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.


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