Bedknobs lobby card

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, right?

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 credits.

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.

Bedknobs blu ray