By Alan Hurst
For many around my age, Walt Disney’s production of Mary Poppins (1964) represented their first movie-going experience. It was magical in 1964, and again on future viewings during subsequent re-releases in 1973 and 1980. And with the advent of home video, it’s been a staple in many libraries as well (and for me that has meant VHS, DVD, Blu Ray, and any special editions). I’ve always said this would be my one desert island movie.
The release in September of the first full-length trailer for Disney’s 2018 Christmas releases – Mary Poppins Returns – induced goosebumps, a smile and a huge sense of relief. Trust me when I say my dread was palpable when they announced the project. And I know I’m judging based only on two minutes and 30 seconds of film clips but – knock wood – it looks like they’re going to pull it off. The casting seems right (probably the biggest hurdle), visually it seems to pay homage to the original while incorporating the many technical advances since 1964, and they seem to be leveraging more of P.L Travers original stories.
We’ll have to wait until December to see if all this is, in fact, the case, but since the trailer has helped increase interest in all things Mary Poppins, I wanted to look at why the first film continues to have such a hold on myself – and so many others.
Author P.L. Travers first introduced Mary Poppins in the 1930s and the character was much sterner than the Disney version. So much so that original casting idea included Bette Davis, Mary Martin, and Angela Lansbury. But while watching Julie Andrews as Guinevere in the Broadway hit Camelot (1960-62), Walt Disney knew he had his Mary and Andrews delivered – in spades. It’s one of the most perfect movie debuts in history and an ideal pairing of actress and role. Andrews’ Mary is crisp and no-nonsense, but with a sense of fun and mischief, she’s pretty, efficient, and wise without being overbearing. In short, the perfect nanny. Andrews never hits a false note and she soars (pardon the pun) in the musical numbers, particularly the touching “Feed the Birds” (Disney’s favorite song) and the British music hall pastiche “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. Andrews ascent to stardom was assured in early 1965 when she won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Mary Poppins.
Although his cockney accent was justifiably mocked, Dick Van Dyke is still a major treat as Bert the Chimney Sweep. With his genial manner, elastic body and comic abilities he’s a charming counterpart to Andrews, but he never pulls focus. They’re a great pair – particularly in the musical numbers “Jolly Holiday” and in the scenes on the London rooftops. Producer Disney cast the film well right down the line with veterans like David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns as the parents, Arthur Treacher as a police constable, Reginald Owen as Admiral Boom, Reta Shaw and Hermione Baddeley as the family’s maids, Elsa Lanchester as the children’s first nanny, and Jane Darwell as the Bird Woman. All of them play a major role in the film’s comedy and in evoking the very British feel of the film.
The original P.L Travers stories were set in 1930s London. Disney had his writers go back to pre-WWI 1910 which allowed for a more opulent look for the film and a more patriarchal focus for the story. And because women were still fighting for the vote, it allowed the writers to give the mother, Mrs. Banks, more of a backstory and a rousing song early in the film. The creative team went all out in their creation of 1910 London – the sets and costumes are a perfect evocation of the era. London is depicted as both beautiful and, through the children’s eyes, a little foreboding.
One of the charms of the movie is that Mary Poppins’ magic is never explained. It’s just presented as a natural, yet mysterious facet of the character. Andrews is perfectly nonchalant in her manner and delivery while she makes the seemingly impossible happen – pulling a five-foot lamp from a small overnight bag, sliding up a banister, or arranging a tea party on the ceiling. Andrews’ initial descent from the sky – via an umbrella – kicks things into high gear, but it’s with the trip into the chalk drawings that Mary Poppins starts to become a classic. When the four characters – Mary, Bert, Jane, and Michael – jump into the pavement drawing we are transported from a grey London to a wild technicolor burst of live action and animation that is groundbreaking. The extended sequence is beautifully drawn, technically perfect and the songs in the sequence are two of the best in the score (“Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). The film’s other highlight is when the four characters soar up a chimney and treat us to the magical, sooty world of London’s rooftops.
The score by bothers Richard and Robert Sherman – two long-time Disney stalwarts – is perfect. It’s a mix of lovely ballads and some rousing songs that pay homage to the old style of the British Music Hall. There isn’t a bad song in the film. Every song helps move things forward in terms of action or character development and they’re delivered perfectly by the game cast. The Sherman bothers had other successes – The Jungle Book (1967), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Broadway’s Over Here (1974) – but Mary Poppins was their crowning achievement. They won Oscars that year for best song (“Chim Chim Cheree”) and Best Original Score.
In addition to the perfect period sets and costumes, one of the special treats of Mary Poppins are the beautiful matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw. From the opening credits featuring scenes of London at dusk, to the landscapes during the “Jolly Holiday” sequence, and the stunning visuals of the London rooftops just before the “Step in Time” sequence, Ellenshaw’s creations are a masterwork. They were deservedly recognized with the Oscar that year for Best Visual Effects, one of the films five Oscars.
Robert Stevenson is not on anyone’s list of Hollywood’s greatest directors, but he was one of many directors of the middle part of the last century who turned out decent B films, only rarely getting the opportunity to pull together a big budget project. Mary Poppins is Stevenson’s Citizen Kane. He’s the one ultimately responsible for pulling all these pieces together into one visually and emotionally enjoyable package. He did some nice work on Bedknobs and Brooksticks (1971) a few years later (although that one does feel at times like a cheaper Mary Poppins) and he was also behind many successful Disney live action hits of the sixties and seventies including That Darn Cat (1965), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), and The Love Bug (1969). Interesting bit of trivia – because of his success with these and many other Disney films he was named by Variety as the most commercially successful director of all time.
So, do yourself a favor and re-watch Mary Poppins before going to see the continuation in December. You’ll be reminded again what a phenomenal piece of film craftsmanship it is and why it still stands as producer Walt Disney’s top achievement.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.