50 years on, Bedknobs And Broomsticks is rightly regarded as a Disney classic, but the campaign for a release of its original cut continues to this day.
Adapted from Mary Norton’s books The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires And Broomsticks, (later collected as Bed-Knob And Broomsticks), the film Bedknobs And Broomsticks sees three orphaned siblings evacuated from London to the countryside during World War II.
Their host, Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), is reluctant to take them in because she’s undertaking a correspondence course in witchcraft with Professor Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson). Nevertheless, they soon wind up along for the ride on an adventure that includes an animated underwater sequence, a hilarious animal football match, and even a bit where some Nazi soldiers get their arses handed to them by enchanted suits of armour.
As today is the 50th anniversary of the film’s UK release, we’ve been looking back at how Disney has trimmed and tampered with the film since it was first screened. Over the years, whole sequences and musical numbers have been excised and lost in the archives, and there’s still an online fandom lobbying for a re-release of the most complete version available.
The most widely available version of the film, which you can buy on Blu-ray or stream on Disney+, is neither the shortest nor the longest cut ever released. Happily, the film’s reputation seems to have thrived beyond the fact that different fans have grown up with different versions of it over the last 50 years, but here’s the story…
That other magic movie
“Treguna, Mekoides, Trecorum, Satis, Dee…”
Disney first optioned Norton’s books during the 1940s, but the film version didn’t reach the development stage until the early 1960s. By this time, Disney had been engaged in a two-decade-long campaign for the rights to PL Travers’ Mary Poppins stories. You may remember that Travers’ reluctance to set up her creation as a Disney picture was dramatized to cuddly effect in a Disney picture of its own, 2013’s Saving Mr Banks.
At a point where it didn’t look as though Travers would permit Disney to make Mary Poppins, he set producer Bill Walsh, writer Don DaGradi, and songwriting supremos Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman to work on Bedknobs And Broomsticks instead. One of the songs that the Sherman brothers had intended for Mary Poppins was “The Beautiful Briny” and that found a new home in this other magic-themed movie.
However, Bedknobs And Broomsticks was shelved when Disney and Travers came to an agreement. 1964’s Mary Poppins proved to be massively popular and successful, winning over critics and audiences alike and even bagging Julie Andrews an Oscar for her very first screen role.
Walt Disney passed away in 1966 and there were some changes at the studio he built. So, when Bedknobs And Broomsticks was revived in 1969, the Oscar-winning Poppins was considered the blueprint.
As well as having the Shermans on songwriting duties, Walsh also hired director Robert Stevenson again, cast Tomlinson as Professor Browne, and even asked Andrews to play the role of Eglantine. She initially turned down the role with an eye on branching out after playing one magical character. Reportedly, she later had a change of heart and wanted to work with the studio again after all, but by that time, Angela Lansbury had been cast in the role instead.
Like Mary Poppins, the film involved live-action actors appearing in animated sequences. Filming took place in early 1970 and although it was a relatively quick shoot, the animation and special effects took many more months to complete. Accordingly, the film wasn’t ready for release until late 1971.
Again following Poppins’ lead, Bedknobs And Broomsticks similarly ran longer than most Disney films. The original cut was reportedly 141 minutes, but that’s not the cut that audiences got to see.
Firstly, there was the US premiere at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The venue stipulated that the film would need to be under two hours because the premiere would be followed by a stage show and, unbelievably, Disney trimmed 23 minutes from Bedknobs And Broomsticks for the event.
The cuts included three whole musical numbers – “A Step In The Right Direction”, “With A Flair”, and “Nobody’s Problems”. Furthermore, the “Portobello Road” sequence was cut down to three minutes and Roddy McDowall, who’s third-billed in the credits, had his screen-time cut down to around a minute. The premiere took place after the UK release of the film, which was on 7th October 1971, but the cuts must have been made in advance, because it was the under-two-hours version that was submitted to the BBFC.
Lansbury hadn’t enjoyed her experience working on the film for various reasons, including the rigid requirements of the film’s special-effects storyboarding and a fraught working relationship with Stevenson. But most of all, she didn’t know so much had been cut out of the film until it was screened, which proved a sore point in the years after its release.
Adding insult to injury, further edits were made in 1979, when the film was reissued for the first time and was further cut down to fit in more showtimes. Running just 96 minutes, this cut omitted all of the songs except for “Portobello Road” and “The Beautiful Briny”. Even “The Age Of Not Believing”, which had been nominated for an Oscar, (but lost to the theme from Shaft) didn’t make the cut.
In a 2009 interview with Animated Views, Richard M. Sherman said of the cuts: “You know what happened: they decided to obliterate the picture and they just sliced out songs, one after the other. So, for the first release version, we lost so much. It was so denuded of emotion that it was upsetting.”
A Step In The Right Direction
“Though the steps he takes are infinitely small, they’re a step in the right direction after all.”
With subsequent soundtrack albums including songs that never featured in the available cuts, word of a longer version of the film began to circulate over the following decades.
In 1991, Disney’s senior restoration manager Scott McQueen set about recovering lost footage with a view to producing a restored anniversary edition. Expecting to find “A Step In The Right Direction”, McQueen discovered various other discrepancies between the 117-minute version and the original cut when checking production paperwork and the shooting script.
The trouble was that executives had agreed to lop 23 minutes out of the movie but hadn’t kept the footage where it was easy to reinstate. McQueen and his team wound up pulling and hand-testing every bit of footage they had in the process. Working from production masters, original negatives, and workprints, they found some sequences had been mislabelled at the time and others were lost entirely.
Although the footage for “A Step In The Right Direction” was never found, parts of the “Portobello Road” sequence were recovered and digitally restored for the anniversary edition, as were some of McDowall’s scenes. In other cases, songs had to be completed from what audio was available, including a new orchestral backing for Lansbury’s vocals on “Nobody’s Problems”. Lansbury and McDowall also provided additional dialogue recording where the audio of some of their scenes had been lost, with voice actors covering other members of the cast.
Ultimately premiering on the Disney Channel in 1996, the 25th-anniversary cut is 139 minutes long and includes “With A Flair” and “Nobody’s Problems” among other previously cut scenes. This version was also released on DVD in 2001, giving viewers the chance to see something closer to what the filmmakers originally intended.
That disc also included a reconstruction of “A Step In The Right Direction” as a special feature, using production stills and audio to approximate the sequence. Ironically, its theme of “if at first you don’t succeed, try again”, set to Eglantine’s first attempts to travel by broom, sum up exactly what this five-year effort to restore the film turned out to be.
And back again…
“Where did all the happy endings go? Where can all the good times be?”
As well as an “Enchanted Musical Edition” DVD re-release in 2009, the 139-minute restoration also got an HD release on iTunes and other streaming services in the early 2010s. Unaccountably, that’s the only way you can get rid of the longer cut, because the one currently available on Blu-ray and Disney+ is, you guessed it, that pesky 117-minute version.
Looking at the BBFC’s website, this is also the cut that was most recently resubmitted to the Board (going up from a U to a PG certificate due to mild bad language and the rhyming peril of our heroes being threatened by Bruce Forsyth with a knife) for a cinema re-release in 2016. So, we know an HD version of the longer cut exists, but Disney has also gone and remastered the less complete one at some point, and that’s the only version currently available.
Yet more baffling, the fully remastered portions are included as deleted scenes in the special features, at the same high resolution, with no option to watch them as part of the film – this kind of branching is not without precedent for Disney, as the Blu-ray disc for Muppets Most Wanted offers it. Furthermore, they’ve retained a featurette where Lansbury and the Shermans praise the version of the film that’s not on the disc.
The 1996 restoration may not be complete, but it’s more complete than the Radio City premiere cut that’s currently available. While Disney fans are still campaigning for a Blu-ray or Disney+ release of the existing HD cut, there’s been no sign of a 50th-anniversary reissue that gives us the longer version back.
Still, things might change. Within the last 12 months, we’ve learned that after more than two decades of appeals from The Muppet Christmas Carol director Brian Henson, the missing negatives for the number “When Love Has Gone” have been unearthed in Disney’s archives. We’ll be seeing that restored as part of a shiny new 4K version of the film in the near future.
What’s more, at the time of writing, there’s a stage musical version of Bedknobs And Broomsticks touring the UK. The Disney Theatrical Productions show includes all of the original Sherman songs and a couple of new ones by Neil Bartram, and “A Step In The Right Direction” is a particular highlight, thanks to the added stage magic of Dianne Pilkington’s Eglantine taking flight for the first time.
If that doesn’t raise interest in a re-release, we wouldn’t put it past Disney to get around to remaking the film sometime soon, (off the top of my head, I’d put Jodie Whittaker and Michael Sheen in those lead roles – feel free to disagree with me in the comments!) And if that happens, shimmery shiny releases of the original are bound to follow, hopefully in the most complete form possible.
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