Retro Review: Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins poster
Original release poster for Mary Poppins

If one were to cite a single film as the definitive example of the musical genre, there are several titles they could pick from – The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music and Grease to name but a few; yet to many, the movie that best exemplifies the genre is Walt Disney’s classic tale about a caretaker who charms a family with her whimsy.

It’s 1910, and the Banks family of Cherry Tree Lane, London, has lost Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester), the latest in a succession of quitting nannies, owing to the mischievous behaviour of the children in her care, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber). With father George (David Thomlinson) employed full-time at a local bank, and mother Winifred (Glynis Johns) part of the Women’s Suffragette movement, neither parent is able to mind their offspring, so they immediately advertise for a replacement nanny.

The person who eventually assumes the advertised role is Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), a magical woman who flies through the skies with a parasol, keeps all her belongings in a deceptively-large carpet bag and can ascend staircases by simply sitting on the adjacent railing. Through a combination of sternness, sweetness and singing, the new nanny is swiftly able to discipline Jane and Michael, who are enchanted by her abilities and eager to accept her as part of their household.

Mary Poppins is the realisation of a pledge which legendary producer Walt Disney made years earlier to his own children, that being to turn the books of P.L. Travers into a feature-length film. After an elongated and fraught pre-production process – the events of which were dramatised in Saving Mr. Banks only a few years ago – the picture premiered in 1964 to widespread acclaim, with critics comparing it favourably to Disney’s earlier masterpieces like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio.

Pivotal to the success of Mary Poppins was Julie Andrews as the eponymous nanny, in a performance she has never bested. Andrews faultlessly embodies her character, equally adept at showing her kind, gentle side and brusquer elements of her personality – there are instances when Mary Poppins becomes distant and even cold to the concerns of others, which does make her less likeable, but that’s more the fault of the screenwriters and director than Andrews. Other than that, she’s a source of endless elation.

Joining Andrews are several supporting players who complement her whimsical ways, chief among them Dick van Dyke as the loveable cockney, Bert. Cast primarily for his comedic talents, van Dyke often steals the limelight with his cheeky smile and physical buffoonery, but he’s also a figure of great warmth, geniality and understanding, selling himself as a friend to Jane and Michael rather than an authority figure. Indeed, Bert is such an endearing figure that not even van Dyke’s dodgy, unconvincing accent can rob him of his charms.

Mary Poppins - sweeps
Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews (rear) with Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber in Mary Poppins

A lesser character who enlivens proceedings is the Banks’ neighbour Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen), an erstwhile naval officer who relives his sea-faring days from the topmost part of his home.  Like clockwork, he’ll fire his cannon once in the morning, and again in the evening, with the explosions so timely that the Banks household casually, hilariously treats them as a minor disruption. Regrettably, Boom’s character is somewhat tarnished by his mentions of “Hottentots”, a derogatory term for the nomadic tribespeople of Africa.

Elsewhere in the film, there are several sequences that have left an indelible mark on the medium, including an extended animated portion that sees Mary Poppins, Bert, Jane and Michael leap into a chalk drawing and have a lovely, leisurely time – over the course of their day, the foursome partakes in numerous activities, including singing with farm animals, dancing with penguins, interrupting a fox hunt and winning a horse race. The entirety of this sequence is colourful, captivating and beautifully drawn, to the point where the viewer is disappointed when it concludes.

Another sequence that ranks among the most notable in Mary Poppins is a twilight adventure on the rooftops of London with Bert and his chimney-sweeping chums. Set to the tune of the Sherman Brothers’ song “Step in Time”, this moment sees van Dyke and an ensemble of male acrobats sing, leap and dance in a lively, brilliantly-choreographed manner. Like Bert himself, these scenes are so merry and sprightly that one cannot help but be enthralled by them.

The tune that accompanies the abovementioned sequence is just one of several perpetually hummable numbers composed by Robert and Richard Sherman, with their work in Mary Poppins unquestionably being the highlight of their careers. It’s a very eclectic soundtrack too, which includes “The Life I Lead”, David Thomlinson’s statesmanlike song which doubly serves as exposition; Julie Andrews’ moving lullabies “Stay Awake” and “Feed the Birds”; and the upbeat numbers “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.

In addition to having a catchy sound, Mary Poppins is a film that looks amazing, especially when one considers its age. Every live-action scene the viewer sees has been filmed within the studios of Burbank, but the scale and detail of the sets suggest otherwise, with the buildings and their interiors looking near realistic. The special effects, meanwhile, are well-masked by the rather rudimentary technology of the period, giving the impression that the titular protagonist really is floating through the air.

The best musicals have an ability to transcend generations and become timeless, even as the genre’s popularity fluctuates; Mary Poppins is certainly among that company, with its memorable characters, songs and visuals serving as a reminder of how joyous the medium can be.  Save for one or two elements, it’s an impeccable picture.


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