Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mary Poppins (1964) - The Peak of Walt Disney's Career

Walt Disney Hits a Grand Slam in the Ninth

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964

"Mary Poppins" (1964), directed by Robert Stevenson, is a Walt Disney Productions film based on the series of children's books (1934-1988) by Australian novelist (screenplay by ).

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964 Dick Van Dyke

It is a live-action film with several animated sequences that were drawn using the new xerographic animation process that had been introduced in the 1961 "One Hundred and One Dalmations."

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke behind the scenes of "Mary Poppins."

Set in 1910 Edwardian England, "Mary Poppins" was shot at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Upon its release, "Mary Poppins" became a phenomenal success, the top box office success in a year of classic films and, on a price-adjusted basis, still one of the top grossing films of all time. It also has been reissued to continued success.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
"No romance!" ordered Travers, which only makes the covert romance sweeter.

There aren't a lot of films that become so legendary that later films are made about their genesis and filming. "Mary Poppins" fits into that tiny club ("Citizen Kane" and "Gone With the Wind" also are members). The 2013 "Saving Mr. Banks" starring Tom Hanks became a phenomenon in its own right, generating renewed interest in the original film and reintroducing "Mary Poppins" to a new generation of viewers.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964

Coming along at a time when Disney's catalog of live-action films was less than stellar ("The Shaggy Dog" and "Swiss Family Robinson" were two of the better-received releases), "Mary Poppins" had far-reaching results that continue to this day. We'll get to those later, though. First, let's look at the film itself.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Sliding up bannisters is quite a trick!

Bert (no last name) is a Cockney with no fixed means of support. He supports himself by a variety of entertaining schemes, such as painting on sidwalks. One days, as he is garnering contributions by performing as a one-man band at a park entrance, Bert suddenly realizes by a change in the wind that something momentous is about to happen. He then introduces the film audience (breaking the fourth wall) to various eccentric local characters, such as Admiral Boom and the nearby Banks family.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
The children, Jane and Michael, played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber. 

George Banks is a conservative banker, and his wife is frustrated suffragette Winifred. Their two children, Jane and Michael, are cared for by nanny Katie Nanna (Elsa Lanchester, who was famous as "The Bride of Frankenstein"). The children have been running off, and when it happens again, she quits in exasperation despite the entreaties of Ellen the maid.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
The three stars of the proceedings at the premiere.

Because Katie Nanna is very strict, though, others are not displeased with her departure. George places an advertisement for another strict nanny, but the children draft their own version seeking a fun-loving lady. George takes the children's paper and burns it in the chimney, causing the paper's ashes to float out into the night.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
One of the most iconic scenes from "Mary Poppins."

The next day, while a line of stern replacements waits in line in response to George's ad, a strong wind blows them away and also blows in another candidate, the lovely Mary Poppins. Poppins is able to fly with her magical umbrella, and she states that she is responding to the children's version of the ad rather than George's. Despite George's uncertainty, Poppins quickly ingratiates herself with the children via her bottomless carpetbag full of gifts and toys. She also has the power, by snapping her fingers, to make the children's room come alive and clean itself, much to their delight.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
David Tomlinson steals several scenes as George.

Poppins happens to be a friend of Bert's, and it was her imminent arrival that he had sensed in the park. She takes the children to meet him in the park, where he is drawing chalk portraits on the sidewalk. Mary Poppins uses her powers to take the group into one of the paintings, where they enjoy an outing in an animated countryside. The children and Poppins ride a merry-go-round while Bert dances with penguins at an outdoor restaurant. The horses magically break free and take the children and Poppins on a ride over the nearby countryside. As they watch, Bert manages to save a fox from a fox-hunt, and they all wind up a horserace which Mary Poppins, on her merry-go-round horse, wins. After Poppins and Bert sing ""Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," a storm arises, washing away the chalk drawing on the sidewalk and returning everyone to the real world.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Ed Wynn: We're so sorry we have to go, Uncle Albert.

The children now are rightfully entranced by the wonderful Poppins and ask her how long she can stay, and she replies only until the wind changes. The next day, she takes them to visit her Uncle Albert, who has the ability to float in the air. They take tea together, floating in the air, but Poppins decides that they are having too much fun and stops the frivolity.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Now this is riding in style.

Later, the children tell George of their wonderful adventures with Poppins, and he decides to dismiss her for filling their heads with nonsense. Instead, she convinces George to take the children with him to his bank. Along the way, the children see the "Bird Woman" who Poppins had mentioned the night before, but George hurries them along.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
An impromptu dance on the roof.

At the bank, they meet George's employers, Mr. Dawes Sr. and Jr. Mr. Dawes snatches a tuppence out of Michael's hand to deposit in the bank, and when Michael cries out in protest, the other bank customers misunderstand his shouting and begin a run on the bank, forcing the bank to close temporarily. The bank guard chases the children out, and they wind up in the slums of the East End. Bert is there, working as a chimney sweep, and he saves them from the dangerous area. As he takes them home, Bert soothes the children and mentions that their father is not a bad man at all, simply stressed and with nobody to lean on.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Julie Andrews never looked better.

Mrs. Banks asks Bert to mind the children on Poppins' day off and clean the chimney. Poppins returns, but is too late to prevent the children from being sucked up the chimney to the roof.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964

This leads to Bert and Poppins taking them on a tour of the nearby rooftops, where Bert dances with some of his friends who also are chimney sweeps.

Julie Andrews Emma Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews with daughter Emma on the set.

Admiral Boom notices them and has his assistant Mr. Binnacle set off some fireworks which sends the party back down their own chimney. George returns home to see what has happened and demands an explanation, but Poppins demurs, saying that she never explains a thing. George then receives a call to return to the bank immediately. Bert points out that George needs to take more of an interest in the children while they are young. Michael gives his father the tuppence to make up for the earlier incident at the bank.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Mary, Bert and the children.

George returns to the bank, but along the way he is thoughtful and begins to notice things he always had been too rushed to enjoy. At the bank, he is dismissed over "the first run on the bank since 1773." He responds with the nonsense word that Mary Poppins had sung earlier, then tells Mr. Dawes Sr. one of Uncle Albert's jokes, gives him Michael's tuppence and departs. After he departs, Mr. Dawes mulls over the joke, comes to understand it, then floats into the air, laughing.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
The merry-go-round scene can be scary for young viewers.

The next morning, the wind changes. Mary Poppins must leave, but first she worries that George has disappeared. He reappears, though, with his kite and takes the children out to play, with Mrs. Banks supplying one of her suffragette ribbons. They all head out to the park to fly the kite with Mary Poppins watching from the window. At the park, George runs into Dawes Jr., who also is flying a kite. He tells George that his father had passed away from laughing at Uncle Albert's joke. Pleased that George had given his father one last moment of joy, he rehires George and makes him a partner in the bank. Mary Poppins then leaves with the wind, Bert wishing her well and a speedy return.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Taking a ride on friendly turtles.

There are so many legendary features to "Mary Poppins" that it is difficult to know where to begin. The thirteen Academy Award nominations almost seem like a footnote. The casting alone has gone down in film lore as the most eccentric and wonderfully successful choices of all time.

Julie Andrews Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Julie Andrews is a class act. So was Walt Disney.

Julie Andrews, a promising stage actress, was available only after Jack Warner passed her over in place of Audrey Hepburn for "My Fair Lady" despite the fact that Eliza Doolittle was Andrews' signature role on Broadway.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Disney DVD art always is the finest - but Bert should be there, too.

Andrews drew so much praise for the role that she won the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award. One look at Poppins' knowing last glance at George and the children as they dance off to fly their kite completely sealed the deal, if nothing else. It was the best film debut in Hollywood history, bar none.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Dick Van Dyke with the old baggy pants routine.

Dick Van Dyke, meanwhile, was a rising television star who also had starred in the previous year's surprise hit "Bye Bye Birdie," but that's not why he was picked to play Bert. According to Van Dyke, it was because he had given a radio interview which Walt Disney happened to hear in which Van Dyke stressed the importance of family values, which were important to Mr. Disney.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
And here we see why the pants have to be baggy.

It was a stellar choice, as Van Dyke's dance scenes in "Mary Poppins" are perhaps the best and most iconic in film history. His dance scenes remain on people's minds, weirdly lampooned in the raunchy 2002 comedy "Run Ronnie Run," for instance.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
The iconic dance on the roof.

Van Dyke deserved a nomination even despite the fact that his accent was gloriously broad and stereotypical and tends to vary throughout. Lost in all the attention lavished on Andrews is the fact that Van Dyke also played Dawes Sr. to perfection. The rest of the cast does not deserve short shrift either: David Tomlinson is impeccable as George, Glynis Johns is wonderful as Winifred Banks, Hermione Baddeley is Ellen the maid, Reginald Owen is properly eccentric as Admiral Boom, and Ed Wynn is a joy as Uncle Albert (please see here for a possible Paul McCartney connection).

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
The scenes of Bert and Mary together are radiant.

"Mary Poppins" is a musical in the old style, but the songs are fresh and do not have the "Broadway" sound where actors belt them out such as in "South Pacific" or "Oklahoma." Instead, the songs are mellow and light and intricate, perfectly in keeping with the film's themes. "Let's Go Fly a Kite" fits into the story for several different reasons, both metaphorically and as a real activity, while Julie Andrews' "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" has entered the lexicon as a nod to "Mary Poppins" and nonsense songs in general. Other classic songs from the film, all of which were composed by Disney's house songwriters the Sherman Brothers, include "A Spoonful of Sugar," I Love to Laugh," and "Chim Chim Cher-ee."

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Disney animation at its finest.

There are echoes of other Disney films throughout "Mary Poppins," such as the tea party which echoes "Alice in Wonderland" and the "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" pick-up jazz band of fellow race-goers that foreshadows the later animal band in "The Aristocats," but it is what "Mary Poppins" led to which is the most amazing feat of all.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Walt Disney with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke at the premiere.

As the most successful film of 1965, a time when the Disney animation department was becoming too expensive and was in a creative slump after the wonderful flop "Sleeping Beauty," Walt Disney walked away with the staggering sum for that time of $28 million. He took that windfall and used it to purchase some swampland in Florida. Long after his own death the following year, the Disney company was able to realize Walt's dream and create Walt Disney World in Buena Vista, Florida.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Beautiful blend of live-action and animation.

Every child should see "Mary Poppins." Every adult, too. It bears repeat viewings. I'm a fan. For everybody involved, without exception, it was the high point of their career, whether they knew it then or know it now (Andrews and Van Dyke continue performing as of the date of this writing). Andrews did "The Sound of Music" the following year, a rare follow-up that matched her greatest success, while Van Dyke also had one more flash of lightning with "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and classic songs such as "Truly Scrumptious," "Toots Sweets" and "Me Ol' Bamboo" before returning to the small screen for good. Those later successes and many, many others confirmed that their explosion of talent in "Mary Poppins" was no freak occurrence, though it never again was quite the same.

Mary Poppins Walt Disney film 1964
Come back soon, Mary!

Below is the "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" scene, which incorporates everything that is best about "Mary Poppins": Julie Andrews singing gloriously with her superb vocal phrasing, Dick Van Dyke with his iconic jerky dance moves and, aside from the accent, the best acting of his career. And everything is accompanied by animated characters who convincingly take the place of real people. The way the two stars interact, though, is the highlight of "Mary Poppins."


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