Saturday, April 12, 2014

Bedknobs and Broomsticks


I arrived in London and reported immediately to the Dorchester and was very perturbed to find they not only did not have my reservation, but that the Neanderthal desk clerk also had never heard of Mrs. Norman Maine. I phoned the production company in high dudgeon to find out that they had booked me into something called the Hotel Reagent. It was clean, even if it did smell vaguely of chemicals. I unpacked a few wardrobe essentials, such as my court dress in case Buckingham Palace called, and hailed a taxi for the studio and the first day of filming on Goodfollies.

Our initial shooting schedule was on location at the Tower of London. It's an extended dream musical number in which my character, Toni Soprano, confronts her troubled past with the song, The Saga of Toni. It has a lovely lyric starting "Poor Toni, she was no phony" and uses a background of the Wars of the Roses to dramatize her inner turmoil. Guiding me through my growing self awareness is my analyst, Dr. Duchess Malfi. I am still quite miffed that that no talent aging prune of an 'actress', Margo Channing is in the part. Fortunately, I am a professional and was unfailingly polite to her on the set. The establishing shots have me arriving at the Tower through the water gate in some sort of royal canoe with Margo waiting on the steps. I can't prove it but I'm sure she stuck out her foot to make the boat rock. I did not appreciate the sudden vaulting somersault into the Thames. Neither did the wardrobe department. It took them hours to get the algae out of the ermine.

Most of the rest of the day went without incident and I retired back to my hotel for a rest. I had brought my portable DVD player for entertainment and a stack of discs from my 'To View' pile. I looked for something that might give me a better feeling for historic London and happened across Disney's 1970 musical, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I remembered English accents and some London locations in that one from my one other viewing of it some years ago so decided to give it another look.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks was sort of a follow-up to the studio's previous mega-hit, Mary Poppins. Disney had actually had it in development from the early 60s, when Poppins author P. L. Travers was uncertain about a Disney adaptation of her creation. Mary Norton, author of the children's novels upon which Bedknobs and Broomsticks is based, was apparently more pliable. However, when the deal with Travers was struck, this project was quietly shelved for some years, resurfacing in the late 60s when the studio was hungry for another road show musical hit.

The story takes place in 1940 Britain, during the worst of the blitz. Charlie (Ian Weighill), Carrie (Cindy O'Callaghan) and Paul (Roy Snart), London war orphans, are evacuated to the adorable Channel town of Pepperinge Eye, which consists of some bad studio sets and some of the worst matte paintings on record. There, they are placed in the care of local spinster, Miss Price (Angela Lansbury) who has a lovely farmstead which the local curate (Roddy McDowall in a thankless role) as a covetous eye upon. Miss Price has a secret - she's a witch, attaining powers from a correspondence school of witchcraft run by a Professor Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson). She's not terribly good on a broomstick and her spells tend not to last a terribly long while. When her last lesson, a spell of transubstantiary locomotion (giving inanimate objects life) fails to arrive, she conjures up a magic bedknob off of Paul's bed which allows the bed to convey her in the children anywhere. Off Miss Price and the children head to London where they meet up with Professor Browne, who (as in all films of this type) turns out to be something of a humbug.

Professor Browne, who longs to be a famous stage illusionist, has no idea that the spells he copied from an old book for yet another con actually work; and when he gets the brilliant idea of having an assistant who's an actual witch, off he goes after Miss Price in song and dance. Meanwhile, Miss Price is after the missing spell which leads to prolonged dance numbers in the Portobello Road and an eventual side trip to the magical island of Naboombu, peopled with talking cartoon animals. Here, for no real reason, we're treated to an animated comic soccer match and an underwater ballroom dance competition. Eventually, the humans return to 'reality' and Miss Price and her spells save the day when the Nazis decide to invade England and choose Pepperinge Eye as a landing place.

The film, when made, was designed to be a major musical feature attraction and had an initial running time of 140 minutes. For its opening, it was booked into Radio City Music Hall for Christmas, 1970. As Radio City also had a Rockette Stage show to do, the film could be no longer than 115 minutes so nearly half an hour, including whole musical numbers, were cut just before release. The truncated version was the only version available until the late 90s when the studio decided to reassemble the original cut. They were able to do so with the exception of one song, A Step In the Right Direction, sort of a trio for Lansbury, her cat and her broomstick, as the footage had disappeared in the vaults. (The number is included on the DVD as an extra using the soundtrack and production stills.)

The original cut of the film, while perfectly pleasant, was rather pedestrian. The rather episodic nature of the story kept the film from flowing naturally and the writers (Don DiGradi and Bill Walsh) were never able to find a strong emotional center as they had with Mary Poppins where all of the magic leads to family reconciliation. The film was also harmed by its rather ho-hum Sherman Brothers score. Number after number falls flat or seems derivative, only the foxtrot Beautiful Briny Sea and the comic Eglantine (Miss Price's improbable Christian name) make any real impression or remains in the head after the film ends.

The restored footage, which is blended seamlessly into the original in the DVD release, is interesting as it helps to clarify some story points and fleshes out some minor characters. However, it also makes a musical that already felt over long and talky even more so. There are no great revelations. Lansbury and Tomlinson, in the leads, deliver good performances but Miss Price is a bit of a cold fish as a character and difficult to like. Tomlinson is charming, but a lot of his shtick is warmed over Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins. Their tentative romance will bore the pants right off the kiddies. It's no wonder that the current cover art features the animated animals from the island sequence at the expense of the humans.

The DVD is lovingly put together, as are most Disney products. In addition to the film in widescreen, are various conceptual art sketches, a documentary on the Sherman Brothers and their approach, a history of the film and a couple of Mickey Mouse shorts with a magic twist.

Sulfurous motorcycle. Cosmic creeper cat. Gratuitous broomstick falling. Dancing gurkhas. Gratuitous Notting Hill street carnival. Evil bookseller. Flamenco lobsters. Fussy secretary bird. Waltzing nightgown. Gratuitous nasty Nazis. Skirling bagpipes. Animated glaives. Animated guisarmes.

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