Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson)
Anyone for whom Walt Disney stands for the zenith of American animation in the ’30s and early ’40s can be excused for harboring a bit of resentment at how his creative restlessness sent him far afield of the medium and into other ideas during and after World War II. That disappointment can extend to theme parks, live action pictures, television programs, model trains and even this film, Mary Poppins, that for him represented the ultimate career-summarizing passion project and victory lap. At the same time, were Disney the type of person whose attention could be sustained for a lifetime by one specific fascination, his work probably wouldn’t have been so brilliant and revolutionary in the first place. If the animated features and shorts churned out by Disney’s studio hadn’t begun to suffer so obviously — never lacking in charm but seldom approaching the creative spark and energy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Dumbo — and if the animation industry in general hadn’t seemingly lost sight of its own potential by the 1960s, perhaps it would not feel to some obsessive types as a kind of betrayal.
It’s important to remember, though, that the entire crux of Walt Disney’s artistic output is that he wasn’t talking to us, meaning the nerds, buffs, devotees. He was talking to everybody. Toward the end of his life, with so many peaks and innovations behind him already, he arguably saw the adaptation of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins children’s novels as an outlet for everything he’d ever learned about entertaining people of all ages. He’d made numerous live action films already and had basically owned the American cultural zeitgeist more times than could be easily counted out, but Mary Poppins stands out on a singular basis as his largest-scale “prestige” project, at least apart from the commercial failure Fantasia. That’s “prestige” not in an elitist sense but in the manner that it was meant for judging eyes from all corners. Not a Disney film, not a kiddie film, a film; not a song-and-dance movie, a Hollywood musical; not Davy Crockett or The Absent Minded Professor or The Shaggy Dog — a star-driven spectacle to wow worldwide audiences.
The painstakingly crafted film that results indeed does restore some of the hushed excitement of Disney’s earliest features; all these years later it’s hard to distinguish its romantic evocations of childhood from the cultural impact it enjoyed and the individual hold it possesses on the memories of those who saw it constantly as a child (myself included), but in a markedly unforced way it captures the intense openness and willingness to view the world as a ball of endless promise that represents our earliest years at their best. Constant reaction shots of child actors Karen Dotric and the late Matthew Garber remind us whose perspective is really being related; Steven Spielberg would remember this sensibility almost twenty years later when he mounted E.T.‘s camera at a child’s eye-level. While hesitating to state its intentions outright, the screenplay by Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh easily manages to maintain this wonder while simultaneously leaving room for eye-popping visual and musical sequences, and for the covert story underneath all the fireworks and glitter of a couple of parents’ uncomfortable distance from their own children, an aspect that can sting and bite as easily as its conclusion warms the heart.
As if you don’t know already: Mary Poppins herself is a “practically perfect” nanny, stern and controlled but whimsical and kind, apparently enchanted and capable of all manner of supernatural do-goodery, and she literally blows away the competition when taking a job looking after the curious, slightly rambunctious children of a stuffy banker and his aloof suffragette wife in 1910 London. Once Poppins has the job, young Jane and Michael learn that cleaning and charity can be fun and how to get the attention of their daffy, distant father. The kids meet lots of oddball characters along the way, getting sung to about banking crises and imaginary words, but none more memorable than wiry jack-of-all-trades Bert, whose day to day life more or less approximates what Colin Meloy’s career will be like in fifteen years, working variously as a one-man band, chalk artist, film emcee and chimney sweep. If the subsequent parade of colors, moods, laughter and occasional fleeting melancholy has a flaw it’s that it’s rather overlong, likely modeling its luxurious pace on Broadway and stretching to nearly two and a half hours.
But while Poppins inherits the latter-day Disney problem of a strained, episodic structure — often feeling less like a coherent story than a series of distantly related threads — it’s also hard to imagine sacrificing any of its sections. It takes a good while to get started and revels a little too long in the horse race portion of the eye-popping animated sequence at the halfway point (with, to this day, some of the most seamless blending in cinema of human actors with two-dimensional drawings), and keeping Mary Poppins herself at such a regular distance makes it hard to take her seriously as a character… but perhaps that’s the idea, since she really only serves as an unreal catalyst for improving the lives of the children in her charge. The film’s best moments almost inevitably correspond to the Richard and Robert Sherman’s genuinely wonderful songs, the adorable “Perfect Nanny,” juggernauts “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and the Ed Wynn interlude “I Love to Laugh” overshadowed a bit by the unnerving “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” wherein a group of bank executives bid incessantly for a child’s money, the breezily beautiful “Chm Chim Cher-ee,” tremendous “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and the pair of Dick Van Dyke-led numbers, “Step in Time” and “Jolly Holiday.” Those last two, set on a stirringly attractive facsimile of the roofs of London and in a Nine Old Men-assisted chalk drawing come to life respectively, are the most exuberant moments in the film and therefore linger the longest after our departure. The tangential “Jolly Holiday” stretches on for a large chunk of the film’s midsection, yet it feels as if it could extend outward forever without complaint. Van Dyke’s dance with a quartet of animated penguins has nothing to do with anything, and is time-stoppingly perfect: one of those moments when Disney’s work achieves absolute transcendence in its tomfoolery.
Such detours, as is typical for musicals, do little to advance any sort of storytelling but allow the film to move beyond its narrative limitations — at the end of the film, like Fantasia before it, Mary Poppins comes to feel less like a story of a nanny restoring a family and more just a sensory experience. P.L. Travers was displeased with the picture’s softening of Poppins’ vanity and severity (though as an aside, she reminds me a lot of a music teacher I had who truly freaked me out, so I can’t totally agree) and with the use of the Shermans’ peppy, poppy music and Van Dyke’s gawking enthusiasm, envisioning a more somber experience. Disney would have been capable of making that film, but as with his extremely cheerful dilutions of A.A. Milne’s poetic Winnie the Pooh books, you can sympathize with the feeling that a work has been violated for commercialism but still feel as if the result is difficult to dispute, an act of magic of its own kind. And given how kiddie entertainment has devolved since 1964, looking at Mary Poppins and complaining that it’s too bombastic is rather a quaint line of argument today.
That’s partially because Mary Poppins doesn’t toe the boundaries that separate Disney’s audience from the larger world. You can sense his love of and confidence in the material, and if you stretch yourself enough to divorce it from its lofty reputation, you can also sense that it’s such a garden of delights as to be essentially foolproof, thanks in no small part to the ever-reliable director Robert Stevenson, who was always capable of molding scrappy fun out of even the most facile of Disney’s ideas, and he has no need to cover up for any deficiencies here. Disney’s quest to make a universally appealing movie is made all the more obvious through the casting. Julie Andrews was the wunderkind stage performer whose absence from George Cukor’s My Fair Lady had incited a furor. She was snubbed by Jack Warner in favor of Audrey Hepburn in the role of Eliza Dolittle that she’d defined on Broadway, and when Andrews received an Academy Award for her star-making performance in Poppins she made sure to thank Warner for making it possible. This is one of those tricks of timing and commercial motivation in Hollywood history that makes good films seem like such a miracle; Andrews so defines this larger-than-life part that it seems sacrilegious to picture anyone else in it.
Disney cast Andrews because of a stage production of Camelot, and aligning himself more closely with the regular people who were his bread and butter, cast Dick Van Dyke because of his long-running CBS sitcom. Although that show was largely driven by the unusually intelligent, partially autobiographical scripts by Carl Reiner and his staff, Van Dyke and the other cast members often got the chance to show off their chops as vaudevillian performers and physical comedians, and the show’s namesake regularly gave remarkably vivid and creative performances in these moments. Despite a legendarily terrible Cockney accent, his enthusiasm as a singer, dancer and effortlessly friendly persona glues the film together splendidly, without even acknowledging his dual part as a fossilized bank chairman. In supporting parts as the parents of the two central children, the always wonderful Glynis Johns steals her very few scenes and seems to almost explode with an enthusiasm that makes the wryly contained Andrews look even more like an intentionally backward picture-postcard of “proper” womanhood; and David Tomlinson’s Mr. Banks is nothing short of a miracle. A confused, vaguely belligerent patriarch whose life is founded on routine and order, he has no idea what to make of his children’s decidedly average inner lives until a disaster at work spurs his sense of the absurd. In most ways Banks’ arc is identical to that of Christopher Plummer’s Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, except that Tomlinson throws himself so thoroughly into both conflicting halves of his part that you sort of love the dry wit of his constant nervous chatter about “precision” as much as the burst of delightfully incongruous passion he exhibits during the kite number.
Mary Poppins is hard for me to judge objectively. I was a toddler when I first saw it, and it’s one of very few movies I recall watching repeatedly and tirelessly as a child. Its strange allure is enhanced by the roughly sixteen-year gap between finally retiring the videotape and revisiting the movie on DVD, then another eleven-year gap before I rewatched it for the Best Actress project. It’s fascinating how its peak moments have remained in my memory along with the vague feeling of sadness and despair at the first part of the “Tuppence” sequence and the visuals of a fake pre-war London, but even more fascinating how much of the rest of the film has fallen away despite my repeated exposure to it. I can say that it’s an absolute joy for me to see it again, but that its artfulness, grace and happy largeness of spirit move me in a very different way than Disney’s best films, which resonate entirely free of connection with my own previous experiences of them. I have no trouble saying that I love The Jungle Book more than I would have had I not loved it as a child; and, conversely, that Dumbo and Pinocchio and the best Mickey Mouse and Goofy cartoons would thrill me even if they did not exist until now. Mary Poppins is somewhere between, and it’s very tricky to judge whether my fondness for it is born of genuine love or of nostalgia.
It’s best perhaps to leave it at these statements: that “Jolly Holiday” is a perfect Disney twist on the most ingratiating aspects of every Hollywood musical, that the film overall is not manipulative, crass, lazy or dull in the least, that it still feels eventful and momentous, and that it’s blissful to live in its world and its time for a couple of hours. Yes, that time and culture it springs from was comparatively unjust and frightening, making it hard to wish for a return to it, but isn’t our own time often still both? All this humor and frivolity are a kind of balm, stirring up something deep in me that may again have nothing to do with the film itself. But when nothing else gives you quite that same feeling, you do have to wonder.
[Thanks to Amber Morris, who while we watched this last night made two jokes that I brazenly stole for this review, and without permission to boot.]