#340) Mary Poppins (1964)

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#340) Mary Poppins (1964)

OR “The Umbrella Movement”

Directed by Robert Stevenson

Written by Bill Walsh & Don DaGradi. Based on the books by P.L. Travers. Songs by Richard & Robert Sherman

Class of 2013

The Plot: In Edwardian London, George & Winifred Banks (David Tomlinson & Glynis Johns) are having difficulty hiring a nanny for their children Jane & Michael (Karen Dotrice & Matthew Garber). One day the east wind brings the arrival of Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), a no-nonsense woman full of surprises in her bottomless carpetbag. Accompanied by resident jack-of-all-trades Bert (Dick Van Dyke), Mary and the children have several magical adventures/catchy musical numbers. But can Mary’s magic bring the Banks family back together?

Why It Matters: Someone at the NFR really likes “Mary Poppins”, praising, among other things, “a witty script, an inventive visual style and a slate of classic songs”.

But Does It Really?: As with many a Disney movie, it’s hard for me to be completely objective with “Mary Poppins”. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I’m happy to say that I watched most of the movie with a big grin on my face. “Poppins” still works as an entertaining family fantasy, aided by a surprisingly smart script, appealing lead performances by Andrews and Van Dyke, and a song score with no weak link. “Mary Poppins” is an iconic musical that only gets better with age, and another no-brainer for the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: This is the only NFR appearance for longtime Disney staples Stevenson, Walsh, DaGradi, and the Sherman Brothers. Among the cast members: Comedy legends Dick Van Dyke and Ed Wynn, Oscar nominee Hermione Baddeley, and fish and chips namesake Arthur Treacher.

Wow, That’s Dated: Shoutout to Peter Ellenshaw: those matte paintings might date this film, but they are works of art.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Mary Poppins” was the biggest hit of Walt Disney’s career, and found itself in direct competition at the Oscars with another Edwardian era musical: Warner Bros.’ “My Fair Lady”. “Poppins” led with 13 nominations, with “Lady” close behind with 12. “Lady” was the big winner of the night with eight Oscars, including Best Picture, but “Poppins” still took home five. Being passed over for “My Fair Lady” helped Julie Andrews win Best Actress, and “Poppins” won additional prizes for Editing, Special Effects, Original Score, and Original Song (“Chim-Chim-Cheree”).

Other notes

  • The entire song score is justifiably iconic, but special mention must go to orchestrator Irwin Kostal, who turns the songs into character motifs that enhance and enrich the film.
  • It’s a good thing Dick Van Dyke is so charming, because that atrocious Cockney accent lives up to its notoriety. Were none of the film’s British cast members willing to give pointers?
  • Not primarily known as a singer, Glynis Johns is nevertheless best remembered for her performance of “Sister Suffragette” (and a certain oft-covered show tune). But why is the song cut off? There were literally two notes left!
  • It’s a slight departure from Travers’ characterization, but Julie Andrews has a nice handle on Mary Poppins. Julie’s performance is remembered as sweet, but she’s more strict and curt than people seem to remember. It’s only at the end that Disney gives Mary some uncharacteristic sentimentality.
  • It’s mostly process shots, but the effects in “Spoonful of Sugar” are still a lot of fun to watch.
  • How can you not love “Jolly Holliday”? A catchy song topped off with inspired animation and an enchanting penguin dance number. That being said, the verse about Mary and Bert being platonic isn’t fooling anyone. Those two did it and you know it.
  • “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is not only the film’s most iconic number; it’s also the word to say when you can’t think of what superlative to give “Mary Poppins”. Julie and Dick sell the song, but they’re no DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
  • Damn it Mary, stop gaslighting the kids!
  • That’s Jane Darwell (Ma Joad from “The Grapes of Wrath”) in her final film role as the Bird Woman. Walt Disney personally coaxed Darwell out of retirement to play the part. Oddly enough, her one line of dialogue is dubbed.
  • Dick Van Dyke successfully lobbied Walt to play a second role, bank chairman Mr. Dawes Sr. The old-age makeup is quite convincing (to the point where the child actors didn’t know who it was), and more peculiar, Van Dyke’s British accent is far less obtrusive than his Cockney one.
  • “Chim-Chim-Cheree” is a fun song and Bert’s unofficial motif, but the Oscar for Best Song? There are at least three other songs in the score I would have given the award to over this one.
  • Why is all the furniture covered during the final part of “Step in Time”? Are the Banks moving?
  • David Tomlinson is clearly relishing Mr. Banks’ Scrooge moment at the end. As they say, cast for the third act.
  • Has anyone else noticed that Mary Poppins doesn’t have much to do in the third act? She has the day off, her only song is a brief duet with Bert, and it’s Bert who helps Mr. Banks see the error of his ways, not Mary. And once we get to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, all Mary does is leave. Poppins is doing the bare minimum I expect from my title character.

Legacy

  • “Mary Poppins” was a runaway hit for Disney, and both Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke became overnight movie stars. In fact, Andrews secured her next movie, “The Sound of Music”, during “Poppins” when Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman saw some early rushes.
  • Walt Disney used the profits from “Poppins” to start secretly purchasing land in Orlando, Florida; the eventual site of the Walt Disney World resort.
  • Several fantasy family musicals were made in the ensuing years with the hopes of being the next “Mary Poppins”. Many, including “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, hired much of the “Poppins” creative team, but none hit the “Poppins” bulls-eye.
  • P. L. Travers was very critical of the film and consistently vetoed any further “Poppins” projects from Disney, including a sequel and a stage musical. Travers’ passing in 1996 led to some more civil negotiations between Disney and the Travers estate. The eventual results were a stage show co-produced with Cameron Mackintosh, and a sequel with Emily Blunt as Mary.
  • Everyone has spoofed this movie over the years, but “The Simpsons” and Shary Bobbins are still the gold standard. I found myself singing “Cut Every Corner” during “Spoonful of Sugar”.
  • The reluctant collaboration between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney is dramatized in the film “Saving Mr. Banks” with Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. “Banks” was released in December 2013, the same month “Mary Poppins” was added to the NFR. What an amazing coincidence I’m sure Disney had nothing to do with.
  • Although the message of “Feed the Birds” is still an important one, please do not actually feed the birds in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is illegal thanks to this movie.
  • And of course:

Further Viewing: The Sherman Brothers’ prolific songwriting career and tumultuous personal relationship is chronicled in the heartening documentary “The Boys”.

6 thoughts on “#340) Mary Poppins (1964)”

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