Watching childhood favorites for the first time as an adult is an iffy proposition, as not everything I enjoyed as a kid stands up. But Mary Poppins not only holds up marvelously, it's better when seen from the other side of adulthood. Set in pre-WWI England and shown to pre-Vietnam kids who would soon be eligible for the draft, the movie tackles hard, adult questions but doesn't pretend to know any answers. Work ethic, discipline and tradition are important, but take a back seat to being part of your children's lives. The film is so well written that the Disneyeque ending doesn't seem tacked on or false. The music is as good as ever. Unless they snuck in an Easter Egg, I've now seen everything on both the main disc and the Bonus Disc.
Theme and Exegesis
When it comes to Movies That Are Better Than The Book, Mary Poppins is #1, #2 and #3.
I haven't seen the movie in over forty years, though I've heard the soundtrack a zillion times. I forgot just how magical it is, and how well the themes are developed and explored without a wasted motion. No villains! The protagonist is the father, who is a good man trying to do well by his family and largely succeeding... but needs Mary Poppins to show him where his true path lies. Extraordinary.
Where the PL Travers books are about a "mysterious, vain and acerbic magical English nanny", the movie is about What It Means To Be A Father. The books were written and take place in the 1930s but the film goes back to an earlier period. Disney had been negotiating for a film since 1938, and only when book sales declined in the 1950s did she agree, under certain conditions. Travers is listed as "Consultant" to the film, which has lots of scenes right from the books and more inspired by them. She had script approval, and insisted that Mary Poppins would be live action. Disney had to assure her his studios could handle a live-action film, and Mary Poppins is his first, though the animated underpinings still show. (It's been a long time since I read the books as well, inspired to so so by the film.) (Hmm... now that I think of it, Mary Poppins could teach at Hogwarts or be a Hufflepuff painting...)
Just how much the movie hangs together is a revelation. Indeed, the movie's theme, about fatherhood and responsibility vs. childhood and having fun, is summed up by a little verse in "A Spoonful of Sugar", featuring a duet between Mary Poppins and a bird (whistling by Andrews) and lyric repeated as a duet between Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins (in a mirror):
A robin feathering his nest
has very little time to rest
while gathering his bits of twine and twig.
While so intent in his pursuit
he has a merry tune to toot.
He knows (he knows)
A song (a song)
Will move the day along.
This is a the lesson taught to Jane and Michael but foreshadowed early in the movie and learned the hard way by George Banks (and Mr. Dawes, Jr.). All the themes collapse on an emotional climax. Ingmar Bergman, eat your heart out.
Dick van Dyke's dancing and comic mugging are great. (Some Brits complain about his accent, which is well taken, though even at nine I knew it was an exaggeration. Did the over-the-top accents in Fargo add or subtract from the experience?) Riding high with The Dick van Dyke Show, he could claim (as does the commentary) to be "the funniest man on Earth" at the time. Certainly, one of them.
The 1964 special effects, audio animatronics and animation creak a bit, but just let the lush photography and constant movement wash over you. The long shots of London are amazing. The costumes and many of the sets were done by Tony Walton (Julie Andrew's husband at the time) and take you back to pre-WWI England. The music is marvelous, the best Disney ever, which is saying a lot.
Some of the themes are a bit subversive. Mary Poppins is set in 1910 England, not far after the Victorian era, though made in the early days of the feminist revolution. In the books, the mother doesn't do much, but in the movie she prepares to throw rotten tomatoes at the Prime Minister to help women get the vote. My one Wiscon in 1989 kept reminding me of the lyric to "Sister Suffragettes": "Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they're rather stupid." Since Wiscon didn't follow that up with a great moral lesson about self-discovery through kite flying, I never went back. I daresay Mary Poppins raised the consciousness of more women (and more men) than more strident tracts.
Bert, Mary and the kids enter the world of a sidewalk chalk drawing, and encounter a foxhunt, where the aristocrats go after a small lower-class fox (you can tell by the accents). Guess which side Bert is on?
The father wants the son to invest his tuppence in a bank, but the kid wants to feed the birds. Guess which side Mary Poppins is on?
Composer Richard Sherman (in the commentary) says, "This song is Mary Poppins' magnum opus of mind control. By planting the seeds of social responsibility in Jane and Michael's heads, she knows that havoc will reign... her magic doesn't even look like magic. She's just singing another lullaby."
The psycho-social dynamic of a changing language is tackled head on:
No points for a correct guess. I bet you can sing it now. Go ahead, you know you want to.
How much of a paradigm shift was "I Love To Laugh", detailing differences in autonomic reactions (and promoting a desire for nitrous oxide)? I suspect this one song changed people watching forever. And helped some along their career path: After seeing Uncle Albert, wouldn't you want to float in space and express pure joy?
Nothing can truly said to be in the popular consciousness unless parodied by The Simpsons, And Mary Poppins gets a whole Simpsons episode. Lovingly cruel, the cartoon rips the movie to shreds (among other swipes). The episode can probably be enjoyed without seeing the movie first, but why?
Messages For Parents In The 1960s
Most Disney films are about the children, and Mary Poppins is no exception. But where most are about the children growing up, this film is about the father growing into his role. After the Leave It To Beaver 1950s (which weren't nearly as purely white-bread as sound-bite nostalgia says), by the 1960s the Baby Boom Generation was in full swing. The earliest Boomers would have been 18 when Mary Poppins came out; the biggest Boomer year was 1960. Kids of roughly Jane and Michael's age were a huge portion of the population, magnifying parenting problems creating new child rearing strategies. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the 1946 best seller by Dr. Benjamin Spock, was the new bible, and his subsequent books were on almost every parents' bookshelves.
Spock's books are full of practical medical advice, but they also give confidence to the parent: You can do it. The movie advocates everything from getting kids to do their chores by making a game out of it to putting them to sleep by telling them to "Stay Awake", but always with love. If you care enough, and listen to your children and chimney sweeps and don't get too wrapped up in your job, your kids will be okay.
At the end, it's not just about being a father, it's about being a son: Both Michael and "the younger Dawes" do right by their sire.
Soundtrack CD and Two-disk DVD
According to the Sherman Brothers interview on the Mary Poppins soundtrack CD, Walt Disney's favorite Disney song is also my favorite Disney song: "Feed The Birds". It's a simple, haunting song of charity and empathy. For a hard-won tuppence, Michael Banks can feed the birds (who are trying to feed their "young ones", just like his father is taking care of him) and help out the Bird Woman on the steps of St. Paul's. The DVD comments on this song are illuminating (see above for one).
While the allowances of an fictional upper class child don't necessarily map to today's purchasing power, I decided to try to find out what that might mean. According to measuringworth.com (via jrittenhouse), two pence in 1910 = £3.00 of average earnings in 2005 and with £1= $1.82, Michael is donating $5.46 to feed the birds (and help out a homeless lady) rather than start an investment account. Probably a large amount to a kid, but hardly anything to a family that can afford a huge house and three live-in servants, emphasizing the father's rigidity.
The DVD comes with commentaries recorded separately by numerous people, including audio clips from Walt Disney and Music Supervisor Irwin Kostal, and others who weren't around at the time of the DVD. Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke reminisce, Richard Sherman (one of the song writers) and Karen Dotrice (Jane) fill in tidbits, and the whole thing is edited together especially well. You get history, behind the scenes gossip and they point out little details which get lost (like the guy sitting on the bench blowing smoke rings that even Dick van Dyke never noticed and Julie Andrews just spotted).
The text options include several language and one that has boxes with Fun Facts, which are surprisingly informative. (The Bird Lady on the steps of St. Paul was Jane Darwell, who played Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath, but writer Bill Walsh voiced her two lines; the scary lady with one line as the children are running from the bank played Cruella deVille in 101 Dalmatians; PL Travers suggested several lines that were used and insisted that she was always "Mary Poppins" and never "Mary".) It ends with a Walt Disney quote: "I don't make films for children. I make films children are not embarrassed to take their parents to."
The Bonus Disc has a wide range of materials, including: A 2004 Mary Poppins story adaptation (with a live Julie Andrews and animation featuring the voices of David Ogden Stiers and Tracey Ullman), "The Cat That Looked At A King". A short deleted scene (really an outtake of Julie Andrews yodeling that wasn't used). A song that nearly made it into the movie ("Chimpanzoo"). Several good featurettes from cast and crew. Some nifty behind-the-scenes magic. Walt Disney gets praised a lot. The Sherman brothers tell stories behind and in front of many of the musical numbers. Two animated songs are "deconstructed" by flipping between the live action with no background, the animation and the combination. Mary Poppins is more than the sum of its parts, and you get a sense of how much work and genius went into the film. A lovely package.
Mary Poppins is my favorite musical, beating out The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which probably tells you altogether too much about me) and one of my favorite movies of all time. It's not perfect, but I'd be hard pressed to point out where it's less than sublime. I'll give the practically perfect nanny a practically perfect score, and round up to perfect for the DVD extras. On the Shockwave Radio Theater rating of 9 to 23, Mary Poppins steps in time to a 23. What a great movie.