100 Film Favorites – #9: Bedknobs & Broomsticks
(Robert Stevenson, 1971)
The year is 1940, and the place Pepperinge Eye, a tiny village on the coast of England. Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a middle-aged local woman, reluctantly takes in a trio of London orphans relocated to escape German bombings. Ms. Price views the children as a distraction from her “studies,” and we learn she is enrolled in a by-mail correspondence school program.
When the three children sneak out of the house one night, they discover the nature of Price’s “academic” pursuits: they catch her flying through the sky on a broomstick (albeit poorly), and when they confront her with their evidence, Ms. Price admits she is learning magic through the “Emelius Browne Correspondence College of Witchcraft.” In exchange for keeping her secret, the children ask Ms. Price for a spell. In response, she enchants a bed-knob (the ball at the end of a bedpost) to take the children wherever they wish to go, should they but turn the knob.
Though Ms. Price’s powers are amateurish as yet (her most effective spell turns humans into rabbits for brief periods of time), her ultimate goal is to use her magic to aid the British war effort and help avert the looming threat of Nazi invasion. With this goal in mind, she eagerly awaits the arrival of the next parcel from the “College,” which promises to contain the powerful “substitutiary locomotion” spell. Thus, Ms. Price is thrown for a loop when the next mailing from the school’s headmaster indicates that all courses are henceforth canceled, effective immediately.
Using the magic bed, Ms. Price and the children travel to London, where Ms. Price intends to confront the headmaster and demand an explanation. She is surprised once more when she discovers that “Professor” Brown is a charlatan, performing less-than-impressive magic tricks on the street-corner for pennies. Brown offers to explain his actions, and invites Price and the children to “his house” (a mansion abandoned due to the unexploded German bomb wedged in the backyard).
While the children explore the mansion’s nursery, Mr. Browne escorts Ms. Price to the home’s elegant library, where he presents her with a tattered old book entitled The Spells of Astaroth. Browne explains that he discovered the tome in a seedy secondhand book shop, and concocted a scheme to sell “The Spells” to gullible people under the guise of a correspondence course in magic. He is flabbergasted when Price states (and then demonstrates) that the book’s spells work quite well for her. Mr. Browne is thrilled, and immediately attempts to recruit Ms. Price for a new and improved magic act, promising that he will “sell” her talents to the masses “as the words sell the tune, and the moonbeams the moon.” Ms. Price, however, has little interest in showmanship, and when Browne repeatedly ignores her pleas to focus on her goal of procuring the substitutiary locomotion spell and aiding the war effort, she turns him into a rabbit.
Once Browne is human again, he reveals the real reason he “closed the college”: the second half of the book is missing, torn off just as the description of substitutiary locomotion begins. Ms. Price and the children summarily follow Mr. Browne to the one place the rest of the book might be…Portobello Road, a street filled with flea markets and antique shops, some more on-the-level than others.
After an extended dance number showing the many different ethnic groups visiting the marketplace, Browne, Price, and the children finally locate “The Bookman,” a surprisingly sinister book merchant who once tussled with Browne and still possesses the second half of the spellbook. Each eager to see the other’s half of the manuscript, Price and the Bookman put aside their differences and begin hurriedly reading – only to find that neither half contains the words (the passage spanning the two halves indicates that substitutiary locomotion is created by “five mystic words. These words are…inscribed on the Star of Astaroth”).
According to the Bookman’s research, Astaroth was a wizard who lived on the remote island of Naboombu, conducting magical experiments on animals to make them more human-like (because I guess there were furries even way back then). Astaroth eventually lost control of his animal charges, however, and the educated beasts killed him and took over the island. The Bookman speculates that the “Star of Astaroth” was an amulet worn by the wizard, and that if it still exists it lies on the island of Naboombu. Unfortunately, he has searched every old sea chart he can find, and has come up with nothing, sadly remarking that “The Isle of Naboombu does not exist.”
Paul, the youngest of the children, pipes up that “it does too exist,” and pulls out a picture book he “borrowed” from the nursery. The book, conveniently titled The Isle of Namboombu, depicts various jungle animals in human clothing parading around a cartoonish island. Though Paul’s older siblings dismiss the book as childish, the Bookman nearly lunges for it, and reaches for a knife when Paul refuses to hand it over. Ms. Price, Mr. Browne, and the children make a hasty getaway on the magic bed, setting the Isle of Naboombu as its next destination.
Since Naboombu is a fictional place (even within the world of the larger story), it looks a bit unusual to our “nonfictional” main characters. Naboombu’s civilized animal inhabitants are realized through animation, which blends seamlessly, in the Mary Poppins tradition, with the actions of the live actors. The travelers discover that Naboombu’s king (a pompous lion) is currently in possession of the Star of Astaroth, and, to get closer to him, Mr. Brown agrees to referee the animals’ annual football (soccer…my apologies to Sophie, our one British reader) game. The game is one-sided and violent, pitting a team of carnivores against one of herbivores, and Browne takes a severe beating as the birds and beasts blatantly ignore the rules. Nevertheless, the intrepid Englanders manage to snatch the Star and warp back to Pepperinge Eye before the lion king can catch them.
Unfortunately, the animated star fades before Ms. Price can read it (the given explanation is that objects from one world can’t pass into another…which doesn’t explain how five people and a flying bed went from one world to another, stuck around for a game of football, and came back just fine). At any rate, Paul points out that there’s a detailed illustration of the Star in his picture book (magic words and all), so the entire Naboombu journey was actually pointless. But Ms. Price finally has her spell, so she’s happy. She recites the magic words, “Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee,” and we learn the nature of substitutiary locomotion: it gives life to inanimate objects. Ms. Price “successfully” brings gloves, shoes, and a nightgown to life, but is unable to control them.
Later, Ms. Price receives a call from the woman in charge of the foster program which had “burdened” her with the three children. The woman informs her that another family is eager to “take the children off her hands.” Though this means Ms. Price would be able to dedicate herself fully to her “studies,” she realizes she has come to care deeply for the children, and doesn’t want to give them up. Meanwhile, while Ms. Price is beginning to embrace the idea of committing to a family, Mr. Browne fears the same commitment and begins preparations to return to London.
OKAY. I know that was a lot of plot summary. Sorry you had to read all that, because THIS IS THE GOOD PART:
While Mr. Browne is sitting alone at the train station at night, mulling over whether to “be a man” and join this prospective “instant family,” or to run home with his tail between his legs,
NAZIS STORM ASHORE AND INVADE THE VILLAGE. That’s right, straight-up Nazis in a Disney movie. But maybe “storm ashore” was an overstatement. Really, the Nazis take advantage of the cover of night to sneak into the town.
The head Nazi officer just happens to seize the Price house as a command post, and Ms. Price and the children are imprisoned in the local military history museum, located in a small, ancient castle on the edge of town. At the station, Mr. Browne spies Nazi scouts cutting the telephone lines above the village, and rushes back to Ms. Price’s abode. Sneaking into her witch’s workshop, Browne finds one of Ms. Price’s notebooks. The aging con-man regards himself in a mirror and says, “For once in your life, you’ve got to believe in something.” He recites Ms. Price’s go-to spell, and after much effort is able to rabbitize himself. The Browne bunny hops down the road and in through the barred window of the military museum, where the “Professor” regains his human form before his pupil and proposes a plan. Browne suggests casting the substitutiary locomotion spell on the museum…and Ms. Price does.
Okay I lied THIS IS WHERE IT GETS REALLY REALLY GOOD:
Ms. Price walks to the center of the dark museum hall, and solemnly recites, “Treguna, Mekoides, Trecorum, Satis, Dee.” At first, nothing happens. Then, a pair of sticks come to life and begin rattling off a phantom march on an old snare drum. Next, a set of herald trumpets snap to attention on the wall and blare a call to battle. In moments, Britain’s history comes alive, as centuries of military arms and armor climb down off their pedestals and assume formation.
In a truly amazing sequence, Ms. Price takes the Nazis by surprise by taking to the sky on her now much more stable broom and leading her GHOST ARMY OF ANIMATED ARMOR against them. The armor lumbers eerily across foggy moors, all the while chanting “TREGUNA… MEKOIDES… TRECORUM…. SATIS… DEE” in dark, disembodied voices. The Nazi colonel orders his men to fire on the advancing “army,” but the machine-gun bullets simply pass through the armor, doing little to impede its forward march (though the suits do occasionally stop to detach an appendage which has become particularly full of spent bullets, shake them out, and then resume marching). As legion after legion of ghostly knights, redcoats, cavaliers, and even a bevy of bagpiping highlanders continue their ceaseless advance, the Nazis turn tail and run.
The colonel is furious, ordering his men to stand firm and be good “deutsche Soldaten” (German soldiers). Then, a towering executioner’s uniform lurches out of the bushes, wielding a massive axe…and the colonel too sprints for shore. Before the Nazis depart entirely, however, they set an explosive charge by Price’s house. As the thoroughly spooked Nazis take to sea and our victorious protagonists gloat, the ensuing blast knocks Ms. Price from her broom and destroys her workshop. This breaks the substitutiary locomotion spell, and the countless uniforms slump slowly to the ground as their magic essence ebbs away. Mr. Brown and the children run to retrieve Ms. Price from the bushes, and she says that now she has repelled the invasion, her days as a witch are over. Seeing as there’s still more than four years and millions of looming casualties remaining in the war, she really ought to consider helping out for a while longer, but hey, whatever’s best for her I guess.
In the closing scene, Mr. Browne vows to do his part to serve his country. He enlists in the British army, with the promise that once he returns he, Ms. Price, and the children will be a family. As Browne marches down the road to the station, escorted by the village’s “Old Home Guard,” the children sadly observe that, without magic in their lives, things will be pretty boring in the years to come.
“Well,” says Paul, holding up the enchanted bed-knob, “we’ve still got this.”
Wow. Okay. I could talk about this film for a while. In fact, I already have. So I’ll try to keep this next part somewhat brief.
Bedknobs & Broomsticks is often dismissed as a less impressive spiritual successor to Mary Poppins. Indeed, the two films share many common elements. Both are musicals featuring songs by the Sherman Brothers, and both include extended fantasy sequences combining live-action with classic Disney animation. But the similarities go further than that. Bedknobs and Poppins share the same director, Robert Stevenson, who also directed previous Countdown selection Darby O’Gill and the Little People, as well as many other live-action Disney films throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s (timeless tearjerker Old Yeller was Stevenson too). But the roots of Bedknobs & Broomsticks were tied to those of Poppins long before either film was released. Walt Disney had long wanted to make a film adaptation of the Mary Poppins series of children’s books, but British author P.L. Travers was wary of giving him the rights. After years of hemming and hawing, Walt had his team buy up the rights to SIMILAR stories in case the Poppins rights never came through. One such “British children adventuring with a magical lady” story was found in a pair of books by Mary Norton (who also wrote The Borrowers) – The Magic Bed-knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks.
Before the project got underway in the early 60s, P.L. Travers finally came around and granted Disney the Poppins rights. Work surged ahead on Poppins, and Bedknobs was forgotten for a time. Walt Disney died in 1966, and in the years that followed, the Disney studio began churning out a series of less-than-universally-acclaimed films. Animators resorted to tracing off of templates from previous films, and back-burner story ideas gradually returned to the front. Bedknobs & Broomsticks was put into production, and much of the Poppins crew was reunited, including David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in Poppins, Mr. Browne in Bedknobs). The Sherman Brothers even repurposed songs they had written for Poppins, but never used.
But as far as I’m concerned, Bedknobs & Broomsticks is far more than a Mary Poppins knockoff.
Okay, I admit it. There’s really only one reason. Only one element that sets this film above and beyond Mary Poppins and earns it a Top Ten position in this Countdown:
NAZIS VS. GHOST ARMOR.
This is probably the only selection for which the merits of a single scene secured a film’s inclusion in the Countdown. When I was a kid, I would repeatedly fast-forward my Bedknobs & Broomsticks VHS to the end, just to watch the last ten minutes and see the breathtaking final battle again and again. If I were to go back now, I’d probably find the tape worn through.
Two factors make the battle so incredible: First, the central effect looks convincing – the ghostly suits of armor really do seem to be moving of their own accord. Second, you know that a wide variety of effect technologies contributed to that convincing quality. Greenscreen, puppetry, matte paintings, clever costuming, all combine to create the impression that Ms. Price really is leading a spectral army of ancient armor. Some of the effects aspects I still don’t entirely understand. Suffice it to say, this sequence will make you say, “Wow.”
Also, I’m fairly confident that this is the only film under the Walt Disney label to feature straight-up, flat-out Nazis as the antagonists. Sure, Scar might lead an ANALOGY or a METAPHOR for the Third Reich, but in Bedknobs & Broomsticks, IT’S REALLY THEM.
Okay, okay, I like at least one more thing about this movie: The opening credits. I wanted to talk about the power of a good opening credits sequence way back in the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao post, but now this is my last opportunity to slip it in. Like Dr. Lao, Bedknobs and Broomsticks features opening credits which not only reflect a period aesthetic relevant to the subject matter of the film, but also include illustrations related to each crew and cast member’s role in creating the film. Dr. Lao‘s credits were fashioned after the circus and medicine wagon posters of “Wild West” times, and show a lithograph of period instruments to accompany the film composer’s name, for instance, while the Bedknobs & Broomsticks credits were inspired by the Bayeux tapestry, and feature a medieval-style sketch of minstrels to represent the Sherman Brothers. The Bedknobs credits even go a step further, showing essentially the entire story of the film unfold in tapestry form. Maybe this is a bit excessive, but it still looks really cool, and the musical overture which accompanies the “Bayeux” opening is outstanding.
A final (but still rather lengthy) note on this film: The movie was originally intended to be a “roadshow” release, meaning an “event” film with a running time similar to a Broadway show, often featuring an overture and intermission. Thus, the original running time of the film was somewhere upwards of 2 and-a-half hours (with some reports closer to three hours). In re-releases, the film was cut considerably to accommodate typical movie theaters more accustomed to showing shorter movies. In total, nearly a full half-hour of footage was gleaned from the film, including entire musical numbers. One such song was “A Step in the Right Direction,” meant to be sung by Price before she mounted her broom for the first time. Though the song was released on the official soundtrack for the film, it was cut from the movie itself, save for a brief use of the melody as a background instrumental. In 1996, for the film’s 25th anniversary, Disney was inspired by the “Step in the Right Direction” oddity to try and recover all of the footage cut from Bedknobs and restore it roughly to the film’s original run-time. In fact, nearly all of the excised video material was recovered…everything except for “A Step in the Right Direction.” Elements which were restored include:
-A subplot in which a dweeby preacher played by Roddy McDowell attempts to woo Ms. Price.
-A solo number for Mr. Brown, “With a Flair” (another number which appears in the earlier video release cut as background music).
-“Nobody’s Problems For Me,” a melancholy ballad sung by Ms. Price after Mr. Brown leaves for the station, about the “benefits” of being what the internet calls “forever alone.” This is probably the most powerful single element cut from the film.
Overall, the “restored” scenes are interesting, and add a little bit to the film, but there’s one major, unforgivable flaw: Though nearly all the video material was recovered, several of the “restored” scenes lack the original accompanying audio. So what did they do? Well, rather than simply leaving those incomplete scenes out, the restoration team opted to dub over the footage with other actors, several of whom sound drastically different from the people they’re meant to be. It’s jarring, particularly when (in the case of “Mr. Browne” especially) the new voice doesn’t completely sync up with the actor’s mouth. Ultimately, even for a colossal “B&B” fan like me, there’s more in the extended edition that pulls me out of the film than pulls me in, and that’s not good. Watch the “original” home video cut if you can. Otherwise, get ready for some weird, off-putting lip-syncing.