By Scott Ross
The 2001 restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) raises some interesting, and unsettling, questions, about the process.
Even when exceptional care and devotion are lavished on a movie, as with David Lean’s 1989 “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia, some of the results may be less than felicitous. Lean had second thoughts, for some inscrutable reason, about a single line in the Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay spoken by Peter O’Toole, and his revision completely reversed its meaning.
General Allenby: You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met!
Lawrence: Leave me alone! […]
Allenby: Well, that’s a feeble thing to say.
Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
Lawrence: All right! I’m extra ordinary! What of it?
In 1989, Lean re-jiggered that loaded adjective to a mere “extraordinary.” The difference? Only the world.
Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lawrence was eviscerated, both at the time of its release and for later reissue. By linking the two I am certainly not suggesting that one is any way the equal of the other. Bedknobs is a pleasant, if somewhat derivative, fantasy musical with engaging performers and a charming Sherman Brothers score, while Lawrence is one of the supreme glories of the English-speaking cinema. Where the two intersect is in their shared histories of imbecilic, ruinous wholesale cuts for no reason other than commerce. Where their revivals differ is in the quality of the restoration process itself.
When Lean required lines to be dubbed onto found footage with no soundtrack, he not only called upon as many of his original cast as were still alive and able; he also recorded the lines with an ear to matching the original on-set recording as much as he did to replicating the actual timbres of the much younger actors on-screen. Lean seems, puzzlingly, virtually alone in this. In nearly every other large-scale restoration of its kind (Spartacus in particular comes to mind, with its visually and aurally flawed restoration of the infamous “snails and oysters” sequence) the ambient sound of the newly dubbed lines in no way matches what was originally recorded. How was Lean able to do that which no one else either cares to, knows how to, or is, seemingly, physically capable? How did Columbia Pictures in 1989 re-create the sound quality of 1962?
I don’t know the name of, and have never been able to track down, the specific sound recording system Walt Disney and his company employed from the 1950s to the ’70s, any more than I can identify the superb system employed by Warner Bros. from the 1940s on to, at least, the late 1960s. (Warners originally used Vitaphone for their talkies, but that recording system had long since passed by the time of The Maltese Falcon.) But one has only to listen with half an ear to the soundtrack of any film from either studio from those years to appreciate the crystal clarity of the reproduction.* Were these sound designs deemed antiquated at some point, perhaps with the creation of newer microphones and tape systems, the original equipment junked? Or is there some other, even more technically complicated reason for the discrepancy? Why, so often, in movies and on CD, does the much-vaunted digital process pale next to the allegedly “inferior” sound recording of analog? Why is Mono sometimes fuller, sharper and clearer than Stereo? (Really, I’m asking. If you know, please enlighten me.)
Whatever the reason, in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, all of the re-dubbed scenes are reproduced, not with the striking crispness of the original but with the infinitely more casual, and muffled, make-do of our current era. Of course I know that sound recorded on the set with its unique, ambient quality, can seldom be replicated in a studio; it’s why, whatever the time period, you can nearly always tell which lines have been over-dubbed later. (Although, in his Hollywood pictures anyway, Orson Welles was especially good at matching.) Indeed, in the case of musicals, pre-recorded vocals seldom replicate live sound. But the absolutely dead sound the current Disney engineers retro-fitted onto this movie is matched in apathy only by the appalling voice work provided by the actors attempting to double for David Tomlinson and Tessie O’Shea, the latter of whose accent now fluctuates wildly over the British Isles, like some berserk vocalic Norman chasing after an elusive, mute Saxon zombie.†
Any number of additional ironies attached themselves to this one: The original cut of the movie ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes and was intended as one of the last of the big “road-show” spectacles of the era. Unbelievably, Walt Disney Productions planned its premier at Radio City Music Hall in, it seems, complete ignorance of that tatty but venerable establishment’s inviolable rule that pictures which accompany its live stage shows be of no more than 2 hours in length. Disney exceeded that demand, and duly sheared 30 minutes, not merely for Radio City but the movie’s general release as well, losing several musical numbers and so much dialogue that what was left was difficult to follow — surely a disastrous outcome for a fantasy aimed as much at children as their parents. The studio further compounded this minor obscenity by utterly eviscerating what remained for a late-’70s reissue: 139 minutes in 1971 became first 117 and, finally, a paltry 99 in 1979. Many of the dialogue sequences restored had lost their soundtrack, hence the (again, execrable) re-dubbing. And in a final (and, it seems, irreversible) irony, the very impetus for the restoration, bringing Angela Lansbury’s “A Step in the Right Direction” number, cut in 1971 but extant on the original soundtrack album, back to the movie, was thwarted; it has disappeared and was, presumably, destroyed(!)
I was young enough in 1971 (10, if you’re morbidly interested) to love even the truncated original, although I loved it less a few months later, on reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, which bear very little resemblance to the movie on which they were, exceedingly loosely, based. Best to think of the film, as with the more vaunted (and popular) Mary Poppins, as variation on a theme.
My invoking Poppins is not coincidental. Not only was the same creative team responsible for Bedknobs, from the screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and the director Robert Stevenson to the song-writing Shermans, but both narratives involved magical (and musical, if somewhat starchy) spinsters looking after small children, contain animated/live action sequences, and feature Tomlinson, here promoted from secondary lead to co-star. (It’s tantalizing, if fruitless, to imagine the movie with Lansbury squired by Ron Moody, who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict.) But where Poppins is light on its feet, emotionally plangent and possessed of a seemingly effortless charm, Bedknobs is, despite its magical elements, more earth-bound, less felicitous, and in general has less sentimental resonance than an average re-run of Lassie.
And yet… the restored Bedknobs and Broomsticks has much to recommend it, enough to overcome even the dreadfulness of the new dubbing. First, the presence of Angela Lansbury. This almost criminally under-utilized performer was given her finest and most taxing roles not in film (her acid-etched portrait of mother-love gone mad in The Manchurian Candidate excepted), in which she began, or on television, where she reigned for some time in the 1980s, but on Broadway. Bedknobs represents her only real, extensive opportunity to shine on the big screen, not merely as the star, but as a musical star, and is, perforce, eminently treasurable.
Roy Snart, Ian Weighill and Cindy O’Callaghan, the Cockney children Lansbury’s apprentice-witch is saddled with, are exceptionally well-cast, believable both as siblings and as War orphans, and never, as Disney tots alas tend, cloying. Tomlinson clearly had a high old time of it playing a rogue who would have given his own Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins the jim-jams, and Sam Jaffe makes a small repast of his appearance as the slightly sinister Bookman. Roddy McDowall, in his relatively brief but cunningly executed role as a nakedly avaricious country vicar, is especially welcome.; the restoration gives him greater prominence, which is useful, as the truncated version left one scratching one’s head, wondering why he was there at all. If only the great Welsh music-hall performer Tessie O’Shea, seen only in dialogue sequences as a firm but kindly postmistress, had been given a dance or two!
The true movie aficionado will also spot, in tiny roles — some indeed mere glimpses — beloved character actors such as the inimitably high-voiced Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes, Jr. of Poppins), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom of same), Cyril Delevanti (the beautiful old poet Nono of Night of the Iguana), and, somewhat shockingly, old John Ford hand Hank Worden, barely noticeable, singing as part of the seaside town’s Old Home Guard. The twinned live action/animation sequences, directed by the often brilliant Disney veteran Ward Kimball, are variable. The first, in which Lansbury et al. find themselves in an island lagoon, is charm itself. Crashing an underwater tea-dance, Lansbury and Tomlinson perform a delightfully — there’s no other word for it — fluid duet, in a Sherman Brothers number that is quite obviously the precursor and onlie begettor of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea,” cleverly orchestrated by Irwin Kostel in patented 1940s ballroom fashion.
The second is more problematic. The Shermans expected the follow-up sequence on the Island of Naboombu, wherein Tomlinson attempts to make off with the animated lion king’s enchanted medallion, to be musical, and penned a sleight-of-hand routine for the versatile actor. What the filmmakers presented them instead was a non-musical, mildly diverting, football game. (Helpfully if inappropriately translated for American audiences as “soccer.”) If you stop to analyze the set-up, you’re lost: Why would these animals, whether immortal or merely the descendants of the enchanted originals, and who explicitly bar humans from their refuge, even know what football is, let alone be mad for it? Why, indeed, are they dressed contemporaneously? Logic takes as much an un-jolly holiday as music here.
Far better, and nearly worth the entire restoration, is the preceding, and greatly extended, “Portobello Road” dance sequence, which Pauline Kael, while deploring the cuts, enthused over. Here, the faded work-prints were beautifully enhanced, especially in the delightful Jamaican section. Now at last that Kostel-arranged Overture makes sense, as we finally understand why the master orchestrator spiced it throughout with brief, ethnically derived riffs and quotations. It is as if MGM, in order to squeeze in an extra screening or two, had cut the “Broadway Melody” ballet from the release print of Singin’ in the Rain.
Watching this extended edition of the movie, you understand just how badly the Shermans were represented by the 1971 truncation. Doubly sad, as it was in a sense the brothers’ last hurrah for Disney, and that the movie, even at just under 2 hours, was a financial disappointment: $17 million domestic rentals on a $20 million budget. Fortunately, and somewhat balancing the ultimate loss of “A Step in the Right Direction,” the restoration reinstates the wistful Lansbury ballad “Nobody’s Problems,” an all-too-brief reprise of a longer, and un-filmed, number for the children.
It’s far too easy for cultural critics, especially today, to cynically dismiss the Shermans, but this snobbery does not admit of their innate and almost profligate musicality, their respect for narrative and characterization, and their sophisticated rhyming which is, somehow, both comprehensible to children and satisfying to adults simultaneously.
You try that trick.
I’ll time you.
*Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.
†I wonder if the people involved in this miserable venture were aware that nearly the entire dialogue soundtrack of the 1960 Swiss Family Robinson was re-dubbed after principal photography, due to terrible aural conditions on Tobago during the filming — and you’d never guess unless you knew. Even granted all the actors in that one were still very much alive, if it could be done so well then, why is it so damn difficult now?
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross