This is the ultimate feel-good film, to watch again and again and then again with your kids and again with your grandchildren.
– An h2g2 Researcher
The story of the magical children's nanny Mary Poppins is the type of film that Disney excelled at. Disney adapted the film script from a series of books by Pamela Lyndon Travers OBE (1899 - 1996), an Australian-born author and the daughter of a bank manager. So there's some degree of autobiography in the make-believe, which makes it all the more touching and charming. Directed in 1964 by Robert Stevenson, the combination of live-action and animation is filled with child-like wonder. The special effects were state-of-the-art at the time. The huge variety of songs, specially-written by brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, are performed by a multitude of characters.
The film Mary Poppins operates on multiple levels. There's the children's story; the father's; the mother's; the domestics... each has their own agenda, hopes, dreams and vision for the future. None of them have a clue what makes the others 'tick'. They all live in a house that's not quite a home. Everything runs smoothly but there's something missing...
Mary Poppins - Nanny Extraordinaire
Mary Poppins in a nutshell: practically perfect in every way.
I never explain anything.
– Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins is a magical nanny who travels by umbrella, tidies up by finger-snapping, teaches parents to appreciate their children, and sings and dances. She owns a bottomless carpet bag, knows words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (and can even pronounce that backwards!), sings catchy songs, charms birds off the trees and has a mischievous gleam in her eye.
Mary Poppins' ability to transform the surroundings to entertain the children takes the audience on an unforgettable roller-coaster ride – into a pavement drawing land where penguins serve tea and the fixed steeds of a fairground carousel escape to win races against thoroughbreds.
Newcomer to films Julie Andrews, as Mary Poppins, could not have been better cast. Her amazing singing voice, acting ability and beautiful features provided an unbeatable and unforgettable combination. Andrews did not accept the role immediately, as she was waiting to hear whether she would be offered the part of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Although she lost out to Audrey Hepburn, in her Golden Globe acceptance speech Andrews thanked the Warner Brothers for turning her down!
Dick van Dyke, as Bert the Cockney singing/dancing chimneysweep, one-man-band and pavement artist, has taken some stick over the years for his terrible English accent, but American actors tend to play Brits with bad Aussie twangs. Van Dyke has an acting style with boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm which endears him to the audience and his many loyal fans. Dick van Dyke also plays the role of the elderly Mr Dawes Sr, heavily made-up, of course.
David Tomlinson, as Mr Banks, plays an emotionally-distant father, obsessed with his job in a bank. He has no time for his children.
Glynis Johns, as Mrs Banks, is a suffragette who is always attending rallies and protests. She's far too busy to spend time with the children or attend to domestic chores.
Karen Dotrice as Jane and Matthew Garber as Michael are the children of the family foisted off on a (rapid) succession of nannies. The nannies don't stick around long as the children are quite brattish, misbehaving most the time in the hopes of getting some attention from their otherwise-distracted parents.
The story opens with yet another nanny heading for the hills. Mr Banks arrives home to discover that the nanny lost the children in the park, but before he can reprimand her he realises that he has just witnessed her departure. After a policeman brings the children home, the maid gives the children a bath and gets them ready for bed. They write out their description of a perfect nanny for an advertisement, and present it to their father. He reads it out loud, then tears it up in disgust, throwing the pieces into the fireplace. He places his own advert for a suitable nanny. In the meantime, the torn-up pieces of the children's wishes float up the chimney as if by magic...
The next day, Mrs Banks is going out to meet Mrs Pankhurst. She asks the cook and the maid if they will mind the children but they both refuse, so they're left alone in the nursery. A line of black-clothed women queue up outside the Banks' front door in response to the advert. Mr Banks asks for them to be admitted for interview one at a time, and the maid goes to do his bidding. In the meantime, a mighty gust of wind has carried off all the applicants, and a beautiful young woman holding an open umbrella floats down from the sky to take their place. The maid admits her and she presents Mr Banks with the patched-up sheet of specifications written by the children, pointing out that she meets all the requirements. The astonished Mr Banks doesn't know quite what's hit him as she accepts the job and heads off for the nursery to introduce herself to Jane and Michael.
The children are delighted, of course, although somewhat perplexed when she begins unpacking items from her carpet bag that couldn't possibly fit, such as a tall lamp stand. Other strange things are her made-to-measure tape measure and a bottle of multi-flavoured medicine, which tastes different (and nice!) for each recipient. Mary shows them how to tidy the nursery by turning the job into a game, and also teaches them how to be kind and responsible, such as by feeding the birds.
Sometimes Bert the chimneysweep tags along on their outings, adding his own pearls of wisdom to the children's education. On one trip out, with both Mary and Bert, they laugh so hard they all end up on the ceiling! Bert even entertains the children without Mary's help. While Bert is cleaning the Banks' chimney, Michael and Jane are accidentally sucked up to the roof, but even this event ends up being delightful. The soot-covered children spend a magical time on the rooftops, watching Bert and other chimneysweeps of London perform an acrobatic dance routine while singing 'Step In Time'.
Most importantly, Mary showers the children with attention, and they blossom under her care. Mary always said that she was only staying until the wind changed. The wind changing is a metaphor, it refers to the Banks family and the parents' attitudes changing. In the time she spent with the family, Mary taught Mr and Mrs Banks how to enjoy their children's company. Then she moved on to her next job, having accomplished her mission of bringing the family together.
Disney has produced many timeless classic films, thanks in no small part to the songs. Mary Poppins has a wonderful range of perfectly-delivered tunes covering a range of emotions.
'Sister Suffragette' by Mrs Banks and the female staff.
'The Life I Lead' by Mr Banks – although a seasoned actor, David Tomlinson had not sung in any previous films. He admitted to being 'quite nervous' about his solo performances.
'The Perfect Nanny' by Jane and Michael.
'A Spoonful Of Sugar' by Mary Poppins – songwriter Robert Sherman came up with the idea for the lyrics of this song after his daughter Laurie had a polio vaccine at school. When he asked her if it hurt, she told him that it didn't because it was put on a sugar cube for her to swallow.
'Pavement Artist' by Bert – Bert's love for Mary Poppins is barely disguised; in fact he worships the ground she floats over, and can recognise her by her shadow.
'Jolly Holiday' by Bert, Mary Poppins and some cartoon characters – the mixture of cartoon and real elements in this sequence created a masterpiece.
'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' by Bert, Mary Poppins and some cartoon characters – among the chorus singers was Richard Sherman.
'Stay Awake' by Mary Poppins – Julie Andrews took over 40 attempts at this song before she decided it was perfect.
'I Love To Laugh' by Bert, Mary Poppins and Bert's Uncle Albert.
'Feed The Birds' by Mary Poppins (Walt Disney's favourite song in this film).
'Fidelity Fiduciary Bank' by Mr Banks, Mr Dawes Sr and customers of the bank – Dick van Dyke nailed his part in this in one take.
'Chim Chim Cher-ee' by Bert – award-winner.
'Step In Time' by Bert and other chimneysweeps – it took a week to film the song & dance routine, then it had to be re-shot because of the first filming's poor quality.
'A Man Has Dreams' by Mr Banks – a recurring theme and slowed-down version of 'The Life I Lead'. Mr Banks has just been sacked after his son Michael caused a bank run.
'Let's Go Fly A Kite' by Mr and Mrs Banks – idea sparked by the Sherman Brothers' father Al's hobby of kite-making.
The 1964 film won five Academy Awards (Oscars): Best Actress in a Leading Role (Julie Andrews); Best Music, Original Song (for 'Chim Chim Cher-ee'); Best Music, Score; Best Effects, Special Visual Effects and Best Film Editing. It won a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Julie Andrews), and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical or Comedy (again, Julie Andrews). The film also won two Grammy awards, for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Show and Best Recording for Children. Over four decades after the original release, the film's 40th Anniversary Edition DVD won a Sierra Award from the Las Vegas Film Critic Society.
So How Did They Follow That?
Julie Andrews followed Mary Poppins by playing Maria von Trapp in the mega-successful The Sound of Music. More recently, she has tried to throw off the butter-wouldn't-melt persona by taking parts which involved semi-nudity, such as in Victor/Victoria. For her successful film and singing career, she has been granted a damehood by Queen Elizabeth II. After a health scare involving her throat, Andrews was unable to sing for a while but she eventually recovered. In 2010 she reprised the voice part of Queen Lillian, mother of Princess Fiona, in the popular ongoing Shrek films.
Dick van Dyke starred in another children's favourite musical, the fabulous Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Still acting although now well into his eighties, he can be found in daytime television programmes usually solving murders.
Before Mary Poppins, English actor David Tomlinson (1917 - 2000) had acted as a glum and gullible chauffeur in a b&w comedy/fantasy film called Miranda, starring his Mary Poppins screen wife Glynis Johns. A decade after Mary Poppins' release, Tomlinson starred in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, another part-live action/part-animation classic Disney film set during WWII. His co-star was Angela Lansbury, who had been considered for the role of Mary Poppins.
Glynis Johns was already a well-established and popular actress when she got the role of Mrs Banks at the age of 42. Her most memorable previous role was that of beautiful mermaid Miranda Trewella, in the film Miranda. Post-Mary Poppins, Johns played the part of Lady Penelope Peasoup in the TV series Batman, and has lent her honeyed voice to characters in Scooby Doo.
Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice again played brother and sister roles in Disney's 1967 film The Gnome-Mobile, which promoted them as 'the Mary Poppins children'. In 2004, both of them were named Disney Legends, although in Garber's case it was posthumous as he had died of pancreatitis in 1977, aged just 21 years. His award was accepted by his brother Fergus.
The amazingly-talented Sherman Brothers have provided Disney fans with a fantastic legacy of catchy, memorable songs which are loved by children and adults alike. Imagine a world without 'Hushabye Mountain' (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), 'The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers' (Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day) and 'I Wanna Be Like You' (The Jungle Book), it doesn't bear thinking about, does it?
On his way to the première of the film, almost within sight of the red carpet, the limousine transporting Dick van Dyke ran out of fuel, so he got out and pushed the car to its destination. Walt Disney himself attended the première, something he hadn't done since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was completed in 1937.