Disney Cartoon #39: A Condensed History of the Continually-Condensed Releases of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (October 7, 1971) - published October 1, 2011
by Albert Gutierrez
Forty years ago, Walt Disney World opened its gates to the public, and From Screen to Theme celebrated with a "40 Years in 40 Days" countdown that had its own grand finale today. Here at Saturday Matinee, we'll be celebrating another special milestone from 1971. A mere six days after the opening of Walt Disney World, the studio premiered their biggest film of the year: Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It was a spectacular fantasy/musical with memorable special effects and animation, and its premiere would be the first and last time the film was presented in its true entirety. The release history of Bedknobs and Broomsticks is quite complex. Over the years, I've tried to piece together a definitive list of changes and restorations, even watching the theatrical version side by side with the 1996 restoration and noting every change. Don't worry, I won't recreate that entire list. A fair amount is listed on imdb, although my list contained a few additional changes. Every time I think I have a "complete" answer, new information turns up that I wasn't aware of. Therefore, while this Saturday Matinee is celebrating Bedknobs and Broomsticks and addressing all its changes, please don't consider it a "final word" on the matter.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks had its London premiere on October 7, 1971, and ran approximately 137 minutes (despite claims of 139 or 150 minutes). This can be considered the original roadshow version, and is also the fullest version with the original audio and video intact. While the London version was the longest, it was missing "A Step in the Right Direction," a song Eglantine sings after she gets her first broom. Orchestrations were not yet completed for the song, and the filmmakers opted to leave the number out of the premiere, with the intent on having the song re-instated for the U.S. premiere and theatrical run. However, when the film did have its U.S. premiere, on December 13 at Radio City Music Hall, "A Step in the Right Direction" was still excluded, even though orchestrations were now complete. In addition, several scenes were shortened or removed, including two-and-a-half songs ("With a Flair", Eglantine's "Don't Let Me Down" portion of "Eglantine," and "Nobody's Problems"), and a sizable chunk of the "Portobello Road" dancing. Most notably, minor character of Reverend Jelk (played by Roddy McDowall) had his screen time greatly diminished to a mere two scenes. This version of the film ran for 117 minutes. Radio City Music Hall needed the film to be less than two hours in order to fit it on a double-bill with The Rocketts' live performance. Up until 1996, subsequent theatrical releases of the film were getting shorter and shorter.
When Bedknobs and Broomsticks was re-released to theatres in 1979, further cuts were made. I haven't seen that version of the film in years, though it had been the one used on in television syndication over the years. I once had a copy of it (along with the syndicated television version of Pete's Dragon), but accidentally taped over them with a week's worth of "All My Children" episodes in 2003. Online sources note that all the songs - excluding "Portobello Road" and "Beautiful Briny Sea" - were cut, and more scenes were shortened, resulting in a film that only ran 98 minutes long. Across the pond, the German version of the film ran even shorter: 89 minutes. The changes for the 1971 Radio City version were still intact, but once the characters returned from the Isle of Naboombu, the film ended. The entire Nazi subplot (essentially the final act of the film) had been deleted.
When it came to home video, Disney used the 117-minute Radio City edit. It was the only complete version they had, as it was widely believed that the cut footage from the London premiere was lost. Bedknobs and Broomsticks first saw life as a rental VHS in the early 80s, featuring a very unoriginal cover seen here, along with two additional VHS releases in the 1990s that fortunately used slightly-superior artwork:
Even more fortunate were the studio's plans for the film's twenty-fifth anniversary. "A Step in the Right Direction" was always included on the original soundtrack album, as were "With a Flair" and the "Don't Let Me Down" portion of "Eglantine." Interested in re-instating "A Step in the Right Direction" to the film, Scott MacQueen (then-head of the studio's restoration team) launched a restoration project for the film. Thus, the 1996 Restoration was born. Initially, it was to only include "A Step in the Right Direction," as they had the audio (thanks to the soundtrack album) and now needed to find the film elements. Soon, the restoration team found most of the cut film elements from the 1971 London premiere. And in a twist, the audio elements for the dialogue was missing, though the music and effects track was still intact.
Because the dialogue tracks were missing, Angela Lansbury and Roddy McDowall were called in to re-dub their own voices. Additional voice artists were also brought in to dub for Professor Brown, the Rawlins children, Mrs. Hobday, and Captain Greer. There were some slight hiccups in the dubbing (notably Mrs. Hobday's changing accent and Charlie sounding about five years younger), but for the most part, it did its job and matched well with the existing audio. Likewise, most of the film elements that were restored are seamless and the same quality as the film, but a very small portion of footage in the "Portobello Road" dance is a noticeably inferior quality. We should be thankful the film still existed at all, even in its poor workprint form. And the efforts that the team went through to ensure it looks its best is still amazing, even for a restoration project that was fifteen years ago:
Ironically, throughout the entire restoration, the team still could not find the film elements for "A Step in the Right Direction," the very sequence that prompted the project in the first place. Instead, surviving photographs were sequenced together with the audio track as a supplement to the film, and not integrated into the film itself. I would still love to see "Step" in all its glory, but I don't mind its exclusion from the film. After all, none of the theatrical releases included it, and while it is a very nice song, the scene works well without it. Plus, we have lovely instrumentals for the song playing when Eglantine is flying for the first time, and they more than make up for the lack of the original song.
The 1996 restoration is now considered the "official" cut of the film, but most television airings are still in the 117-minute theatrical form. I've still kept a 2008 broadcast from Turner Classic Movies, which I've often consulted for comparison purposes. The only times I've seen Bedknobs and Broomsticks in the 139-minute restoration has been on Disney Channel, but those airings stopped sometime after the "Vault Disney" programming block was discontinued. Fortunately, the 1996 version is what is now most widely available on home video: the 1997 VHS and Laserdisc (which curiously offers the film in 1.33:1 open-matte rather than the theatrical 1.75:1 ratio), the 2001 DVD (the best version to get as it has the most supplements), and the 2009 DVD (the most recent version to get, but it loses some 2001 supplements). There's no word yet on when the film will reach Blu-Ray. I hope that by then, the archives will have been turned inside out and we'll find the film elements for "A Step in the Right Direction." And since I'm dreaming, I hope they also find the original audio tracks for the 20 minutes of re-instated footage, mainly so I don't need to hear fake-voice-Charlie say "mango wuzzle" once more.