DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.
I’M GETTING TO THE ACCENT! JESUS!
You know, I was actually going to give Van Dyke a passed on the accent because I think it’s just part of the movie’s charm and so much has already been said about it but then I came across an interview where Dick claimed that the reason the accent was so bad was that his voice coach, J. Pat O’Malley, was Irish and that his cockney accent was just as bad as Dick’s. Now, as regular readers will know I am an Irishman and I cannot let this slur upon my nation’s honour pass so please allow me the indulgence of bitch slapping Dick Van Dyke with the internet for a few minutes.
I am after all, a reviewer second and a patriot first.
Okay Dick? Your story that your voice coach was an Irishman with a worse cockney accent than you is implausible, as there are no Irishmen with worse cockney accents than you. Christie Brown could do a better cockney accent than you.
Secondly, J Pat O’Malley, while I could totally see why you would think that from the name, was not Irish. He was born in Lancashire and did many voices for Disney, such as Tweedledum, Tweedledee and the Carpenter in Alice in Wonderland, Jasper in 101 Dalmatians and Cyril Proudbottom in Ichabod and Mr Toad.
What did all those characters have in common? They were all cockneys. It’s kind of odd really, Dick, that you thought that a man who spent a good portion of his professional life doing cockney accents couldn’t do a cockney accent. It’s almost like you had no idea what a cockney accent sounds like OH WAIT…
Okay, all joking aside Dick Van Dyke is phenomenal as Bert, showing in one scene why he’s one of the all time great physical comedians as he entertains the crowd. He makes up little rhymes on the spot which serve to introduce many of the minor characters that we’ll see later in the movie like Andrew the Yorkshire terrier and the Constable. The movie does a great job of making this fictional little suburb of London feel authentic and whole. Many of these characters pop in and out of the sidelines and it adds to the feeling that the story of the Banks family and Mary Poppins is just one of many that’s going on in Cherry Tree Lane. It’s excellent world building, which is not normally something you really get in a children’s musical. But then Bert stops as he feels the wind change and whispers quietly:
“Winds in the east, mist coming 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.”
I swear to God, I get goosebumps at that scene every time I see it. It just encapsulates the whole feeling of the movie. Something is coming. Something wonderful. Bert then snaps out of it and clowns around some more until he finishes his set. He then breaks the fourth wall and offers to take us, the audience (who he greets with “Oh, it’s you!” as if we’re old friends) to 17 Cherry Tree Lane. He leads us pass the home of Admiral Boom, who has converted his stately home into a battleship and fires his cannons twice a day to mark the time which causes the furniture in the neighbouring houses to go flying across the room with the impact.
Yeah, even before Mary Poppins arrives and starts making with the voodoo, Cherry Tree Lane is a weird place. I always wondered as a child why the Banks and their neighbours put up with Boom’s shenanigans.
Anyway, Bert leads us to the Banks family home and we hear crashes and raised voices and it appears we have a domestic disturbance here, people. That is, the domestics are disturbed. The Banks housekeeper, Ellen and their cook…um…Cook are in a tizzy because the family nanny, Katie Nana (played by Elsa Lancaster) is leaving. The Banks children, Jane and Michael, have run off for the fourth time this week and Katie Nana has had enough, goddammit. And you know,I can understand that. Lancaster seems a little frumpy but that’s no reason for the children to act like she’s some kind of monster.
Ellen tries desperately to prevent her from leaving, knowing that if she does she’ll be stuck minding the little shits, whereas Cook pretty much asks Katie Nana not to let the door hit her ass on the way out. They’re interrupted by Mrs Banks (played by Glynis Jones) arriving home from a suffragette march.
Let me make this absolutely clear. I. Freaking. Love. Winifred Banks.
I’ve heard people claim that Mrs Banks is supposed to be a straw feminist, and that through her the movie mocks the Women’s Suffrage movement. Well, it’s a free country and everyone is entitled to their silly, silly, wrong little opinions but let me mount a rebuttal here.
1) THIS is a straw feminist.
Straw feminists are humorless, shrill, unreasonable and unless the actress playing them manages to wrestle a little humanity in there, completely unlikable. They are not, as a general rule, adorable firecrackers with kickass songs. I’m a guy, and I want to throw eggs at Prime Minister Asquith when I hear Sister Suffragette.
Does Mrs Banks come across as a little silly and ridiculous? Duh. Yes. It’s Mary Poppins, any adult character whose name doesn’t begin with “M” and end with “ary Poppins” is ridiculous to some extent. But Mrs Banks comes across as more sensible and sympathetic than the vast majority of the others. In how many kids movies do you hear the name of Emmeline Pankhurst? How many movies do kids see where the fact that women had to fight to get the right to vote is even mentioned? Not only that, how many movies, period, depict feminism of any wave as something joyous and positive and FUN? Go on, I’ll wait.
2) Now, the big criticism I’ve heard against Mrs Banks is that once Mr Banks (David Tomlinson) comes home she instantly hangs her sash up and becomes the devoted housewife, hanging on George Banks’ every word and that this somehow is a rebuttal of her feminism. But that’s to entirely miss the point of the joke. Let me explain what I mean.
George Banks comes home, singing The Life I Lead, a song that basically makes the point that being a white Englishman in turn of the century Britain is freaking sweet. George Banks is an archetypal father-knows-best, lord-and-master-of-the-household kind of guy. He comes home expecting his sherry and pipe to be laid out, his wife waiting for him when he gets home and his children to be bathed and dressed for bed so that he can favour them with a fatherly pat on the head and send them off to be looked after by the woman he has employed to act as a parent for them. And, presumably because she loves him, Mrs Banks does indeed buy into this and plays her part as the devoted wife. But it’s not Mrs Banks who’s being satirised, it’s Mr Banks. As much as he is that archetypal father figure, he is also a rather pointed parody of it. The point of the movie is that Mr Banks’ way of doing things doesn’t work. His children don’t need a tough, stern, managerial overlord, they need a father who loves them and who isn’t ashamed to show that he loves them. His wife does not need him as a leader, because the movie makes it very clear that he’s rather dim and is terrible at it, but as an equal partner. It’s Mr Banks who is a figure of ridicule in this movie, and it is Mr Banks that must change his behaviour before the end. If Mrs Banks also comes across as somewhat ridiculous, it is not because she is a feminist, but perhaps because she is not feminist enough in challenging Mr Banks sooner.
Okay, dismounting from my soapbox now. Anyway, it turns out that Jane and Michael didn’t mean to run away and that they were just chasing a kite. George gruffly sends them to their room and he and Winifred draft an advertisement to the Times for a new nanny. In A British Nanny, George articulates his idea of the kind of person they’re looking for, essentially Jo Frost crossed with a Nazi Gauleiter. Jane and Michael then enter and tell their parents that they’re very sorry and that they want to help with finding a new nanny. They then read their advertisement which they sing as The Perfect Nanny. This is a very sweet song where the two kids promise the prospective nanny not to be bad if she’s nice to them. It’s also very sad that one of the children’s criteria is that the new nanny should “love us as a son and daughter”, something they’re obviously not getting from their father. Winifred listens sympathetically but George essentially gives them the bum’s rush and tears up their letter and puts it in the fireplace. But the pieces are magically sucked up through the chimney because Mary Poppins can control the wind. And she sees all. And she knows what you’re thinking.
A stream of nannies answer the Banks’ advertisement but Mary Poppins arrives and blows the competition away.
Okay, one of the reasons why I was adamant about including this movie in the reviews even though it’s not technically part of the Disney canon is that it feels so much like a Disney animated movie. The colours, the music and must especially the characters. I mean, these actors look like they were drawn in the Disney house style. Look:
They actors just LOOK like cartoon characters brought to life.
Mary Poppins quickly gets the job by befuddling Mr Banks thoroughly and before you know it she’s showing the kids how to clean the nursery with magic because Mary Poppins isn’t a hypocrite like some people I know.
Mary takes the children on an outing to the park and they meet up with Bert who’s switched professions to street artist. Bert sings his signature song Chim-chim-cheree and admires his drawings, saying “Not Royal Academy I suppose, still they’re better than a finger in the eye, ain’t they?”
Bert convinces Mary Poppins to take them all into one of his pictures, an idyllic drawing of the English countryside. This leads to the famous animated sequence which is very well done, but I just can’t get past the theological implications of this. I mean, Bert created this world. How are the people and talking animals here supposed to react to him? Jane and Michael run off to find a fair and Bert calls after them to “Tell ’em Bert sent ya!”
Mary and Bert amble along together to the strains of Jolly Holiday. The author of the original Mary Poppins books, Pamela Travers, was absolutely adamant that there be no hint of any romantic relationship between Bert and Mary. This is why the lyrics include “You’d never think of pressing your advantage/Forbearance is the hallmark of your creed” but the movie’s insistence that there’s nothing between them backfires somewhat, making it seem that Mary and Bert are simply playing coy. It doesn’t help that Van Dyke and Andrews have absolutely killer chemistry. What I’m saying is, Mary Poppins and Bert are madly in love and that’s just the way it is. We’re just going to have to deal with that.
Don’t believe me? Consider this: Watch the scenes in the chalk drawing again, observing how every male character reacts to Mary. Now…consider that this world was created by Bert and that all these characters are simply aspects of his psyche. I rest my case.
The animation in this sequence is excellent. It uses the same Xerography process as the other movies of the Scratchy Era but it looks a lot cleaner than the others. I don’t exactly know why. Maybe because there was less animation in this movie and a bigger budget they were able to devote more to cleaning it up. Whatever the reason, it looks gorgeous.
The sequence wraps up with Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Death to Spellcheckers) probably the most famous song in the film, which shows the Shermans at their joyous, sesquipedalian best. But all good things must come to an end and the skies open, bringing with them rainy Armageddon to this chalky world.
Mary Poppins and the children reappear in London, and they say goodbye to Bert as he erases the last of his drawings.
Back at the Banks’ house Mary gives Jane and Michael some medicine to stop them catching a cold. The medicine changes colour and flavour depending on who it’s being poured for (Lime for Jane, Strawberry for Michael, Booze for Mary and don’t you dare judge her). This effect was achieved with an actual working prop and neither of the children knew it was going to happen. Karen Dotrice’s (Jane’s) stunned”Oh!” when she sees the medicine changing colours is entirely genuine. Mary Poppins then puts the children to sleep with Stay Awake, which despite the title is a lullaby. And trust me, if you have kids this song is a godsend. Works every time.
The next day George is in foul humour because everyone in the house has been acting so fucking cheerful since Mary Poppins arrived. And there is definitely a good horror movie to be made from this set-up, isn’t there? A strange woman appears in your house and suddenly everyone is smiling and singing and spouting nonsense words. But no, George is just being a jerk. He even tells Winifred to get the piano tuned even though he doesn’t play.
So Mary is sent to the piano tuners with Jane and Michael (here’s a thought, when do these kids go to school?) but she gets waylaid by Andrew the Yorkshire terrier who barks to her that Uncle Albert needs her help. At least…we hope that’s what he was trying to tell her.
Arriving at Uncle Albert’s house Mary meets Bert who tells her that he’s never seen Albert as bad as this before. The children think he must be sick. We, the jaded, cynical audience, think it must be drugs. It turns out it’s neither. Uncle Albert has a condition where once he starts laughing he starts to fly. Albert is played by Ed Wynn, who was the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland and was apparently the only actor who was given freedom by director Robert Stevenson to go off script and improvise. The gravity defying effects in this scene are very impressive (hand on my heart, I’m not even sure how did they did some of these takes). Mary tries to get Albert to come down off the ceiling but as Bert, Jane and Michael one by one start laughing and floating upward she realises that if you can’t beat ’em join ’em and they all have a tea party on the ceiling. Albert does eventually come once Mary announces they have to leave and he’s brought down to earth by the power of manic depression. They leave him sobbing on the ground, which seems harsh but you have to remember, this is a tea party with Ed Wynn. This could have ended so much worse.
Back at the house George has had just about enough of all this fun and happiness and tries to fire Mary Poppins but instead gets talked into taking Jane and Michael to work with him in the bank. She goes upstairs and the children are distraught because they think she’s been sacked. Mary Poppins says “SACKED!?” in the same tone that most people reserve for repeating the name of the STD you’ve just told them you may have given them.
Apparently being sacked is something that Mary Poppins just doesn’t do. And…I didn’t know you could do that.
Mary tells them that their father is going to take them on an outing to the bank, and the children are overjoyed. Jane tells Michael that George will be able to point out all the sights of the city to them, but Mary tells them that there are some things that George can’t see, even though they’re right in front of him.
And then…though we are not worthy…we get Feed the Birds.
Towards the end of his life, Walt would often visit the Sherman Brothers. They would talk and sit around the piano, discussing work, family, the industry. And then maybe there would be a lull in the conversation. Then Walt would say two words:
The Sherman Brothers, two of the most prolific and successful songwriters in American history, with literally hundreds of classic songs under their belt, never needed to ask which song he wanted to hear.
Its beauty is in its simplicity. Mary sings of an old woman on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral, selling crumbs to feed the birds for two pennies. The song takes this, the smallest conceivable act of charity in a cruel world, and turns it into something transcendentally beautiful, an act that lifts the giver closer to heaven. It is not inconsequential or meaningless, but truly divine.
The next day George takes Jane and Michael to the bank and they see the bird woman just as Mary described her. Michael has tuppence and he wants to feed the birds but George refuses to let him. In the bank, George introduces the children to his boss, Mr Dawes Snr.
Okay, I thought that everyone knew who played Mr Dawes but I have already spoilt this for three people so if you don’t know and don’t want to be spoilt for a movie that is almost HALF A CENTURY OLD look away now…
I just realised that I didn’t tell them when they could look back. I’ve lost them forever. They’ll go drifting through the cold vacuum of the internet forever. Oh well.
Mr Dawes is played of course by Dick Van Dyke who played the part unpaid just because it looked like so much fun and he wanted to do it. Hilariously, the actors playing Jane and Michael had no idea it was him and were terrified that this old man who was falling about the place was going to get himself killed. Mr Dawes tries to get Michael to give up on this foolish dream of feeding the birds and invest his tuppence in the bank where it can be put to good use funding all kinds of projects to kick the Kaiser’s ass. But when Mr Dawes takes the money from him Michael goes berserk, demanding that he give the money back.
When the other customers hear someone screaming “Give me back my money!” they assume that the bank has run out of cash and suddenly there’s a run on the bank. While it might seem unrealistic that a small child could wreck such havoc in a major financial institution, it happens more often than you’d think.
Jane and Michael escape in the chaos as panicked account holders swarm into the bank to get their money. Fortunately, Cockney Jimmy Stewart is on hand to restore order.
After a brief run through the seedier parts of London the children are found by Bert who takes them home. Mrs Banks is on her way out the door when the children arrive back. Mary Poppins is on her day off, and Ellen is…not amenable to the idea of looking after the children…
…so Mrs Banks asks Bert to look after them and hires him to sweep their chimney. (Oh yeah, Bert’s a chimney sweep now. He changes jobs more often than Homer Simpson.)
Bert and the children get the room ready and Mary Poppins arrives home. Michael suddenly gets sucked up the chimney. Mary acts like it’s Bert’s fault but, c’mon. Something gets mysteriously sucked up the chimney the second Mary Poppins enters the room? That’s a pretty big coincidence. I’m betting she just lost control of her powers. Then Jane gets sucked up too. As Wilde put it, to lose one child could be considered unfortunate, to lose both looks like carelessness so Mary and Bert head up the chimney after them.
The four go exploring the rooftops of London and meet up with Bert’s chimney sweep friends. This leads in to Step In Time, the movie’s big showcase number. This is just a flat out, no holds barred, dance-until-your-legs-give-out-and-then-dance-some-more barnstormer of a number. Both Van Dyke and Andrews are on fire here, and there’s also some very good wirework when Mary Poppins spins in the air. At least, I think it’s wire work. Either that or she’s Wonder Woman.
The party is cut short when they attract the attention of Admiral Boom, who screams “WE’RE BEING ATTACKED BY HOTTENTOTS!”
Ah. I see. Because their faces are covered in soot. So you think they’re black. Ah ha.
The sweeps seek refuge in the underworld, coming down the Banks’ chimney much to the consternation of Mr Banks who demands that Mary Poppins explain what’s going on which leads to the following exchange:
Mary Poppins: First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear.
Mr. Banks: Yes?
Mary Poppins: I never explain anything.
George gets a call from the bank telling him to be there at nine, and it’s pretty clear he’s for the chop. George and Bert have a lovely scene together where Bert sympathises with George while at the same time subtly trying to steer him towards realising that his children are growing up without him.
Tomlinson manages to make George at once both ridiculous and genuinely sympathetic and Van Dyke pulls back the energy to show a new side to Bert. The scene is also important because it acknowledges, really for the first time, that George is not a clown or an ogre. He’s just a man trying to do one of the hardest jobs in the world, providing for his family while being a good dad.
“You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone/Though childhood shifts, like sand through a sieve.”
Jane and Michael come down to tell their father they’re sorry for the trouble they’ve caused him, and Michael gives George the tuppence. George is profoundly moved by this, and as he stares in awe of the two tiny coins in his hand, the music reprises the theme of Feed the Birds. A tiny act of kindness, with immense power.
George returns to the bank to face his punishment, a hilariously overdramatic cashiering where George’s carnatian is shredded and his umbrella is turned inside out (with one of the banker’s even exclaiming “No! Not that!”)
Even the director seems in on it. When one of the bankers destroys Georges hat, we don’t actually see it, the camera flits back to Mr Dawes as if the sight of a banker’s bowler hat being trashed was simply too horrible to be shown. So there’s George, standing in front of his former colleagues, ridiculed, disgraced and reduced to nothing. Dawes asks him if he has something to say.
George looks down and sees the tuppence in his hands, and you can almost see the weight lifting off him. And at last he realises how much he has. It sounds cliché, but it’s a moment of incredible joy. Because this was never the story of Mary Poppins. This was always the story of George Banks, and how he learned what was really important.
Pausing only to tell Mr Dawes a joke he learned form Michael, George dances off into the London singing like a loon.
The next morning Winifired has called the police as George still hasn’t come home yet. Upstairs, Jane and Michael are tearfully trying to convince Mary Poppins not to leave. Jane asks her “Don’t you love us?” to which Mary simply replies “And what would happen to me, might I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?”
Mrs Banks and the domestics wonder where George might be, with Ellen noting that there’s a “nice spot near the river that’s popular with jumpers.” And I have to say, I sort of love how cavalier kids movies used to be about suicide.
But it turns out George hasn’t killed himself (how sensible of him), and instead has been fixing Jane and Michael’s kite. He calls them down and we get our final song Let’s Go Fly a Kite. It is awesome. Not much else needs to be said. Jane and Michael go to the park with their parents, George is told by Mr Dawes Jnr that Mr Dawes Snr died laughing from the joke that Mr Banks told him and there’s now an opening for a new partner.
Mr Banks has his job back, the family is reunited and Mary Poppins quietly takes her leave, her job done. Only Bert notices her departure, smiling up at her and telling her not to stay away too long.
Walt Disney would often cite Mary Poppins as his single greatest achievement and it’s hard to argue with that. You watch it as a child. It’s perfect. You watch it as an adult, it’s perfect in new and entirely different ways. This is beautiful, humane, big-hearted film-making, and one of the all time greats.
Only a little animation to be sure, but what there is some 0f the very best work of the studio during this period.
The Leads: 20/20
The Villain: N/A
No, Mr Dawes doesn’t count. He redeems at the end. Disney villains do not redeem. End of story.
Supporting Characters: 18/20
Maybe the child actors are a little weak in places, but even so it’s a nearly flawless showing from the supporting cast.
The Music: 20/20
The Shermans’ best work. And that is saying a LOT.
FINAL SCORE: 93%
NEXT WEEK: The Unshaved Mouse returns to the very first Disney movie he ever saw, and confronts some uncomfortable truths.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!