Thu
Apr 3 2014 1:30pm

A Spoonful of Music Makes the Nanny: Disney’s Mary Poppins

After the massive success of Cinderella, the Walt Disney Corporation continued to issue animated films every couple of years. Most were well received and financially successful. But one, Sleeping Beauty, was a massive box office flop, costing so much that Walt Disney considered shutting down the animation studio entirely to focus on cheaper, live action films instead.

Fortunately, a new product called a Xerox machine cut down significantly on the expenses for the next film, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which allowed the animation studio to run a profit again. And with those profits, and with the coincidental financial issues facing a certain author, Walt Disney was finally able to respond to the request from his daughters, and bring Mary Poppins to the screen.

For this project, Walt Disney decided to go back to the studio’s roots—offering a combination of live action and animation. The film would, of course, have plenty of songs, by then pretty much a Disney standard, even if the previous animated feature had contained only—gasp—three. He also chose to hire the then relatively unknown Julie Andrews for the main role, after seeing her in a Broadway production of Camelot. For his other star, he chose veteran entertainer Dick Van Dyke, by then well known to viewers from the Dick Van Dyke show, with solid dancing and singing chops, if not at all known for his ability to speech with a credible British accent. Apparently, the accent Van Dyke uses for most of the film is supposed to be Cockney, though I’ve yet to meet a single British person who believes me when I say that.

Perhaps to make up for Van Dyke’s very American-turned-not-at-all-Cockney accent, most of the other roles went to veteran British thespians, with three exceptions: the two kids played by adorable kid actors Karen Dotrice and Mathew Garber—they can’t sing, but they are undeniably Dripping With Cute, and Academy Award winning American actress Jane Darwell, personally pulled by Walt Disney out of retirement and into the role of the Bird Woman.

Walt Disney also agreed to let P.L. Travers oversee the script—and then ignored most of her suggestions. Travers wanted to keep Mary Poppins as acerbic, vain, and even cruel as she had been in most of the books; Disney, knowing his audience, insisted on sticking with the kinder, more gentle character who had appeared in the second chapter of Mary Poppins, someone who could be firm when necessary, but didn’t actively disparage and ridicule her young charges. (Michael does get temporarily trapped in a closet, but that’s about it.)

It was a wise choice for other reasons: that chapter in turn inspired the film’s long animated sequence, where, more or less as in the book, Mary Poppins and Bert, this time accompanied by Jane and Michael, step into one of Bert’s pictures to find themselves more or less in a fairyland, complete with singing penguins, because everything is better with penguins.

Interestingly enough, this sequence, meant to be one of the film’s highlights, turns out, upon a rewatch, to contain arguably the worst moments of the film by far, and P.L. Travers may have had a point when she objected to the use of animated sequences and combining live actors with animation. As fake as the animatronic robin on Mary Poppins’ finger looks in another scene in the film, it still looks about one thousand times better than the animation scenes, which have not aged well because they were not great to begin with. Even when the actors aren’t on the screen, the animation is not anywhere near the best of Disney’s work. And when the actors are on the screen, it looks even worse: a scene where Julie Andrews hops along on her merry go round horse into a race made my viewing partner and I laugh and groan out loud, even if it does lead to the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” song.

(Guys, if I’m misspelled or mistyped that—Microsoft Word says I haven’t, but Word is not to be trusted when it comes to grammar or spelling—kindly overlook it. It’s a very long word to type.)

The rest of the movie has an equally artificial appearance, created by filming only on small soundstages, without a single outdoor location shot, but somehow, the animatronic figures against the matte paintings manage to more or less work, perhaps because as fake looking as those robins are, they are clearly lit by the same light that’s focused on Mary Poppins and the children. Disney animators would later take considerably more care with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but the technology was just not there in the 1960s.

The animation sequence has another issue as well: even with the penguins, the “Jolly Holiday” song that fills most of the first bit is one of the film’s weakest songs, possibly because although it was apparently originally written to be a nice love song between Mary Poppins and Burt, in this, at least, P.L. Travers got her way: any romance between Mary Poppins and Burt was completely squashed. So, instead of a lovely romantic moment, we get several moments of Mary Poppins and Burt dancing against animated farm animals, sorta having tea served by penguins, only to have Mary Poppins go, “it’s wonderful that you’re not taking advantage of me.” Mary Poppins, the guy is dancing with penguins to win your heart. Bend a little! Bend!

(I don’t actually need a Mary Poppins romance—she seems quite happy without one, and she’s so obviously superior to Burt in every way that it wouldn’t work out anyway, but to have a song attempt to lead up to a romantic moment and then fail to give said moment...oh well.)

On the other hand, the animation sequence also brings us “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” one of the best songs of the film. And if the animation for this song is also not exactly stunning, it’s at least amusing—which given the song’s importance to the plot, is critical to ensure that the audience doesn’t miss it.

Oh, the plot. Right. Well, honestly, much like the book, the film doesn’t have much plot. The Banks family, consisting of banker Mr. Banks, suffragette Mrs. Banks, and their two children Jane and Michael, are having a terrible time keeping a nanny around, probably because Mr. Banks is a pompous jerk and Mrs. Banks keeps floating off to various suffragette events, not paying much attention to anything else that goes on unless a nearby cannon goes BOOM. Which it does a lot. Mr. Banks places an advertisement for a strict disciplinarian; the children place an advertisement for someone willing to play games. After a suspiciously convenient wind blows the competition away, demonstrating just why you should not show up to a job interview while dangling on a wire, Mary Poppins accepts the position. The children are slightly skeptical, but are soon won over by the sight of Mary Poppins sliding up the bannister and taking various items out of a seemingly empty carpetbag.

The rest of the plot, such as it isn’t, is focused on going to Various Places—into the previously mentioned animation sequence, and to tea high up in the air, and on teaching Mr. and Mrs. Banks that their children are more important than the suffragette cause or even, gasp, banking—the latter a slightly odd message for what was soon to become a megacorporation to be making.

This pro-family, anti-banking effort from Mary Poppins is decidedly not at all like the Mary Poppins of the books, who was concerned with correct behavior, not family values, and who left the family as dysfunctional as when she entered it. But both themes—and the bank run, sparked by a rumor started by a misinterpretation—do fit quite well into the general concerns of the 1960s, or at least Walt Disney’s general concerns in the 1960s: a concern that men were more focused on their careers than their families (something that could certainly be argued about Disney himself), and a concern that the growing feminist movement of the 1960s was causing women to neglect their children.

The first message gets rather muddled, both by the bank run and by the fact that Mr. Banks gets his job back in the end, and is delighted by this. The bank run is a slightly odder situation: it clearly gets started when the Evil Bank Owner (played by Dick Van Dyke) tries to grab the tiny little tuppence that Michael wants to use to feed the birds. We get a long song about what happens to investments—the rhymes are clever—and then a knockdown fight over a tuppence, the words of which are completely misunderstood by other bank customers, starting a bank run and—temporarily—causing Mr. Banks to lose his job.

So, banks are evil and greedy and all that, right? And clearly, not institutions that people have much faith in—none of the customers bother to ask a single question before demanding their money. And, as we learn, the bank previously backed the wrong side of the Boston Tea Party. (Despite all of the British and Dick Van Dyke accents, this is very much an American film.) Evil, evil bank...

...except that the only really evil thing the bank was doing here (I don’t really think we can count the American Revolution) was allowing its miserable elderly owner to fight over a kid’s tuppence. Otherwise, everyone’s money was safe. Granted, fighting to take a single coin from a small cute kid is Seriously Evil and Greedy and all that—but they want the kid to save. And, arguably, this was all started less by any of bankers, and more by Mary Poppins, who not only manipulates Mr. Banks into taking his children to the bank in the first place (he doesn’t want to do this) but sings a song to the children to encourage them to want to spend money on bird food instead of creating savings accounts. And the situation is not helped by Mr. Banks, who flat out lies to his boss about why the kids are there: they are coming to see where he works, not to open savings accounts. If Mr. Banks hadn’t lied—well, things might not have gone well with the bank management anyway, but as it is, it’s kinda difficult to imagine how things could have gotten worse. Moral: don’t lie to bank owners. Now, that’s a moral I can see the Disney Corporation getting behind.

The messages regarding women are even more muddled: on the one hand, Winnifred Banks’ focus on the women’s rights movement not only has failed to change any of her own husband’s views on the proper roles for women, but also has caused her to neglect her children. Worse, her focus on women’s rights has made life more difficult and stressful for her three servants—all of whom just happen to be women. The second most admirable servant in the household, Mrs. Brill, expresses negative feelings about the women’s movement; Katie Nanna makes it clear that one reason she is leaving is that Mrs. Banks is rarely in the house—and when she is in the house, she is so focused on women’s rights that she hardly lets Katie Nanna say a word about the children.

On the other hand, Mrs. Banks is visibly loving and supportive of her children when she is around, far more so than her husband, and she never undergoes a personality change. And it’s arguable that one reason she’s taking off is to avoid the constant sound of cannon fire and the need to protect her valuables from falling over.

Sidenote: I spent most of the film wondering why on earth the local neighborhood let the Admiral get away with this—and since they weren’t stopping him, why on earth were they continuing to leave their porcelain in places where it could easily fall down and shatter? It makes for some humorous physical comedy, but after awhile I couldn’t help going AUUGH.

At the same time, many of the strong women from the books are gone or at best softened here, and the one woman who does somewhat support Mrs. Banks in the women’s rights movement—Ellen, the maid—is not always portrayed sympathetically. The one professional woman we do meet—a singer in the animated sequence—appears to be resented by her husband.

But then again, the most powerful person in the film, and the most magical, is Mary Poppins.

The greatest draw of the film, however, is probably not its muddled messages or mostly non existent plot, but the songs. And here, the rewatch surprised me, because as I sat watching, my main thought was: this film either has too many songs, or too few.

Too few, because a film musical that barely gives its characters more than two minutes between songs (we started watching, and in some cases it’s about 30 seconds) might as well go ahead and sing straight through, Les Miserables style. I suspect Disney even toyed with that idea, giving it up only when it became clear that the film’s two adorable little moppets couldn’t sing. (They try. They are cute. But not singers.)

Too many, because, to my genuine surprise, it’s during the songs that the film drags the most.

Oh, not during all of them. A few songs are genuine showstoppers: “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and the genuinely lovely “Tuppence a Bag.” That last song, like its counterpart in the book, seems somewhat out of place and tone to the rest of the film, but it contains arguably the most soaring and beautiful sequence in the film—not to mention eventually motivating young Michael to start a run on the bank. Music hath charms to soothe the savage penguins and the strength to destroy banks. Who knew?

But other songs either badly drag or fall flat or both, and honestly by the time the film reached the last song, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” I was about ready to scream “STOP SINGING.” It’s not incredibly helpful that Julie Andrews, perhaps not surprisingly, consistently out-sings the rest of the cast, but the rest of the cast is also for the most part stuck with songs that either don’t advance the plot (what little plot the film has), tell us nothing in particular, or drag and drag. I couldn’t help thinking that we’d have much more time to spend on the fun stuff if Mrs. Banks would just stop singing about the suffragette movement, and Mr. Banks is even worse. It’s rather horrifying to think that the film might have had even more, but it’s not at all surprising that I forgot most of them.

The film does have a couple of other moments that may trouble some viewers. First, a sequence in the animated portion, where a fox with a decidedly Irish accent is chased down by British hunters: I don’t know exactly what Disney was going for there or why the fox needed to be Irish, but the accents make it... well. I should note that in accordance to the rest of the film’s anti-upper class attitude, the fox is saved by Dick Van Dyke’s decidedly working class character and the British dogs all find themselves stuck in a hedge. This may or may not save the scene for people: my viewing partner felt very sorry for the dogs. Second, the long extended sequence with the chimney sweeps towards the end, which has two problems: one, it goes on way way, way too long, and two, in some shots, the soot covered faces almost look like blackface—not helped when the sequence ends with the chimney sweeps chasing the white cook, Mrs. Brill. I don’t think that’s the image Disney meant to give (and in many of the shots the sweeps are not wearing that much soot), but if you want to skip this sequence, you can without missing much.

But for all that, several sequences have held up well. It might not be entirely “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and you may well find yourself wishing that the animated sequence was just the penguins and that song, but if you need a little musical magic and you have access to a fast forward button when needed, it might be worth another look.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida, near a certain theme park that got its financial start from the profits of this movie.

37 comments
Victoria L'Ecuyer
1. Victoria L'Ecuyer
I'm glad it's not just me. Despite some very nice earworms and charming out takes, I've never much cared for the movie. Although, I do have to say, the animated bit I took as "This is so obviously not reality that we're going to make it look unreal as possible and therefore more believable as a Magicical Jaunt Into A Chalk Picture."
Victoria L'Ecuyer
2. DougL
Well, the whole film is really about Mary and thank god they got Andrews because, while no the Mary from the books, she is fantastic in the role and she uplifted that movie tremendously.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
4. Russell H
I saw this movie when it first came out, in 1964, and, at the age of about 6, was utterly enchanted by it. I remember that my favorite sequence the rooftop scene (“Step in Time”).

Recently, after many years, I was watching the film again, and that same scene suddenly struck me with a feeling of near-melancholy. As Mary, Bert and the children watch evening fall and the lights of London come on, all I could think was: It’s the sun setting on the British Empire.

Early in the film, in Mr. Banks’s song, “The Life I Lead,” we learn that the story is taking place “in 1910” and “King Edward’s on the throne.” By the end of that year, King Edward will have died. In two year, the Titanic will sink, taking with it some of the smug complacency about society’s industrial prowess. And in four years, the Guns of August will signal the real end of that era of optimism and certainty in the world’s progress.

I have this image of Mr. Banks, in a captain’s uniform, standing at the foot of a trench ladder, ready to blow his whistle, with Bert and his pals lined up to his left and right, as they prepare to go “over the top” on the morning of July 1, 1916 at the Somme.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
5. farj
Sometimes a movie isn't meant to be analyzed to death. I doubt Walt Disney made this movie to please every armchair critic. The genius of this movie is that it makes you feel what the characters are feeling. Melancholy, indignation, happiness, sadness, sorrow, joy. I am constantly laughing or crying, tapping my foot or wringing my hands, and those emotions defy politics, criticism, social issues, or animation problems. Just sit back and let the movie transport you. Therein lies its genius and its staying power.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
6. BethS
I grew up with the books, so I never loved the movie (though Julie Andrews was amazing, of course); my real love was the Broadway musical. I sat there wringing my hands going, "They read the books they read the books they read the books!" It was fabulous.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@Victoria L'Ecuyer - Nope, not just you. Though I honestly think the animation sequence, at the time, was meant to show off just how amazing Disney was. But where the original special effects for, say, Star Wars, have more or less stood the test of time , the same can't be said for this sequence.

@DougL - Julie Andrews is definitely excellent in the role, but you know what...I kinda prefer her in Sound of Music, overly cute kids, Nazis and all.

@RussellH - That's a way of viewing the film I really hadn't considered, and thanks. Walt Disney was certainly old enough to remember a pre-World War I world and the changes that world brough.

@farj - Hmm.

Well, I'm pretty sure that Disney made this film to make money. He thought, correctly, that this could be a commercially successful film if he ignored Travers' suggestions, and he was proven right.

Regardless of Disney's motivation here, however, I'm puzzled by your assumption that I did not start this film just sitting back and letting the movie transport me. I am admittedly known on my own blog for mocking bad films, but I went into this film rewatch expecting something great - it's an iconic film, after all. But, alas, the film did not make me feel what the characters were thinking, and I wasn't transported - though I did love the Tuppence Bird Song. That was lovely.

Reactions to films are going to be pretty individual. This was mine.

@BethS - I still haven't seen the musical.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
8. Soloce
@7, I agree with Farj. I totally understand your instinct to view this film through Naughties lens, but it's not the film's fault that it didn't perceive the level of movement in ethical relativism that would occur 60 years on. Using this lens *is* useful if you were, say, going to compare socio-economic movement through Disney (or other studio) films, like Song of the South through to Aladdin, Mulan, and the Princess and the Frog. But you have to be looking at the deltas between them and comparing those, not critiquing the film for being created in the time it was with attitudes the way they were then. Otherwise we may as well take away Gone with the Wind's Academy Awards.
Jenny Thrash
9. Sihaya
I was telling my husband the other day why this movie actually has a very 1960s feminist sensibility about women. First, while upper class and upper-middle class Edwardian Brits were already in the habit of providing professional caregivers for their chidren (though the women did not generally have outside professions), middle class American families were only just starting to explore the idea in the middle of the twentieth century, and it was because more wives were going to work. Women were dealing with no small amount of guilt and fear that they were falling down on the mothering job, even as they were being liberated to explore professional work. By presenting another culture's fairly comforting attitudes about the normalcy of this practise, it gave moms a big thumbs up for sending their kids to daycare. The message was made more explicit by having Mrs. Banks be a suffragette (something that was not in the book, IIRC). While the servants grouse (rightfully) about the extra work, that's soon solved with the application of a little professional childcare. Which brings us to Mary. She is a young, childless, unmarried professional, and she does not appear to want to live any other way. She likes going out with Bert, but she doesn't want to have anything serious with him, and she is dedicated to her career, moving on to new commissions as the wind blows. She is perfectly happy, and as you point out, Disney did his best to make her a sympathetic character. The message to working moms and working single women is similar - relax, it will be okay. You have made the right decision. This is all perfectly normal, and possibly magical.

Personally, I love the film, love the singing, lovelovelove the animation, and often find myself singing many of the tunes abesntmindedly as I take medicine or look up to find that there's kite flying weather.

Sorry if you hate singing in anything other than straight-up modern musical quantities. That mostly means you've been made comfortable with one format over time, I suspect. At the time of Poppins, films were only coming out of an era in which vaudevillians would provide a few songs, rope tricks, and site gags in the middle of their otherwise spoken performances. Think of the Hope and Crosby Road films, for example, or any Astaire and Rogers joint. Those often were short on plot, too, using the story as a loose wire structure to hold up everything else. Poppins fits in perfetly with these sorts of films.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
10. hoopmanjh
Last time I watched the movie was a couple of years ago; I had just gotten back from visiting London for the first (and, so far, only) time, and wanted to watch something thematically appropriate so I could pick out landmarks and say, "I was there!" I hadn't remembered how much of the film was done on a soundstage, or that most (all?) of the establishing shots were matte paintings. Ah, well, I still enjoyed it.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
11. AwesomeAud
The biggest problem with the animatronic robins was that they were *North American* robins, not *European* robins, which is an entirely different bird (also the two robins building a nest are both MALE robins!). You'd have thought that Julie Andrews would have said something when the thing was attached to her hand!

The scene in which I have the least sympathy for Mary Poppins is the one where she's putting the children to bed, but they are too excited about all the amazing things that happened during the day, and when they try to talk about it she firmly tells them that they are making it all up and that such magical things can't happen. This may be closer to the Mary in the books, but it seemed out of character for the Mary in the movie.
Stephen Dunscombe
12. cythraul
1 - Response to the review!

"Travers wanted to keep Mary Poppins as acerbic, vain, and even cruel as she had been in most of the books; Disney, knowing his audience, insisted on sticking with the kinder, more gentle character who had appeared in the second chapter of Mary Poppins, someone who could be firm when necessary, but didn’t actively disparage and ridicule her young charges."

And from everything I can glean about book!Poppins, the film is much better for it. Julie Andrews is a deeply charming actor, and letting her be charming (even if she's still being strict and firm at the same time) is to the film's great benefit.

"(Michael does get temporarily trapped in a closet, but that’s about it.)"

Well. We do still get one weirdly incongruous scene of gas-lighting, where Mary denies events she and the kids participated in.

One thing I always dearly loved about the movie - and maybe this came of things being cut that were present in the books, which I never read - is the sense that there's worldbuilding that continues past the edges of the screen. It's utterly incongruous that the Banks' Magical Visitor, who comes out of nowhere and to nowhere returns, has a warm old friendship in place with a seemingly-mundane jack-of-all-trades who seems to be an integral part of mundane London life. (He knows personal stories about everyone who hears his one-man band!)

Likewise, the aforementioned stories Bert tells about his listeners - I feel like those are all characters I could have gotten to know in "Marry Poppins: The Series" if there'd been such a thing - and, indeed, this Tor retrospective seems to indicate that they are all developed in the books.

"The animation sequence has another issue as well: even with the penguins, the “Jolly Holiday” song that fills most of the first bit is one of the film’s weakest songs,"

Oh man; I... actually really like that song. >.>

"possibly because although it was apparently originally written to be a nice love song between Mary Poppins and Burt, in this, at least, P.L. Travers got her way: any romance between Mary Poppins and Burt was completely squashed"

And I think the relationship we do see is all the more interesting for it. I feel like there's a deep, comfortable relationship between them that the film very conspicuously doesn't deign to explicate for us. (Are they former lovers? Is there an unrequited infatuation? Are they both members of the same ancient fae clan?)

2 - A point of my own!

Am I the only one who's always figured that Mary Poppins isn't actually human? She descends from the sky, and returns to it when she's not needed any more - like an angel in pretty much any movie or show with angels in it. And the sort of magic she works in these characters' lives makes me think of some sort of fae. (Willy Wonka gives me the same reaction.)

3 - Also:

Wind's in the East,
Mist comin' in,
Like somethin' is brewin'
And 'bout to begin.

Can't put me finger
On what lies in store,
But I feel what's to happen
All happened before.

For me, this verse is up there with the One Ring poem and the Dark is Rising for "prophetic poems that set up a work of fantasy". I still get chills hearing it.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
13. hoopmanjh
@12.3 -- They could've used that for the new Battlestar Galactica!
Mari Ness
14. MariCats
@Solace -

I don't think that a work of art can be judged outside of the period that it was made in, and yes, I do think a work of art, including Gone With the Wind, can be criticized for the attitudes it depicts - or, for that matter, studied for the insights that it gives to that culture.

Critics, like writers, will also judge works of art from the standpoint of the era they live in. This in turn means that the popularity and interpretations of various historical works of art will also change depending on the period -- look, for instance, at the very different films of Henry V produced first by Lawrence Olivier and then by Kenneth Branuagh, and the critical response to both. Same text; complete different responses.

For what it's worth, other films from the 1960s had no difficulties perceiving the shifts in ethical relativism. It was something Walt Disney was highly aware of, and by his own account, Mary Poppins was a direct response to the shifts in American culture of the 1960s.

@Sihaya --

So much to respond to here. Let's start with:

1. Middle class and upper middle class American families absolutely used professional outside and inside childcare well before the 1960s. The practice began in the colonial period and continued, as an absolute necessity given the no-joke of the work involved in running a household and more critically, food preparation, which was considerably more time consuming in days before refrigeration.

On a related note, I should point out that Mary Poppins does not end up in a romance only at the insistence of P.L. Travers. Walt Disney wanted her to end up with Burt. They had pitched battles over this.

It's Travers, not Disney, who has much more of a feminist message here - not surprisingly since Travers was in her own life a successful professional woman.

And that, I think, is why the messages in this film are so mixed: yes, Disney puts in a cute little suffragette message -- but shows that focusing on women's rights causes a woman to stop paying attention to what's really important: her house. Travers, on the other hand, not only creates a woman who has no need of a man, but in the books, also creates several powerful women characters - women who create stars and magic and can transform reality. I don't think it's a coincidence that all of those characters either vanished from the film or were considerably softened, with almost every woman in the film taking a domestic role, and the only exception being the cartoon singer in the animated sequence.

(more in next comment.)
Stephen Dunscombe
15. cythraul
@13

Quick, someone put together a fan-trailer for this movie, set to the "there are many copies" premise-dump from the beginnings of BSG episodes!
Mari Ness
16. MariCats
@Sihaya -

You also state this:

"Sorry if you hate singing in anything other than straight-up modern musical quantities. That mostly means you've been made comfortable with one format over time, I suspect."

Heh.

But no.

I happened to be listening to Pergolesi when I first read this comment, who did not exactly compose in modern musical quantities. Also, I love Crosby/Hope musicals. I also love several other musicals from the 1960s.

Also, if we are being pedantic, I should point out that Mary Poppins is a modern musical. (Especially by my musical standards which go from early Medieval to Passenger and many, many many places between.)

But moving on.

What I have an issue with here, and it's frankly a huge one, is the assumption that because I have problems with or didn't like particular parts of an artistic work, I therefore dislike an entire genre. Or even, from your phrasing, several genres.

And then we have this:

"At the time of Poppins, films were only coming out of an era in which vaudevillians would provide a few songs, rope tricks, and site gags in the middle of their otherwise spoken performances."

....to which I can only respond with, what?

Mary Poppins came out in the 1964. For that statement to be true, we would need to ignore the following films:

Top Hat (1935) (and pretty much all of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers flicks).
Any film with Esther Williams in it
Wizard of Oz (1939)
Fantasia (1940)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1946)
Showboat (1951)
An American in Paris (1951)
Singin' in the Rain (1952) (best film ever)
Some Like it Hot (1959) (ok, this is a stretch but this is an awesome film so I'm putting it here anyway)
West Side Story (1961)

...and so on.

Now, yes, many of these started on stage - but not vaudeville. Broadway. Some of these incorporated vaudeville stunts (Singin' in the Rain, Wizard of Oz) or used actors who had trained in vaudeville (though Gene Kelly, it should be noted, came from Broadway, not vaudeville, and Judy Garland was not from vaudeville.) And technically, we could possibly call West Side Story a filmed opera.

But my main point is, the history of Hollywood musicals is a rich one, not merely from vaudeville. The type shown on film varied: sometimes films had long intervals between songs; sometimes films were sung right through. My issue with Mary Poppins musically is that it takes neither approach. The great songs are as I noted, great. The problem is all of the other songs, which appear every two minutes - not quite sung quite through, but not quite allowing the film to breathe between songs either.

Thanks very much for your comment though - as you can see it got me thinking.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
17. Booksnhorses
One of my favourite 'facts' is that the Glasgow Herald, or similar paper ran a sports headline "Super Cally are Fantastic, Forfar are Atrocious"!
Mari Ness
18. MariCats
@hoopmanjh - All of the establishing shots were matte paintings, which I actually think for this film worked better than location shooting.

@AwesomeAud - Heh. I was so thinking that "these are not real robins" that I totally missed that they were male American robins. Thanks ;)

And yeah, that scene didn't quite work with Mary's character in the movie.

@cythraul - I agree that the relationship between Mary Poppins and Bert is all the better for being platonic - on her side. I just wish the romantic hints had been cut entirely since they aren't going anywhere anyway.

The books virtually come straight out and announce that Mary Poppins isn't human and comes from supernatural origins - especially the third book. Disney, though, was working mostly from the first book, where the second chapter is a lot less clear about this - it's Bert, not Mary, that gets the magic going there, and Mary in that chapter is pretty much an ordinary nanny. Given that the later books more or less establish Mary Poppins as a goddess, I can see Disney deciding to keep her just a touch more ordinary.

Oh, and the song you quote? ONe of the better songs of the film, I think.

@Booksnhorses - HEE. That's awesome.
alastair chadwin
19. a-j
Interesting.
I don't think I've read an article on this site which I've disagreed with more:).
The songs are, for me, brilliant (with the exception of 'Step in Time') and along with The Jungle Book are the best soundtracks Disney films ever gave us and I feel you are harsh on the quality of the singers other than Julie Andrews. David Tomlinson (Mr Banks) in particular does a marvellous and comic job using the Rex Harrison 'part reciting part singing' technique. I love the lyrics finding them witty and clever. In fact, the script overall has lovely language throughout, stylised and funny.
Now the bank: the point here is not that the bank is evil, it is heartless and Michael restores its heart by indirectly killing the senior partner (the critic Mark Kermode likes to joke that this is really a horror film) and the final song ('Fly a Kite') shows the partners discovering the simple joys of life along with the Banks family. Oh, and fwiw, the scene of the customers panicking and demanding all their money is a very accurate account (albeit shortened) of a run on a bank. I saw one happen in my own town when rumours started that the Northern Rock bank had no funds left leading to queues outside branches with managers running up and down desperately trying to pursuade the savers that their money was safe but them still demanding full withdrawal just in case. It was the first run on a British bank, I believe, since the 19th century. Oh, and the British press used the scene from the film to illustrate how a run begins and cascades into disaster.
Agreed that the animated sequence is far too long, as is the 'Step in Time' one- for me anyway, I know people who maintain it's one of the finest dance routines ever filmed - and Dick van Dyke's accent remains a joke here in England fifty years after the film's release.
So I would say it is a fantasia of a vision of Edwardian London which uses the original book as a quarry with which to create a filmic version and, as I commented on the discussion of the book, I love both and am so glad they are both out there.
Mari Ness
20. MariCats
@a-j That's fine :) People are welcome to disagree with me. But I think you may have misunderstood a couple of the points that I was making here, unless I'm misunderstanding you?

For instance, I did not, at any point, say that any of the performers other than the kids were bad singers, nor do I think I was particularly harsh about any of their singing voices (except the kids). I said that Julie Andrews outsings them, which is not quite the same thing. David Tomlinson's singing voice is fine as as far as it goes, but since you mentioned Rex Harrison, the difference between this film and My Fair Lady is that even though (or maybe because of) someone else had to sing for Audrey Hepburn, the perfomers for the most part don't outsing each other. I will say that part of the problem may be that for the most part, Julie Andrews gets the showier, more memorable songs, but I don't think that's just it.

But again, apart from the kids, and they're otherwise so cute this is forgiveable, I wasn't criticizing the singers, but the songs, and how they are presented. I think the movie would work fine sung straight through, or alternatively like Singin' in the Rain - with more space to breathe between songs, allowing every song to be a showstopper. Some of the songs in this film genuinely are, but most, alas, were not. At least for me.

Thanks for your comments about bank runs in England, though - very interesting! I agree completely that the bank here isn't particularly evil, apart from the bit where they fire Mr. Banks, which is why I'm kinda puzzled by the decision to try to portray the bank as so evil.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
21. HelenS
The biggest problem with the animatronic robins was that they were
*North American* robins, not *European* robins, which is an entirely
different bird (also the two robins building a nest are both MALE
robins!).

Wait, there's a difference? I mean between male and female American robins. The ones I see in Seattle all look exactly the same to me.
alastair chadwin
22. a-j
MariCats@20
Re the singing
That was me misunderstanding you. Sorry.
Re the songs
We'll have to agree to differ:)
Victoria L'Ecuyer
24. Rancho Unicorno
Withoutcommitting to the full fire of this discussion, I do think it interesting how much interpretations are colored by the viewers history.

@MariCats perspective of the portrayal of Mrs Banks in @14 sees Disney arguing that her fight for the right to vote is causing her to neglect her home. I see it as Disney arguing that it is easy to let personal causes, no matter how noble, to damage the family unit. The objective must be to put those causes in perspective. In the end, I see nothing to suggest that she gives up or reduces involvment with her movement, while Mr. Banks makes a change to be more involved with his family. I don't think either interpretation is right, but they are affected by our individual backgrounds.

Also, I noticed that while Mr. Banks is a very traditional conservative and Mrs. a progressive liberal, they are able to have a loving household and support each other. Aside from viewing the suffragette movement as a nonsensical, he does nothing to impede her involvement. In return, she attempts to minimize prosecution of her goals in the home, putting away paraphernalia but not remaining quiet about them.
Mari Ness
25. MariCats
@Ranchero Unicorno - Good point about letting personal causes damage the familial unit. I agree that's going on as well.

But if the issue is just personal causes, why, exactly, choose the suffragette movement? Women were involved in all sorts of causes in the Edwardian era; why that one?

You are correct that the film never states that Mrs. Banks announces that she'll be giving up her movment -- but she does decide to make more time with her family at the same time that Mr. Banks does, and the film goes explicitly out of its way to tell us that Mr. Banks does keep his job, without having a corresponding scene assuring us that Mrs. Banks will be having another meeting with the suffragettes.

I do agree that Mr. and Mrs. Banks are able to love each other despite their political differences - but they don't seem to be communicating very well until Mary Poppins comes along. Look how long it takes her to tell him that the nanny has left. Having said that, I think the ending of the film assures us that their marriage is going to be a lot happier and stronger in the future.
Jenny Thrash
26. Sihaya
Then I don't get your complaint about the quantity of music in "Poppins" at all. It doesn't have to be a modern musical at all. And I think it cleaves more closely to the mixed bag of a Hope/Crosby film. We stop for jokes from Mary's uncle, various talents from Dick Van Dyke, etc. This film very clearly mines that source material. To me, it totally works.

And I don't think Disney and/or Travers made Mrs. Banks a suffragette in order to take her position down. I think she was made a suffragette in order to include a woman who wasn't in a domestic position. As others have pointed out, Mrs. Banks remains a suffragette; it's the traditional male role model who actually loses everything he thinks is important.

While some middle class and upper middle class families did use childcare before the 1960s, the quantities boomed, and I definitely stand by my statement that this was a new and anxiety filled concept to quite a few people.
Mari Ness
27. MariCats
@Sihaya -

1) Well, Mary Poppins is a 1964 film using music written in the 1960s. It is, therefore, by definition, a modern musical. I'd use different terms for The Pirates of Penzance (not modern) or Wicked (which is technically postmodern.)

But that's all pretty pedantic and not really important. Let me get back to the structure of musicals, which, modern or not, usually take two approaches:

They can either be sung straight through (West Side Story) or they can use a narrative combined with musical numbers where almost every musical song is complete in itself and usually (but not always) drives the narrative. The songs do not flow from one song to another although musical motifs may connect songs, but almost every song is sung straight through from beginning to end. (The Sound of Music, Singin' in the Rain.) The spoken parts also end at an appropriate place to start singing.

Neither happens in Mary Poppins. In the first twenty minutes, three songs are cut off midway - this even got corrected on the soundtrack, which presents the completed version of these songs. Meanwhile, the spoken parts last for about 30 seconds to two minutes - so brief that they feel as if they are interrupting the songs, and yet the songs in turn feel as if they are interrupting the spoken parts. This is especially true in the bit where we first enter the Banks' house. I'd completely forgotten this bit, and watching it this time, I was struck by just how off the pacing was.

So my issue is with the pacing of the film, which tries to mix and match sung-through with non-sung through, which does not give the speaking parts enough time and actually cuts off these songs and does not allow them to be completely sung. This improves a little with the animation sequence, the Tuppence a Bag song, and the chimney sweep bits, where the songs are sung from beginning to end, but that doesn't change the problem I have with the first bits.

"I think she was made a suffragette in order to include a woman who wasn't in a domestic position. As others have pointed out, Mrs. Banks remains a suffragette; it's the traditional male role model who actually loses everything he thinks is important."

So, are you arguing that the only way to have Mrs. Banks in a non-domestic position was to make her a suffragette? I mean, I guess, but that does seem to ignore the many non-domestic positions that women did hold in the Edwardian era: as journalists, artists, teachers, nurses, organizers/managers of charities, owners of businesses, acting and musical positions, and more. A few even worked as scientists, doctors, editors, songwriters, and in other positions.

Walt Disney himself knew some of these women.

So if Disney had to get Mrs. Banks out of the house (and in the books, she stays in the house), he had other professions to choose from. Instead he chose the suffragette movement, and had another woman in the film complain about it, and a man make fun of it.

And Mr. Banks doesn't lose everything he thinks is important. It's clear that he could have his job back when he has his final confrontation with the bank: he just realizes that his family is more important - and refuses to humiliate himself further, walking out. At the end of the film, he has it all back: family and job.

It may help to realize that Walt Disney was not a fan of the feminist movement. For instance, he actively kept his women artists on the animation staff in lesser roles, and constantly referred to them as "girls." This is very well documented. He was very concerned about the survival of the nuclear family, and shaped his movies to help focus on this. Also well documented.

What's interesting, though, is that something - Travers' involvement in the film, perhaps, or Julie Andrews or something else - kept this film from being anti-feminist. You, after all, are reading it as more feminist than people give it credit for, and, as I said in the original post, I'm reading it as a mixed message - not pro feminist, certainly, but not completely anti-feminist either.

Regarding childcare:

As a recovered historian, I've had the dubious pleasure of studying U.S. census records and labor histories, and they paint a very different picture of the history of childcare than the one you are suggesting.

In one set of U.S. Census records I had to study, one of the most commonly listed jobs? Some form of professional childrearing.

In the 1930s.

This wasn't an aberration, or something just from the 1930s, either.

Different sorts were available: servants who lived in the house, sometimes doing other work as well (in the book we see the English nanny Mary Poppins doing housecleaning, shopping and cooking along with supervising/caring for the children, so this wasn't unusual.); boarding houses that offered the equivalent of day care for "widowed mothers," widows who listed caring for children as their chief source of income, people who ran or taught in small schools for infants or children too small for kindergarten, and so on. And then there's the various older relatives listed as living with large families who may or may not have helped out with childcare - it's a huge assumption to make, granted, but we do see media and letters from the period noting that Aunt So and So has come to help out with the kids. Though to be fair, I don't think that you or I would call that "professional" childcare or the same kind.

I'm not going to deny that the 1960s were a period of social turmoil and changes in the role of women, or deny that Mary Poppins was in part a response to that. But to say that "some" middle and upper middle families used childcare prior to the 1960s seems to be a distortion of the historical record.

I probably sound impatient here, and I am, because I keep encountering this idea that professional childcare is new, that women working outside the home is new, when we have records showing that this was happening all the way back in the Assyrian period. The type of professional childcare varied; the work available to women varied.

Which means that alas, you seem to have touched one of my historical buttons, just as I touched your musical buttons! I hope we're coming to a better understanding now.
Mari Ness
28. MariCats
Comics artist John Troutman has kindly reminded me that although Walt Disney generally kept his women artists in lower positions, he also supported the work of animation artist Mary Blair, proving that Walt Disney was a complicated man.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
29. Sihaya
As for the first, that's clearly just going to be a difference in our tastes. To me, the interruptions between song and dialogue and song again were fine. And that's okay.

No, I do not think that the *only* way to make Mrs. Banks into a non-domestic was to make her a suffragette - but I think it was a very easy and grand shorthand in the narrative to get the message "Independent Feminist" across. Why wouldn't it be? And a character ridiculing her feminism doesn't mean the film is ridiculing her feminism. She certainly doesn't get poked harder most other characters in the film. I absolutely think your POV that the film was made by two feminists and one traditionalist is spot-on. To me, that's what makes it so very 1960s, and yes, very representative of emerging attitudes around a very 1960s sort of feminism. I'm sure that Disney didn't even knew he was making a halfway feminist message, a film that told working women that it would be alright. But he knew he wanted to make a film about a family that winds up happy, and he was doing it in the time he was doing it, and so he wound up making a product of the times.

Mr. Banks *does* lose it all when his family isn't the priority. He gets it back after. So yeah, he's the one punished for neglecting the homefront, in a way, even if his reasons for doing so were more due to anxiety about total penury than about greed or British class consciousness, per se (and I'm not sure that the reasons for his anxiety are as well spelled out as they could be in the movie. A contemporary version of the story might have focused more on the knife edge that Mr. Banks sat on).

If I understand what I'm reading correctly, while working in a domestic capacity was a common job among working women in the thirties, domestic professions among men and women were dipping. But more to the point, in the 1930 census, only 13% of married women worked outside the home, and only 11% of women who were listed as "homemakers." Then the Depression hit, and women were even less likely to be employed, in comparison to men, than they were before, and "help" was certainly being used less. Women who worked the home were very likely to work it alone. Suddenly "domestic science" was a thing, and a woman at home was supposedly employing domestic science each time she used a labor saving device, at least according to savvy marketers, and so the 1950s rolled around, and every good mom was supposed to be an at home mom. It was her profession! Sure this wasn't true, not by a long shot - but popular perception isn't the same as truth, and advertising and pop culture had been building up a perception about America in the last few years with the production of new media. So yes, by the time of the sixties, a certain anxiety had built up around leaving your kids to childcare all day and going to work, and it did seem new to alot of women to do anything more than a brief "mother's day out." By 1980, married women made up 56% of the labor force. And the film addressed the anxiety of that shift perfectly, by putting the woman who worked outside the home into a sort of normalized construct by creating a historical fantasy milieu, and then ending it all with happiness, at least to me. Jane and Michael were well taken care of by Mary and they were alright, but they knew who their mother is at the end of the day, and the arrangement of having the children cared for, and working outside of the home, actually worked out well for Mrs. Banks.


I guess I'll put it this way - women working outside the home and employing childcare wasn't new - but it was scarce enough that a resurgence of it made it seem new, and made it functionally new to society, at least in really great quantities. The dome wasn't a "new" concept when the Duomo was built, but it totally was. Arabic numerals were neither entirely new to Europe, nor were they Arabic, when Fibonacci published his work about them, but to the public upon which the idea exploded, they sure were functionally new and those Arabic traders sure invented something marvelous, didn't they? So a domestic in Abyssinia isn't a part of the 20th century American concept of "new." And realize I'm not putting down "old" - my major was anthropology rather than history, so "old" was my bag. And "everything old is new" was a functioning part of my undergrad thesis.


*I pulled the statistical numbers and the tidbit about the lesser hiring of women during the Depression out of the Third Annual Research Conference of the Bureau of the Census, 1987, the section entitled "Labor Statistics and Women's Work." The tidbit about "domestic science" and the lessening of "help" during the Depression comes from Prologue magazine in the National Archives, summer 2002, volume 34, no. 2, "Genaeology Notes: The 1930 Census in Perspective" by David Hendricks and Emily Patterson. Both documents are available online - my days of truly rigorous research for the heck of it are long gone.

Whew! Sorry this has been so longwinded. It has been very enjoyable, though. Thank you for the time and space.
Mari Ness
30. MariCats
@Sihaya - Ah, I see something else going on here with the U.S. Census Bureau and Domestic Science stats!

A quick caveat here: I should admit that using the 1930 stats is a bit of an issue since of course 1930 was during the height of the Great Depression, when lesser hiring was everywhere - not perhaps the best time to examine the U.S. workforce. Unfortunately when I did most of my research the full 1940s stats (listening names and education and jobs, etc.) hadn't been released by the U.S. Census Bureau so I kinda grabbed the latest stuff that I had.

But here's where the huge, huge misinterpretation is:

You state that only 13% of married women worked outside the home, and only 11% listed themselves as "homemakers."

When I add that up, I reach 24%.

What, I wonder, was going on with the other 76%?

This being the Depression, you might think it was safe bet that they were unemployed - except that unemployed women were typically listed as "homemaker" in census records. The answer was, yes, they were working - they were running businesses or working on farms or working as what we would now call freelancers from their homes. In 1850s Census records, for example, I ran across a long list of "mantua makers" - dressmakers, basically - who all lived in the same three boarding houses in an area of Charleston. Many had children. The boarding house next to these had three women listed as "nursemaid," even though almost no children were living in that house. It's possible that these nursemaids were working at other large households, walking to those houses on a daily basis, but it seems more likely that they were caring for the children of the mantua makers.

One of the reasons I remember this so clearly is because I was frankly startled to find that in 1850s, 1860s and 1870s Census records, which I was surveying, about 80% of women were listed as having a job. Very often that job was childcare or another domestic job, and I didn't encounter women lawyers or doctors or bankers (though there were women working in the fishing industry which I hadn't expected, to be honest), but they definitely had jobs. Inside and outside the home. And unless this business was in childcare - those schools for infants and small children that I mentioned, yes, they needed someone to care for the children while they worked.

Probing a bit further, I should note that by "homemaker," the people answering the form meant just that: women who were dedicated to home/raising their children and who did not have another job.

11%.

So actually, what seems to be the outlier here is women homemakers.

Going a bit further - Domestic Science programs actually sprung up a lot earlier. Mostly total sidenote: Lucy Maud Montgomery's best friend/cousin, Frederica Campbell, studied Domestic Science and became a popular and influential professor of Domestic Science before dying in her 30s from the flu - in 1919.

The big difference in domestic servants in 1930 and later had less to do with childcare and more to do with food preparation/appliances. Prior to the arrival of the refrigerator, preserving food for winter months through smoking, drying and (somewhat later) canning and other preservation methods was incredibly time consuming and labor intensive. As was the day to day cooking. As was laundry (I forgot to mention in my domestic jobs list just how many women would take in laundry to earn an income - but it wasn't a joke in pre washing machine days, and it was a job.) To a lesser extent so was washing carpets/cleaning floors in the days before vacuum cleaners. There's some great photos of people working to clean carpets in the 19th century and just how physically hard that was - you'd hang the carpet and hit it over and over again - but a carpet did mean that you didn't have to scrub the floor, often on hands and knees. Bonus!

Urban dwellers had some advantages, of course - they could buy bread from a professional baker; they could hire a mantua maker and have someone else handsew the dress; they could buy prepared meat from the butcher's, and so on. But even urban dwellers hired at least one servant when they could.

(Other total sidenote: so I'm currently reading a book about a Victorian murder, and the household, described as middle class, has a cook, a housemaid, two gardeners, and a nursemaid who had a fourteen year old girl come in on a daily basis to help out. Even with all of these servants and two older daughters who were described as doing some of the housework (it's not clear how much) the household still sent out its laundry every week and bought prepared meat and bread from a butcher and a baker.)

This changed in the Industrial Revolution, when reliable stoves/ovens, sewing machines, cleaning supplies and other tools made housework much easier. It was a process that sped up throughout by the 20th century. By 1940, post the refrigerator, households did not have to have someone focused on cooking, and could manage their own cleaning.

So, yes, there was a decline in domestic servants after 1930 - a huge one - and a lessening of "help" after 1930, but that was for other domestic jobs. There was also a decline in the number of women in the labor force in the 1950s - in part because the domestic but paid jobs in cooking, laundry and dressmaking had largely vanished thanks to appliances. What happened in the 1960s was more a shift in the type of labor women did, not something entirely new in U.S. history.

And as you can see, I can be quite longwinded myself :) And yeah, I agree that this turned out to be a fascinating conversation :) Thanks!
Mari Ness
31. MariCats
One quick note/clarification to my last comment: for anyone startled by the percentage rate for employed women 1850, 1860, and 1870, that bit about 80% of women listed with jobs was in sampled sections, and I was looking more at the poorer sections. I suspect that percentages varied from city to city and within cities.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
32. Lisamarie
First, minor nitpick, the 'Tuppence a Bag' song is called 'Feed the Birds', and I think it is one of the most beautiful and melancholy songs in the Disney catalog. In fact, it was reputedly Walt Disney's favorite, and it was played at his funeral. When I was little, I was never even able to make it through Mary Poppins, because this scene was so sad, and then the bank scene was scary!

The discussion of working women is pretty interesting to me as well! One of my favorite saints/spiritual writers is Edith Stein (also known as St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, which was her name as a Carmelite nun) - she was an academic (she had a PhD in psychology) during the 1930s and wrote a lot about the vocation of the professional woman and how it is wrong to confine all women to the domestic sphere, to declare certain jobs only fit for men or women, etc (although she was definitey pretty conservative in her ideas on the importance/priority of the family, and femininity/masculinity having certain characteristics) and also about the importance of having female presences in traditionally masculine areas, and the idea that both men and women can and should exhibit 'feminine' and 'masculine' qualities, and will to varying degrees based on the person.

Anyway, one of the things I actually thought was kind of interesting when I was reading her stuff last year was that she mentions that the idea that women should assume only a domestic role, and men a professional role, is actually relatively recent (in Germany, in the 1930s); historically women DID work outside the home (due to economic/practical reasons - women had to work the land, work in other peoples' homes, in factories, etc) without all the angst seen then and now - it was just a fact of life. In addition to various cultural and economic shifts, she actually partially blames the Reformation for changing this...her idea here is that since Protestantism in general doesn't have the idea of consecrated virginity/religious sisterhood as a vocation, family/home life became elevated to such a point that it was seen as the only way to measure a woman's value, and they didn't have the same educational/vocational opportunities present in some religious orders. (To be clear, when she argues in favor of professional women, she doesn't restrict it to just nuns, but also argues that married women and mothers should be able to work as well if they are so inclined).

I'm really not sure how accurate that statement is, I'm guessing she's a tad biased, but it makes me chuckle and that's what the discussion of working women made me think of.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
33. John Cowan
I'm surprised that no mention of Saving Mr. Banks was made here.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
34. John Adcox
Dick Van Dyke does a marvelous, indeed perfect Cockney accent. Londoners do it wrong.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
35. Rachiel
All I will say is this. I loved Let's Go Fly a Kite. I would always sing it as a child when I needed to smile. Mary Poppins was never one of my favorite movies, but that song always warmed my heart.
Brent Webster
36. DirtiusMaximus
I heard an interview with Van Dyke in which he was gently teased about his accent in Mary Poppins, and he agreed with the interviewer, then offered this explanation: His coach on the accent was none other than J. Pat O'Malley, veteran actor and frequent Disney voice actor, who is of Irish heritage, though born and raised in England, but is no more cockney than Van Dyke himself.

For what it's worth.
Victoria L'Ecuyer
37. ~ Jeff W ~
(I realize it’s over two months “late” but I found the thread intriguing and wanted to add my 2¢.)

if the issue is just personal causes, why, exactly, choose the suffragette movement? Women were involved in all sorts of causes in the Edwardian era; why that one?

…the film goes explicitly out of its way to tell us that Mr. Banks does keep his job, without having a corresponding scene assuring us that Mrs. Banks will be having another meeting with the suffragettes.

My impression is that that choice was guided by the idea that the suffragette movement is an iconic cause for British women of that period, one that the audience would familiar with. It establishes clearly and instantly that Mrs. Banks is trying to be more “emancipated,” perhaps going through some transition. Obviously, Disney could have chosen another cause but I think, in general, he tended to go for archetypal choices—he didn’t exactly go outside the box. There is no corresponding scene assuring us that Mrs Banks will be having another meeting with the suffragettes because there is no issue raised that she won’t—as opposed to Mr Banks who is dismissed.

I think the portrayal of Mrs Banks fits pretty closely with the tropes having to do with wives in US TV and movies in the early 1960s—and maybe into the early 1970s (I am thinking of things like The Donna Reed Show and the early 60s Doris Day movies.): wives are “allowed” to be “accepted as equals” by their husbands who indulge them paternalistically. The whole thing is not taken all that seriously and generally played for laughs. It both acknowledges and denies the concerns of the nascent feminist movement.

if Mrs. Banks would just stop singing about the suffragette movement, and Mr. Banks is even worse

I’ve always tended to view the opening songs as somewhat heavy-handed expository pieces, i.e., this is who I am and what my concerns are. Each of the main characters (or Jane and Michael together) get one: Mr Banks ("The Life I Lead"), Mrs Banks ("Sister Suffragette"), Bert ("Pavement Artist") and Jane and Michael together ("The Perfect Nanny"). They’re not great but they serve a purpose. It’s no accident that Mary Poppins, who says to Mr Banks that she never explains anything, doesn’t have one.

…to have a song attempt to lead up to a romantic moment and then fail to give said moment

I think one of the ideas people walk away from Mary Poppins with is that the title character is a sweet, kind magical nanny who takes the kids on outings into chalkboard pictures and helps clean up their nursery with a song but one of the things I’ve always liked about the film—if not the main thing—is the subtext that runs against that: Mary Poppins is perverse and subversive. She maintains her power by “innocently” singing to Bert that his “sweet gentility is crystal clear” when he is obviously making something else clear. She “gaslights” her charges regarding the outing they just took (as cythraul puts it), denying them the opportunity to share the moment with her, even denying them their sense of what they feel that know. She manipulates and mocks her employer (“It’s time they learned to walk in your footsteps, to tread your straight and narrow path with pride”) and you can see her relishing both the fact that she is doing it and the fact that Mr Banks is clueless about it. She’s powerful, not just in the overt sense of being independent or having magic powers, but in the sense that she never loses control and no one else even realizes the extent of the control she has—and she seems to enjoy that.

I haven’t read the books by P.L. Travers so I don’t know how much of that is in the books but, clearly, the writers, if not Disney himself, tried to keep some of Travers’s original sensibility in the film. In an almost brilliant way, the movie recapitulates with the audience what Mary Poppins achieves with the Banks family: it almost doesn’t know what hit it.

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