Revisiting Mary Poppins – A Rediscovery

21 Mar

Mary Poppins1964 – Directed by Robert Stevenson – Produced by Walt Disney – Written by Bill Walsh and Don DeGradi – Based on Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers – Starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke,  David Tomlinson, Glynis Johnson, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber

I recently watched Mary Poppins for the first time in many, many years. In fact, it was so many years that I had forgotten significant chunks of the plot. I had certainly forgotten how many songs were in it, and how much dancing. And I definitely had forgotten how delightful it was…if I ever properly realized it. Oddly enough, I think I enjoyed it more as an adult than I ever did as a child. Sometimes, I think children’s movies and books are wasted on the young.

When we finished watching my sister turned to me and said with some awe:

I love their expressions here

I love their expressions here

“That was really, really good.”

And I felt the same way.

I had been thinking about Mary Poppins because I had been reading about Saving Mr. Banks, which I haven’t seen yet, but want to. I was also in something of a Julie Andrews phase (Sound of Music, My Fair Lady Cast Recordings), so we put it on.

And were enchanted like a couple of children. My sister was reduced to a puddle of giggles during the entire “Step In Time” sequence. She said she had never realized just how whimsical it was; all these grown men quite joyously flapping like birds just because they can.

And is there anything better than Julie Andrews’ prim walk and demeanor as she does the most extraordinary things? And you’ve got to love anyone who wears pink shoes with a red dress, with soot on her face, marshaling her charges like a general, quite calmly explaining to their father that she never explains anything.

Notoriously, Jack Warner passed over Julie Andrews when he produced the film version of My Fair Lady. She was still relatively unknown outside the theater, despite the euphoric reviews of both the musical and her performance as Eliza Doolittle. So Audrey Hepburn was cast instead. However, our loss was also our gain. I guess we never could have had it both ways, since Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were filmed at the same time.

Walt Disney was considering many different actresses (like Angela Lansbury) for the role of Mary Poppins, but when he and others saw Julie Andrews’ performance during The Ed Sullivan Show from the musical “Camelot,” they knew she was the one they wanted (see here for performance with Richard Burton of “What Do The Simple Folk Do”).

The book’s author, P.L. Travers, was less enthusiastic and told Julie Andrews that she was too pretty to play the part, but that she had the nose for it.

Dick Van Dyke is likewise utterly winning as Bert – who was created as a composite of many characters that appear in the book. He said in an interview that he was once listed in a British paper as having one of the worst accents ever, but his unique blend, of whatever it was, has its own charm and fits naturally in a film that is partially impressionistic, anyway.

Dick Van Dyke had never danced before making Mary Poppins, which I had not known. Apparently he did mime in his early career, so that may account for his good body control. The one things that usually tips me off if someone has danced before is how in control their movements look while dancing.

One thing that cracks me up about Mary Poppins is that she’s a bit of an egoist (though not as strongly as in the books). She primps, keeps a rather large mirror in her room, and declares herself to be “practically perfect in every way.” Also, if you think about it, the chalk/cartoon world they go to is all her doing, so when the penguins declare she’s their favorite person, all the farm animals sing about how much they love her and the jockeys let her win the horse race, it could be seen as an ego trip for her…all harmless, of course.

mary-poppins-w1280[1]Another interesting bit I heard in the documentary that was on the Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition, was that for the robin that sings with Mary Poppins during “A Spoonful of Sugar,” they hired a professional whistler (I didn’t know those existed), but Walt Disney thought he had no personality so Julie Andrews did it herself.

There is something slightly unreal, magical, impressionistic, about the film. The backgrounds are painted mattes, which contribute to that feel. The music, especially songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Feed the Birds” also contribute – suggesting a world beyond what we see. Mary Poppins admonishes Michael: “Never judge a book by it’s cover. I’m sure I never do.” And Bert sings:

Up where the smoke is all billowed and curled

“Tween pavement and stars, is a chimney sweep worldmary_poppins_chimney_sweeps[1]

When there’s hardly no day nor hardly no night

There’s things half in shadow and halfway in light.”

But in a poignant way, Mary Poppins kind of takes the magic world away with her. The children will never again jump into chalk pavement pictures or laugh on the ceiling. It makes me think of Peter Pan a little bit. There is a magic beyond, but we don’t live with it. It was just a moment when somebody lifted the curtain for us to see.

Mary Poppins won 5 Oscars: Best Leading Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), and Best Music: Original Score (Richard and Robert Sherman). Julie Andrews was the “sentimental favorite” to win, partially because of being overlooked for My Fair Lady. During her acceptance speech, Julie Andrews was able to thank Jack Warner for making it all possible (see here).



Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Movies


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6 responses to “Revisiting Mary Poppins – A Rediscovery

  1. Allison

    March 23, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Oh I totally agree. 😀

    I have the advantage of always having had young children I had to entertain. So I’ve seen this movie a few times as as adult.

    What struck me most recently is the complicated relationship between Bert and Mary Poppins. The entire chalk saga he takes them on seems to be a desperate love-letter to Mary. It’s a menagerie of colorful singing animals, all singing about how wonderful Mary is! And the way she seems to brush him off, but you can’t really tell, because, she is, after all, Mary Poppins. Theirs is a complicated relationship that I didn’t catch the first few – of how many I have no idea – viewings.

    And of course there’s the hilarious stuff about the old-timey women’s lib mom, actually, I can’t think of a character that isn’t hilarious in some way.

    To be totally honest tho the movie terrified me as a child. Haha.


    • christinawehner

      April 8, 2014 at 12:02 pm

      Hi Allison,

      I’m a little late with this reply, but I was just thinking about how interesting it was you should mention the relationship between Mary Poppins and Bert. I was reading about how the author of the book, P.L. Travers, was concerned that they would try to make a romance between Bert and Mary Poppins and made a point that there was to be no romance. Perhaps the screen writers and composers tried to find a way around it with the song “Jolly Holiday.”

      I also read that the part was initially offered to Cary Grant, who turned it down. It’s hard for me to imagine him in the role, though, without there being even more overt shades of romance, because he always seems to be so inherently romantic in his movies, just by being himself. I can’t imagine him doing much dancing, though. 🙂

      It is kind of a scary movie for children, isn’t it. I always found, when I was a child, the moment when the children run away from the bank and then run into the barking dog and the old lady and finally into Bert, somewhat frightening. I never thought about it before you mentioned it, but for a children’s movie, it does take place in the dark a lot, except in the chalk picture; even the bird lady seemed a little scary to me, sitting atmospherically in front of a large cathedral, in the foggy gray of London. 🙂


  2. Richard Swymeler

    April 10, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Hi Christina, I have such fond memories of this movie as a child. Mom took my sister and I to see the show at the Fox Theatre in downtown San Diego the first week it was released. I was just 9 years old. I think the prevalent theme I took away from the movie was how Mr. Banks, so engulfed in his work, realized the magnitude of Family first over a career; secondly was not being able to sleep that night so I could repeat the word ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ at school the next day.

    The characters of Mary Poppins and Bert had a significant impact on Mr. Banks in such a upbeat way. I’m not sure that at the age of 9 I fully realized that issue. However as I’ve watched the movie over the years – I glean something new each time. (Whenever I iron for Penny, I find that it is the perfect movie to have on whilst doing this task- makes the job cheerful and happy.)

    My favourite song was “FEED THE BIRDS” as it’s a testament of giving to others before doing things for yourself. When Penny and I went to London, I sat on the steps of St-Pauls and hummed the melody.

    Thank you for your Blog – it is very thought provoking and I’m going to share it with others, if I may.


    • christinawehner

      April 10, 2014 at 10:26 pm

      That’s really lovely how you remember the first time you saw it and how it’s been a part of your life ever since. Nana has always told me about going to the Fox Theatre and how impressive it was – with the balcony, stage, and even draperies – compared to the smaller box-like cinemas I’ve been to. I’ve always wished I could have seen some of these movies I love on the big screen.

      I always liked the music, but I’ve really fallen in love with it after watching it again. I’ve been listening to it a lot since I re-watched it…my chore when I listen to it is usually washing dishes. 🙂 That’s true how they make an impact on Mr. Banks in an upbeat way. I like how Bert sings a reprise of “Spoonful of Sugar” to Mr. Banks, who was singing about losing his job. Bert doesn’t condemn Mr. Banks; he just cheerfully and thoughtfully sings his song, which gets Mr. Banks thinking.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and memories; it deepens my appreciation of it hearing yours.



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