Saturday, November 8, 2014

Stubs – Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins (1964) Starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi. Based on the "Mary Poppins" novels by P. L. Travers: Mary Poppins (London, 1934); Mary Poppins Comes Back (London, 1935); Mary Poppins Opens the Door (London, 1944); and Mary Poppins in the Park (London, 1952). Songs by Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman (aka the Sherman Brothers). Produced by Walt Disney. Color. U.S. Musical, Fantasy

Every year is the anniversary for something, just as every day is someone’s birthday. But it seems like 2014 is a special anniversary for so much. This year is the 100th anniversary of feature films in Hollywood: The Squaw Man and Tillie’s Punctured Romance; the 75th anniversary of Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939; and the 50th of the Beatles landing in America, the British music invasion and, of course, the release of Mary Poppins. A lot to look back at, rediscover and critique.

Looking back at things from your childhood runs certain risks. A few years ago, I found a DVD set of the Dick Tracy cartoons, something I remember watching on TV as a kid. I thought I would share this with my sons, only to rediscover how overtly racist it was and full of stereotypes; a fond childhood memory ruined by a lifetime of living. While I didn’t expect that with rewatching Mary Poppins, I had grown up since I had first seen it.

I’m pretty sure the first time I saw this film was on television when I was a kid. Back then we were all singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and thinking that was really the longest word in the English language. We were kids after all and believed our elders, for which Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke qualified, even if they were in a movie. (Just for the record, the longest word in the English language is actually up for debate, but the longest word in a major dictionary is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, which is a lung disease. I knew you’d want to know.)

Back to the movie, Mary Poppins is based on a series of books by Pamela Lyndon Travers, who wrote as P.L. Travers. Disney was introduced to the books by his daughter, who made him promise to make a movie based on them. Disney first tried to buy rights to the book in 1938, but Travers refused, feeling that a movie adaptation would not do her books justice. Disney at the time was known as a producer of cartoons which might explain her reticence about letting him make a live-action film. But Disney was persistent and convinced Travers to let him make the movie in 1961, but she demanded script approval.

Writing the songs and pre-production took two years. Part of that may have to do with waiting for Julie Andrews, who made her film acting debut in this film. A veteran of Broadway, she created the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, but was passed over by Jack Warner for Audrey Hepburn for the film adaptation. When Walt approached her she was three months pregnant and agreed to wait for her to give birth before filming.

Dick Van Dyke was cast as Bert based on his work on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” on which he did a fair bit of singing and dancing. Prior to the TV show, Van Dyke would win a Tony Award for his role in the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie, as Albert Peterson, a part he would repeat in the movie version in 1963.

The film takes place in London, the same city other previous Disney films were also set: Peter Pan (1953), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). The setting this time around is Edwardian London, 1910. During the overture, while we’re surveying London, we become aware of Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), hanging out on a cloud, watching the city from above, like a God.

Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) bides her time until needed by the Banks family.

When we come down to Earth, Bert (Dick Van Dyke) is performing as a one-man band for a crowd made up of people who live in the neighborhood around the park. After he’s done playing and collecting his meager tips from the crowd, he directly addresses the audience, breaking the fourth wall. He takes us on a tour of Cherry Tree Lane, introducing us to the eccentric Admiral Bloom (Reginald Owen) and his first mate Mr. Binnacle (Don Barclay). Bloom is known for his punctuality and for having Mr. Binnacle fire off a cannon at the beginning and end of each day. The tour stops at the home of George Banks. Inside, things are coming to a head.

Bert (Dick Van Dyke) is a jack-of-all trades. Here he's busking as a one-man band for tips.

The children, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) are missing, again. Their mother, Winfred (Glynis Johns), comes home from her work on behalf of getting women in the vote, “Sister Suffragette," to find Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester), the children’s nanny is quitting. When George (David Tomlinson) comes home from his job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, he finds that his ordered life, “The Life I Lead," really isn’t. The children, whom he expects to be fed and washed and ready for bed have run away. They are brought back home by Constable Jones (Arthur Treacher), who tries to convince George that the kite the children were flying drug them across the park, rather than the other way round.

The children are too much for Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester) who quits as their nanny.

George takes it on himself to advertise for a new nanny. He wants one who is strict and no-nonsense. The children, however, write their own ad, “The Perfect Nanny," looking for someone kind and sweet, but the father rejects their copy, ripping it up and throwing it into the fireplace. But the pieces float up into the air where Mary is waiting.

The next day there is a queue of sour-faced nannies lined up outside in answer to George’s ad. But as Jane and Michael watch, a strong gust of wind blows them away and the beautiful Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) floats down from the sky, using her umbrella. She presents to George the children’s advertisement, but promises to be firm with them. As George puzzles over the ad, Mary hires herself. She introduces herself to the children, who are amazed at her bottomless carpet bag, which Mary unpacks as she makes herself at home. She then uses her magic to help the children clean their room, all the while singing, of course, "A Spoonful of Sugar". Afterwards, she takes the children for a walk in the park.

Mary's carpet bag valise seems bottomless.

In the park, they meet up with Bert, who is a chalk artist, “Pavement Artist". Using her magic, Mary Poppins transports the lot into one of the drawings, putting them into an animated fantasy countryside, “A Jolly Holiday". While this is not the first time live action and animation had been mixed, it was probably the best example to that time of the mixed media. The children jump on a nearby carousel, Mary and Bert take a walk and are served tea by a quartet of penguin waiters. Joining the children on the carousel, Mary enchants the horses and rides them off, galloping across the countryside, into a fox hunt and into a horse race, which Mary, on her mount, wins.

Mary's magic extends to carousel horses who go for a ride in the countryside.

When asked to describe her victory, Mary uses the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and we are treated to Mary and Bert singing the song with the same name. Their song is interrupted by rain, which propels them out of the drawing which is getting washed away. Their adventure over, Mary takes the children back to the house. They don’t want to go to sleep, but Mary insists, singing the anti-lullaby, “Stay Awake”.

Mary describes her victory in a horse race as  "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"

The next day, Mary and the children leave to run errands, but their plans go awry when she hears about Uncle Albert being in need. The children don’t seem to know what’s going on, but Bert is already at Uncle Albert’s when they arrive. Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) is a happy guy, who floats up in the air when he laughs too much, “I Love to Laugh”. While they are trying to talk him down, Bert ends up floating up to the ceiling. Then the children catch the disease and float up as well. Mary joins them and they have a tea party on the ceiling.

Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) floats in the air when he laughs. Bert and the kids,
Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) join in right away.

George is not happy with the fantastic tales his children are telling him. He wants them to be more disciplined and he talks with Mary Poppins with Winfred present to fire her. But before he can get around to doing it, she convinces him to take the children with him to work, "A British Bank (The Life I Lead)".

The children are excited about the prospect of going to work with their father and know Mary planted the idea in their father’s head. Mary sings them a melancholy song about the birds at the St. Paul Cathedral their father passes everyday on his way to the work, “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)".

The next morning on their way to work with father, they pass the bird woman Mary had sung about, who sells crumbs to feed the birds. Michael has brought a tuppence from his money box and wants to feed the birds, but the father insists on him saving the money instead of throwing it away.

Michael and Jane accompany their father, George (David Tomlinson), to work.

At the bank, they meet George’s boss, Mr. Dawes, Sr. (Dick Van Dyke), and his son Dawes, Jr. (Arthur Malet).  George uses the excuse that his children want to open an account with Michael’s tuppence. Despite Michael’s protests, Mr. Dawes and George try to convince him to invest it in the bank, "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank". When Mr. Dawes takes Michael’s tuppence, he demands it back so loudly it causes the other customers to misinterpret what is going on, resulting in a run on the bank. In the panic, the children flee the bank and get lost before literally running into Bert, who is now working as a chimney sweep.

George's boss, Mr. Dawes, Sr. (Dick Van Dyke), takes Michael's tuppence to invest. Michael has other ideas.

They tell the story of going to the bank with their father, insisting to him that their dad doesn’t like them at all. But Bert feels sorry for their father, whom he says has no one to tell his troubles to. As he returns the children home, he sings about the luck of the chimney sweep, “Chim Chim Cher-ee".

When they get home, Winfred is about to leave for her suffragette work and convinces Bert to stay and watch them and also to clean out the chimney. When Mary comes home, the children get sucked up the chimney, and Mary and Bert go up after them. Up on the roof tops, Bert has the idea of going exploring and in Mary’s magical way, they even climb a staircase made of soot to a breath-taking view of the city. On the way back, they encounter the other chimney sweeps and, of course, a dance number ensues, “Step in Time”. When Admiral Bloom takes the chimney sweeps as a threat, he has Mr. Binnacle shoot fireworks at the dancers. The ensemble escapes back into the Banks house, where the dancing continues until George comes home.

The chimney sweeps of London perform the dance number "Step in Time."

After the sweeps depart, George receives a call from Mr. Dawes, Jr., ordering him back for a disciplinary action at 9 pm. George knows what’s coming and tells Bert he blames Mary Poppins. They sing "A Man Has Dreams" and Bert encourages George to spend more time with the children before they’re grown up and gone. Knowing they’re the cause of their father’s trouble, Michael and Jane give their father the tuppence, hoping it will make amends.

But at the bank, George is fired. Rather than being angry, George reaches into his pocket and pulls out Michael’s tuppence and thinks about Mary Poppins’ supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and feels happy. While Dawes thinks he’s being imperative, George tells him a joke before leaving about two people talking, one says, “I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith”, to which the friend asks, “Really, what does he call the other one?” Dawes contemplates the punchline and once he gets it, he laughs and, like Uncle Albert, floats into the air.

George is summoned to the Bank after hours to be fired.

The next day, the wind is changing, which we know means Mary will be leaving. Constable Jones is on the phone reporting that George hasn’t come home from the bank. But George has been home all along, down in the cellar, fixing the children’s kite. While the children don’t want Mary to leave, they are happy to see the kite fixed and go with him to fly in the park, "Let's Go Fly a Kite". Of course, Bert is already there, selling kites.

In the park, the Banks runs into Dawes, Jr., who is also flying a kite. Jr. informs George that his father had died laughing. He rehires George on the spot, making him a junior partner in the firm. Mary Poppins is sad to leave, but still departs, riding her umbrella to go help other children who are in need of her help. Bert bids her farewell, telling her not to “stay away too long.” When the film ends, we see her flying above London, no doubt looking for other children who will need her.

Her work done at the Banks house, Mary is whisked away to help another family.

The film was a huge success, earning $102 million at the box office, and was the most profitable film of 1965, even though it was released in 1964, earning a profit of $28.5 million, money Walt Disney would use to purchase the 27,500 acres in central Florida and build Walt Disney World. Disney would die in 1966 before construction began.

The film was not only a financial success, but a critical one as well. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, it would win for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Julie Andrews), Best Film Editing (Cotton Warburton), Best Visual Effects (Peter Ellenshaw, Eustace Lycett and Hamilton Luske), Best Original Song (("Chim Chim Cher-ee") Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) and Best Score (Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman).

Despite the accolades and success, Travers was not a fan. Most authors cringe when they see the changes their story goes through to be adapted into a film. And there were changes made to Mary Poppins such as only two Banks children in the movie instead of the five in the books. But Travers had other problems with the adaptation.

She didn’t like how Mary Poppins was toned down and shown as more sympathetic to the children. While she didn’t care for the songs, she really disliked the animated sequences; so much for script approval. She wasn’t originally invited to the premiere of the film, but got permission to attend. After the screening, she is reported to have approached Walt Disney, saying the animated sequences had to go, to which Disney is said to have told her, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.”

Upset by her treatment, she refused to allow for a sequel to the film by Disney, though she was approached several times. She only agreed to allow for a stage musical adaptation as long as only English writers and no one from the original production was involved.

Julie Andrews would follow up her tremendous performance in Mary Poppins with The Americanization of Emily (1964) opposite James Garner. But her next film after that, The Sound of Music (1965), would cement her as a musical star. The Sound of Music would be the second most profitable film of the year, trailing only Mary Poppins. She followed that success with appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) as well as that year’s top grossing film, Hawaii (1966), based on the James Michener novel. Other famous roles would follow including Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Darling Lili (1970) and her role as Dudley Moore’s forgotten girlfriend in 10 (1979).

Through it all she couldn’t quite shake her squeaky clean image until appearing topless in husband Blake Edwards’ satire of Hollywood, S.O.B. (1981). Andrews would also star in Victor/Victoria (1982), again opposite Jim Garner and Robert Preston.

In 1997, Andrews would have a health scare as she would have surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat. The surgery would permanently damage her singing voice and add a rasp to her speaking voice. Subsequent surgeries would repair her speaking voice, but not her singing. Her career has continued with appearances in The Princess Diaries (2001) and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004). More recently she has done voice work in such films as Shrek the Third (2007), Shrek Forever After (2010) and Despicable Me (2010).

Dick Van Dyke proves again he is a song and dance man at heart. The biggest complaint about his performance was his Cockney accent, which is considered by many to be one of the worst ever on film. He would continue to act in movies, but never in something as big as Mary Poppins. Notable films include Divorce American Style (1967), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Cold Turkey (1971) and the Night At the Museum trilogy (2006, 2009 and 2014), but he found his biggest success on TV in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74) and Diagnosis Murder (1993-2001).

Glynis Johns, who plays Winfred Banks, is a British actress who had been acting in films since Murder in the Family (1938). She would appear with Jimmy Stewart in the British 20th Century Fox film No Highway in the Sky (1951) before appearing in her first Hollywood film, Personal Affair (1953). Johns would receive an Academy nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mrs. Firth in The Sundowners (1960). The song "Sister Suffragette," was specifically written for her. Later, Stephen Sondheim would write “Send in the Clowns” for her when she appeared on Broadway in A Little Night Music in 1973.

Seeing Mary Poppins again wasn’t quite the same as seeing it in my youth. The songs are very catchy and the next day you will find yourself singing one or more of them. But the film is obviously aimed at children and while as an adult I appreciate the talent on display, both live action and animated, I find some of the sequences a little overly long, such as the animated section when Mary, Bert and the children enter the fantasy world of the chalk drawing. The film mixes live action and animation very well, but after a while it seems that the story is put on hold while the filmmakers revel in their own capabilities. The same is true with the Step In Time song and dance which showcases Van Dyke’s dancing, but that seems to be the only purpose.

But I’m complaining about too much of a good thing. Mary Poppins should be a rite of passage for all children. The movie is certainly aimed squarely at them and it is something you’ll want to share with each successive generation as long as there are children who love song, dance and fantasy. Even despite the author’s reservations, Walt Disney created a classic. It’s probably a good thing that there wasn’t a sequel as that might make this film a little less special.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this movie in the theater in Cincinnati when it first opened. For decades, Glynis Johns was the epitome of gracious, sweet English moms. Then there was 'The Ref' (1994), starring Dennis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis...and Glynis Johns as the worst mother/mother-in-law ever. I loved it.
    It is the official Christmas movie at my house. We watch it every year, even when we're on vacation, and laugh ourselves silly. It certainly shows Glynis' incredible range.