I @#$%ing love Mary Poppins (1964), man. Both the character and the movie. Like, unironically, unabashedly - there is not one thing I do not like in Mary Poppins. It is, as they say, practically perfect in every way. As is Julie Andrews.
|Your blogger in 2013 at Disneyland, genuinely jazzed to see Mary Poppins parading by|
I have a pretty good memory for the circumstances under which I saw a surprising number of movies from my kidhood when it comes to seeing them in the theater. Somewhere at the top of that list was when my parents took me to see Mary Poppins during its 1980 re-release (just before home video ended the era of the Disney film re-releases and introduced the notion of the "Disney Vault", I guess).* I'm 90% sure both my parents were there and that Jason and I sat in the row behind my folks at a Saturday matinee.
What I really remember was just loving the movie. Sure, I sorta got the message about Mr Banks needing rescuing and all that, but I was five and mostly into Dick Van Dyke's dancing, the crazy cartoon blending with live action, the Admiral's ship-house, chimney sweep dance numbers and Mary Poppins' bag of mystery.
Did I think what was up with the Banks family echoed my own family? Not really. The Admiral and KareBear made ample time for us and were out there flying kites with us without the prodding of shadowy mystical forces to push them in the right direction.
Of course you get older and a Disney movie with singing and dancing you saw in your short-pants days seems like a whole lotta nothing and its been 10 years since you last watched more than a clip of the movie, and then - in college - I remember the first small thing was that I saw a reference or two to Mary Poppins in comics by Neil Gaiman, which I found... interesting. Then it came on TV one day when I was hanging out with Steanso, and the next thing I knew, we'd watched the whole movie, agreeing that it was kind of an incredible bit of movie making.
A hook for me at the time was the realization that in this Disney movie, decades before Harry Potter made the notion of wizards living among mundane people a thing - Mary Poppins took more or less the same tack but stayed with the real world, making her all the more wondrous, not part of a tapestry. Mary, Bert (Dick Van Dyke's character), chimney sweeps and even the dog, Andrew, all seem to be living among people but within a sort of shadow side of what we know.
As Bert sings/ explains:
Up where the smoke is all billowed and curled / 'Tween pavement and stars is the chimney sweep world / When there's hardly no day, nor hardly no night / There's things half in shadow and halfway in light / On the rooftops of London / Coo, what a sight!
It's not a dark world Bert is talking about - he's telling the kids there's more to life and all they can see from a new perspective, a lovely world that the chimney sweeps know of and keep to themselves.
What Mary's place is in this world is unclear, but she's much beloved among these folks, and she and Bert seem to have a sort of romantic understanding that is, let's be honest, charming as hell, however it's working.
The movie would lose its power if it fell into actually defining anything - all we need to know is that the Banks family is being assisted by Mary Poppins, whomever she may be. But this same echo of vaguely-described magic just on the periphery is something certainly Neil Gaiman has played with in his comics and novel work and I'll suggest is so ingrained in the culture and has been since 1964, I can't imagine it hasn't had influence here and there even subconsciously.
On the concrete side, the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks is a curiously brave thing for Disney to have put out there as it is far from showing Walt Disney as a flawless man, and makes it clear that original Mary Poppins author PL Travers never liked anything about what Disney did with her property - the movie practically asking people to go read the original material (while balancing that we know Mary Poppins today thanks to the movie and that, hey, it's okay to like either or both). That Mr. Banks of this movie is desperately in need of intervention is certainly true, at least in context of this film.
In truth, the script of Mary Poppins doesn't make a world of sense. The first portion establishes the characters and issues, and then Mr. Banks kind of drops out of sight as the movie detours into delighting the children for a good chunk of time before remembering - oh yeah, we have to make sure the family winds up happy at the end. It makes for an odd bifurcation in the narrative, tone and pacing. I'm not sure that actually bothers anyone, but it's something I notice now that I remember feeling was a major mood changer when I was a little kid.
The movie has some interesting throw-away bits that I didn't quite grok as a kid watching a period piece. Mrs. Banks (a lovely Glynis Johns) is a British Suffragette, and its hard to say how seriously we're to take her efforts - because I'm not sure the movie knows. She certainly seems flighty, but they don't make fun of the idea of women voting. All the better as the actual history of British Suffragettes is way more messed up than what women in America endured as they sought the vote (the English Suffragettes were more militant, and the authorities were much more likely to respond with force and prison).
It's impossible to imagine any other casting in the movie, including the maid, the cook, the constable, the Admiral, etc... Even Elsa Lanchester shows up in her character-actor heyday as the current nanny who is putting in her resignation effective immediately (which does seem odd that they sell the Banks kids as hellions when they seem like charming little moppets).
It's tough to say exactly how David Tomlinson was cast as Mr. Banks, but... can you imagine anyone else? The man also has to go through a hell of an arc in the movie, and with a minimum of dialog to carry him, you can see everything he's going through conveyed in expression. And when he switches from strict, uptight man of the gentry to understanding the joy of going to fly a kite, well, it's not nothing.
We can't avoid talking Bert - played by Dick Van Dyke. And, yeah, he's a terrible Englishman. But he's also a terrific force in a film full of stagey artifice. If his accent is off, if he comes off as maybe a bit outside how things are "supposed" to work... isn't Bert also sorta this way, anyway? I mean - it's an excuse, but...
And Mary Poppins herself.
Here's a mindblower: this was Julie Andrews's first movie. She was a stage actor in Camelot and caught Disney's attention there so he hired her.
As a character, Mary Poppins is incredibly specific, which - when we've all grown up with Mary Poppins and we all know her as well as any character from media, is kind of wild. She has no real precursor characters I can think of, she's her own archetype, and she's a wild bag of contradictions, illusions and of mysterious motivation. As a kid, I didn't get that she was being "mock" stern with Michael and Jane - just took it for granted, not getting yet that the adults in my own life were sometimes playing straight when they wanted me to shape up. She seems terribly proper, but delights in working the edges of that propriety. And, of course, her messages to the children of kindness, of giving, of maybe not getting locked into the path their father imagines are all really intended to shake things up in family management.
That Julie Andrews pulled all of this off is remarkable and I'll be curious to see what Emily Blunt does in the upcoming sequel.
We won't close without mentioning the folks behind the movie. Mary Poppins is, after all, a musical. Of late, Disney has made a point of putting Richard Sherman of the Robert and Richard Sherman Bros. songwriting team front and center, allowing them to receive the public acclaim they deserve. Every dang song in this movie is a show stopper and a classic, and not just because of repetition.
The entire movie is shot on a soundstage, so Cherry Street, those rooftops, all of it - it's all imagined and designed. And what wasn't live action was the product of some of the finest animators to work on the Disney lot. The character animation in just the barnyard scene is out of this world, but the Penguin Dancing sequence isn't just neat because Dick Van Dyke dances with cartoons - the animation of those penguins is wonderfully conceived, with the penguins showing character and personality. It's just great stuff.
Anyway - Mary Poppins, y'all. I'm honestly excited about the sequel - I think Disney maybe can pull this off, and Blunt seems to have Mary Poppins down to a T in the trailer. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I'll be there to check it out. And, if it's terrible, well... I have this window to think it'll be great.
*I also saw Robin Hood, Song of the South, Pinnochio and other Disney films in the theater as a kid.