference is striking. (Here’s a little
factoid: in the scene in which the Bear’s hook snags the bed, you can hear
Bruce Reitherman’s “Help! Help!” from The
Jungle Book

Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh, again
teaming with The Sherman Brothers, crafted a storyline inspired by Mary
Norton’s book with a completely original twist, setting the story in wartime
England. The script is tight and witty with sparks of sophistication. This is a
film that, while never quite given the rightful place in the Disney canon it
deserved, had a positive influence on many lives over the decades, including that
of this writer.

In 1979, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was reissued in
a shameful “Revised Edition,” edited with a Texas chainsaw from 119 minutes
down to 96 with nearly every song deleted. The advertising aped 1978’s Superman the Movie with the tag line,
“You’ll believe a woman can fly…almost.” This cruel treatment certainly didn’t
help the film’s legacy.

Over a decade (and many TV
broadcasts and home video releases) later, a Herculean effort was made to send Bedknobs and Broomsticks into rehab. The
general public was unaware that the film they had seen in the early ‘70s in
theaters and the ‘80s on their TV screens was missing over twenty minutes of
footage (though the presence of extra songs on the record albums baffled many a
listener). Every little piece was restored and re-inserted, except for the
completely lost “Step in the Right Direction” number. (The film had been
trimmed because Radio City Music Hall insisted on a shorter length for multiple
showings and there was no Walt Disney around anymore to tell them where to put
their Rockettes.)

The re-premiere was a
spectacular event. Angela Lansbury and Roddy McDowell, who had re-recorded
dialogue especially for the new footage, were ecstatic to see it as they had
been expecting to see it—but didn’t—at Radio City. Lansbury in particular had
to feel a sense of closure, as Bedknobs
and Broomsticks
was not always a happy experience for her.

According to a fine article
in Paul Anderson’s Persistence of Vision, she had long dreamed of starring in a
movie musical (a dream that she never really saw fulfilled). However, she was
at odds with director Robert Stevenson, who discouraged Lansbury’s attempts to
make Eglantine Price more eccentric and “meaty” as a character. Although she
had just soared to Broadway superstardom in Mame,
her family life was in flux and her house had just burned down. One of the
reasons for her signing on to Bedknobs
was the loss of her home.

The restored, 139-minute
edition of Bedknobs and Broomsticks
was released on laserdisc and then on DVD. You can imagine how exciting it was
to hear that a Blu-ray was being released…

But for some reason, the new
Blu-ray, dazzling as it looks in high-def, presents the original 1971 cut, again
missing the footage that was restored only a few years ago. That footage has instead
been placed in the Bonus Features section.

It’s possible to enjoy the
pristine new Blu-ray edition for what it is: the movie that many of us fell in
love with back in 1971. There may even be a substantial segment of that ol’
“general public” that may not realize that the “deleted scenes” were ever part
of a restored version of the movie. Lots of movies on DVD and Blu-ray have
deleted scenes in the Bonus Features. You can’t miss what you don’t know about,

Well perhaps, but the real
kicker is the bonus “Music Magic” documentary from the earlier home video release
that actually draws attention to the reinsertion
of the missing footage and makes their absence more regrettable. Angela
Lansbury, Richard and Robert Sherman are seen in the documentary, expressing
their elation that these songs and scenes had been place back in their rightful
positions within the film. It makes
one feel especially sad for Ms. Lansbury, who back in ’71 at Radio City, was
startled to see much of the movie was cut, and the late Roddy McDowall, whose
scenes ultimately became so sparse one hardly remembers why he was in the

To paraphrase David
Tomlinson’s Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins,
“Yes, well, I don’t mind having the earlier cut so much, at any rate, it’s the
one we saw in 1971. But a documentary about the restoration? I ask you! Having
a documentary about the restoration? Highly questionable!”

So, Walt Disney Studios Home
Entertainment giveth, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment taketh away. You’ll
want to hang onto your 2009 DVD (or laserdisc), to keep the entire restored version
in your collection.

And maybe there’s a way to
solve this. What if the extended version Blu-ray was released exclusively
through the Disney Movie Club? That way, the costs for the corrected version might
be deferred to Disney Movie Club, which could benefit by the new members who might
join just to get the 139-minute restored Bedknobs
and Broomsticks
on Blu-ray.

Yes, joining means making a
handful of purchases and responding to pesky “feature title” mailings. But you
can also get free DVD’s when you sign up and access to purchase an array of
lesser-known (but very cool) Disney films and TV shows released especially for
Club members.

Anyway, it’s just an idea. I
think I’ll go juggle some apples over a bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy.

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