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Unveiling a Polished-Up ‘Bedknobs’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blame it on Radio City Music Hall.

Back in 1971, Walt Disney Pictures had booked its lavish family musical “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” into New York’s famous movie palace. But Radio City issued a decree: The film had to be under two hours because it was to be packaged with the theater’s elaborate stage show.

So more than 20 minutes were excised from the big-budget fantasy to give it a running time of 117 minutes. That’s the version that now exists on video too (although the film was cut by nearly 20 minutes more for a theatrical re-release in 1979).

But thanks to detective work by Disney’s Scott McQueen, 23 minutes have been restored, and the film will be shown Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Disney Channel.

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The presentation will be hosted by Angela Lansbury, who stars in “Bedknobs” as Eglantine Price, a wealthy, eccentric spinster who lives in a tiny coastal village in World War II England. Eglantine is taking a correspondence course in witchcraft in order to help win the war over Germany.

David Tomlinson (“Mary Poppins”) plays con man Emelius Browne, who falls for Eglantine, and Roddy McDowall is an amorous cleric who wants to marry Eglantine for her money. The film, which, like “Mary Poppins,” combined live-action and animation, featured a spritely score from the “Poppins” team of Richard and Robert Sherman.

The cuts to make the movie less than two hours entailed reducing McDowall’s role to one minute and eliminating two Lansbury tunes--a big production number called “A Step in the Right Direction” and the charming little song “Nobody’s Problems for Me.” The spirited “Portobello Road” number was reduced from about 10 minutes to three.

“There were some very bad lapses of continuity in the original,” Lansbury notes. “People complained about it.”

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Nevertheless, she says “Bedknobs” is hugely popular with Generation Xers and a whole new generation of youngsters.

“I can’t tell you how many mothers have said to me, ‘I can keep my kid quiet for two days watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” ’ which is very charming. I had a difficult time getting my mouth around [the title]. It was so amazing to me so many people did get their mouths around it and remembered it.”

When McQueen, Disney’s senior manager of library restoration, came aboard in 1991, he thought it was only “A Step in the Right Direction” that needed to be found and restored. But when he pulled the shooting script from the archives, he discovered the other sequences that had been cut.

After ordering up “Bedknobs” picture elements from the archives, he found several missing sequences in the original work prints. Included were scenes featuring McDowall and co-stars Tessie O’Shea and Arthur E. Gould-Porter, as well as sequences from “Portobello Road,” Tomlinson’s fun solo “With a Flair” and “Nobody’s Problems for Me.”

“But those work prints were very scratchy and the color had faded,” McQueen says. “My next step was to pull the original protection masters. Whenever a film is made, very soon after it gets to the final post-production stage, copies are made in case anything happens to the negative.”

McQueen asked for everything labeled “Bedknobs” in the archives. “We went through it all, hand-testing it for content,” he says. But the search proved fruitless.

Thanks to the keen eyes of one of the men working in the archives, however, 20 more cans were unearthed that had been erroneously marked “TV Lifts,” “implying they were special sequences for a TV version.”

Instead, McQueen says, “they were missing pieces of the camera negative.”

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In some instances, though, the matching audio tracks were missing. So McQueen brought in Lansbury and McDowall to redo some of their lines and hired voice actors to imitate the late O’Shea, the three child stars who played Cockney orphans living with Eglantine, and Tomlinson, who is in his 80s and lives in England.

One minute of “Portobello Road” was missing from the negative, McQueen says. So that sequence was replaced with the faded, scratchy work print, which they were able to improve with photo chemicals and digital technology.

McQueen also consulted composer Richard Sherman to make sure he kept the restoration faithful to the filmmakers’ original intent. McQueen, in fact, was uncertain about including “Nobody’s Problems for Me,” because the underscoring had never been recorded. All McQueen had were Lansbury’s vocals with a piano accompaniment.

“I thought maybe we should leave it on the side, but Dick was adamant with me. He said they wanted it in. It was only because of the meddling that went on that they didn’t score it. The song is proper there. It really sets up the whole last act.”

For all McQueen’s efforts, however, “Bedknobs” is still not in its original form. He and his staff never found the missing footage of “A Step in the Right Direction.”

“It’s just not among any of the other material we found,” McQueen says. “It’s a mystery.”

* The restored “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Disney Channel.


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