Confession time: when I was a child I wanted to be British. Well, what can one expect? With famous film adaptations of children’s literature such as Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty, and Winnie the Pooh, how could any Disney doused young person not desire to be English? I grew up in the Southern California suburbs. I wanted double-decker buses, monarchy, and magic. When I finally got to England and wardrobes didn’t lead to Narnia and nannies didn’t fly, I was heartbroken. I had to fall in love with new things about England: the wit, the countryside, the history. But before that transition, one of the movies that greatly fostered my childhood Anglophilia was Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Not among the most famous of childhood fantasy movies, it’s garnered a cult following in the forty-plus years since its release. Let’s take a look at it, shall we?
International icon Angela Lansbury is Eglantine Price, your average spinster living in wartime England. She has a cat named Cosmic Creepers, picks up broomstick-sized packages in the village, and is undergoing a step-by-step course in witchcraft. To hopefully aid the war effort, she’s been studying under the remote tutelage of a man by the name of Emelius Browne, the headmaster of the Correspondence College of Witchcraft. And as so many did during World War II, Ms. Price has reluctantly allowed three displaced children into her home. There is the oldest son Charlie, middle-sister Carrie, and youngest boy Paul.
Both children and guardian are skeptical of each other at first, especially after the children see her crash land the aforementioned broomstick in the middle of the night. After a few more parlor tricks, Ms. Price offers the children (to shut them up more than anything else) an enchanted bed knob. A few twists and an incantation will transport the bed, and whomever is on it, to wherever they desire. Bad luck befalls Ms. Price when her correspondence with Mr. Browne is swiftly brought to a halt. Determined to find out the rest of the lessons, and to give him a piece of her mind, Ms. Price instructs Paul, with whom she’s entrusted the bed knob, to fire up the bed to take them all to Mr. Browne. In the movie’s most poignant scene, as the children and Ms. Price ready the bed for travel, skeptic Charlie doesn’t believe the bed will go anywhere. Ms. Price sings him the eternally relevant “The Age of Not Believing.” As an adult, I can’t say I didn’t get a little misty-eyed at rehearing it after so many years.
After discovering Mr. Browne is a con artist who tramps around Portobello Road, it’s pretty clear the only thing left for them to do is find the rest of the book from which he was getting his lessons. They succeed, and it’s glorious. Not only is the Portobello Road sequence one of the most underrated musical numbers in film history, the most famous of the film’s songs, The Beautiful Briny Sea, has actually become a classic. Angela Lansbury even sung it at Emma Thompson’s house the children and parents all in tears.
The make-shift family travels to a magical, animated island to search for the spell of substitutiary locomotion, the ability to make inanimate objects move. The spell is on the star that hangs around a king lion’s neck. Unable to bring it into this world, Paul, who is magical in his own right, saves the day when the words are written in his comic book. In a glorious climax, Ms. Price brings to life an entire army of knights’ armor and quashes the invasion of the Nazis. However, in so doing, she loses her power.
This movie is wonderful for so many reasons. First, as hinted at before, this isn’t a movie about the nuclear family. It’s about the family you end up with. A spinster, a con artist, and three evacuated siblings end up forming a bond that is as close as blood family. Second, the theme of the film’s movie is that the smallest of efforts can help the larger cause. Ms. Price wants to help England in her own way, and if that’s through actual witchcraft, then so be it. Everyone does there part. And third, this movie is steeped in pagan ritual. Not once is Christ or Christianity mentioned in the film. The spell given for substitutiary locomotion is engraved around a pentagram. Ms. Price is a witch, full stop. She rides a broom, has a black cat, and flies against the moon. None of the characters in this movie are hung up on Christian values.
Too often compared to Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks has never gotten the true attention it deserves. In fact, The Beautiful Briny Sea was a Mary Poppins throw away song. The Sherman brothers did the rest of the music as well. There is no grand plan to get the children and their father back together, no snappy magical nanny who can step in and out of chalk drawings. Maybe not the most famous of Disney’s movies, the message of Bedknobs and Broomsticks is still as simple as taking a white rabbit out of a hat: “You must face the age of not believing, doubting everything you ever knew, until at last you start believing there’s something wonderful in you.”