If you’ve been watching and/or reading along with us on this journey so far, you’ve noticed a lot of the titles coming from me are more on the obscure side. That’s because Brooke’s seen mostly everything and I haven’t. Mary Poppins is by far the most popular and most unexpected film on the list so far. So unexpected in fact that it didn’t even occur to me to ask if she’d seen it, and I forged ahead with the much less seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ahead of it. But it was revealed that Brooke had not seen this Disney classic, so in grand tradition we watched. Brooke, start us off with your first thoughts of the film, why I made you see it and why you believe I hold it in such regard!
B: Let me explain something here. I had never seen Mary Poppins for the very same reason I still haven’t seen The Sound of Music. My mom and her mom have a rather grand tradition of loathing Julie Andrews. I don’t know why. But neither of them can stand her, and so I never saw these near universal classics. Perhaps I should have made more effort to correct this oversight, but if I had, Annemarie would have to dig up even more MTV staples for us to watch, so I make no apologies.
I will note that I had actually seen about the first half hour of this movie, and probably more than once. Presumably I saw it at after-school daycare and got picked up at a certain point during the picture. And I also knew a number of the songs from later in the picture. I mean, everyone knows Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The story behind why I know Let’s Go Fly A Kite is much more amusing though. Back in high school, I was in AP English, and we were given the option to make a video that featured one or several of the literary works we read that year in exchange for extra credit. We didn’t need the extra credit, but again, we were nerds. Anywho, my dear friend Nicole, who has guested in this feature before, spearheaded ERL: English Request Live in which we picked songs and made music videos based on moments from several works throughout the year. Let’s Go Fly A Kite was the tune to which we set our music video for The Kiterunner. So yeah, I knew every word of that business.
Still, even with my sort-of abundant knowledge of Mary Poppins, I’m thrilled we watched this movie. As a kid, I didn’t understand so many of the references to the era, like the fact that Mrs. Banks is a suffragette — have to say that was one of my favorite numbers — and I wasn’t yet a fully fledged Anglophile. I have to say that my reaction to Mary Poppins herself is some kind of blend of adoration and bemusement. I love that she declares herself “practically perfect in every way,” and adore that she knows how to manage up, but she is also hilariously image obsessed, and kind of only seems whimsical when her chimney sweep pal is around. But we’ll get there.
Here’s my best guess at why you love Mary Poppins so much. This is some unfiltered, vintage Disney business right here. The songs are quite snappy, there is a twist of absurdity, lots of levity and plenty of quotable bits. I imagine a young Annemarie in deep awe of Mary Poppins and fully on board to attempt jumping into a chalk drawing anytime she saw one. I think that covers the large swaths of your love, but I also bet you’re going to swoop in with an adorable memory of family bonding or some kind of shenanigan that has immortalized this picture even more in your mind. Am I right, or am I right?
AM: As with many Disney movies, I don’t remember the first time I saw Mary Poppins. It is indeed one of my mom’s favorites, and I’m sure we watched it as a family. My most distinct memory of this film comes from 6th grade, when we had to pick a movie musical, watch it as a group and then choreograph and sing to two of the songs in the film. My group settled on this film (I honestly don’t remember who was pushing for it, but I feel like I would have preferred to go the route of The Lion King or Aladdin, both of which had just been released), and the kicker was that for one of the two songs, we had to go a capella. No back-up track to hide lyrical mistakes and have I ever mentioned that 6th graders are simply not the best singers as a rule? I vaguely recall that we did Step in Time as our song with back-up music and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as the one solo. It was painfully awkward, so I’m actually surprised I like this movie at all.
So with all that said, I have fondness for Mary Poppins, but I wasn’t obsessed with the film or the title character. Annemarie back in the day was much more fond of the animated classics with the princesses (Sleeping Beauty) or the animals (Robin Hood). Both of those make my Top 25 list, but dear perfect MP does not. I think it’s a film that I appreciate so much more now, for a lot of the reasons you stated, Brooke. I love the suffragette mom, I love the London setting and I love how Bert brings out the best in Mary. Plus, it’s Disney entertainment at its best. Enough said there.
Most of all, I think I love this film now after having seen Saving Mr. Banks — it was never about the children at all! I know you’ve seen that film, and I think that story so perfectly explains how this film (particularly the wonderful songs) came about. The struggle to get it made in the first place, the arguing over the animated sequences and the fun moments where “medicine goes down” goes up the scale are wonderful anecdotes, but ultimately, you can’t understand why Mr. Banks would need saving in the first place if you’re not a grown-up yourself.
I’ll pause there and ask our usual questions. Brooke, you’ve touched on your thoughts of Mary herself, but what about the film as a whole? Which is your favorite musical number? And be honest, what are your thoughts on Julie Andrews?
B: I quite enjoyed this picture. Being me, I wish it would have been made in an era when there could have been a bit more grit to the thing, but to be honest, it had much more darkness and depth than I anticipated. I think you’re correct, Annemarie, that you have to be an adult to get this movie. I actually felt like there were certain parallels to It’s A Wonderful Life in that sense. The loss of innocence is such a profoundly powerful experience that it makes a rather brilliant storytelling narrative. And now I really want to watch Saving Mr. Banks again, now that I am full of knowledge.
You know I adore Sister Suffragette — I only wish it were longer. But at the risk of being cliche, I also love Chim Chim Cher-ee, Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews are both on the track and it has that wonderful music that somehow feels like London, deep and a bit mournful. It’s really, really quite lovely in that regard. Oh, and that song she sang to get the kids to fall asleep? That nearly worked on me too.
I may be disowned for what I am about to say, but I thought Julie Andrews was fantastic. When we watched Grease 2 and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes we talked a lot about star power, about how Michelle Pfeiffer and Marilyn Monroe just leapt off of the screen. I felt the same magnetic pull with Julie Andrews here. Sure, Dick Van Dyke can dance and ham it up, but Julie was commanding. I’m going to go ahead and call myself a fan. We’ll see if she brings this level of rad to The Sound of Music when the time comes to watch that, but I daresay I kind of get what all of the hype is about.
We won’t see Mary Poppins Returns until CHRISTMAS 2018 — how absurd! — but I can’t help but bring it up now. What do you want to see? What do you expect to see?
AM: Hooray! My mom will be so pleased! Julie is indeed a star, and this was her first major role. You are correct that she has power over not only the children and their parents, but also us as the audience. I think that’s ultimately what makes her self-proclaimed perfection less eye-roll worthy and more justified. For a character like that to work (who’s fully magic, by the way), you have to be drawn to her like the children are.
Kudos on your song choices, I agree they’re all catchy as hell, but there’s actually two bedtime songs, Stay Awake and Feed the Birds. I absolutely adore Feed the Birds for that exact quality of quiet mournfulness you mentioned about London that actually touches the whole film. You’re right in that this film isn’t just about saving Mr. Banks, it’s about the children growing up. You know that right around the corner for them is a whole new world of adulting to look forward to.
I want to spend a moment on the songs themselves, because they completely make the film what it is. We’ve talked a bit about the fictional Saving Mr. Banks so I know you’re also aware of the prolific Sherman brothers, who wrote the music and lyrics for Mary Poppins as well as other ’60s era Disney classics The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Aristocats, the theme song for “It’s a Small World” and you might have guessed, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That and Dick Van Dyke is why that film feels so much like this film (with way more psychedelics). There’s an amazing documentary, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, that chronicles the duo’s rise in the Disney company, how Disney himself relied on the brothers to help craft the emotional acs of the movies and how their tight relationship unraveled over the years. They are the emotional center of this film as much as (if not more so than) author P.L. Travers, Julie Andrews and Walt Disney.
This film is largely a series of adventure vignettes, so tell me, Brooke, which adventure is your favorite? Mine has to be the lead-up to Step In Time when the children, Mary and Bert climb the smoke stairs to the tip-top of London and get the most marvelous sunset show over the city. It’s lovely and melancholy (there’s that word again) and I could just sit and watch that moment on a loop. And then of course you get the rollicking and super dangerous chimney sweep dance number to completely change the mood.
I’m really excited to see where the story goes in the sequel (it’s not a remake) of Mary Poppins. Travers wrote many stories as her magical nanny dropped in on the Banks children from time to time, always bringing adventure and fun. Plus, we do love us some Emily Blunt. She’s about as perfect a Mary as I can imagine if Julie herself can’t play her again.
Brooke, what are your thoughts now that you’ve listened to two Sherman brothers’ films and watched Dick Van Dyke at his peak form in two films? Do you get why I would have started with Mary Poppins instead of Chitty if I had only known you hadn’t seen it?
B: Super fast note on Mary Poppins Returns/question on the powers of Mary herself — we do know that Mary will be dropping back in on the grown Banks children in the sequel, but presumably she herself hasn’t really aged. Is that part of her magic? What’s the extent of her powers? Is she a full-on sorceress, or is she more like Tinkerbell? Clarification. I need it.
I think I enjoyed the foray into the chalk art culminating in the horse race the most. It was exceptional to watch Mary nit pick at everyone else not to go too fast, only to swoop in and win the race herself. Although, I was quite disappointed we didn’t actually get to see the penguins serve tea. Dick Van Dyke’s uncanny approximation of penguin dancing was some compensation, however. That said, I was most fascinated by the outing that involved visiting the uncle who was addicted to laughing. Had I seen that moment as a kid, I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought twice, but seeing it at the ripe old age of 28, I couldn’t help but wonder if the laughter was a stand-in for another kind of addiction — the drink perhaps? Based on how Bert joins right on in getting goofy, this sort of fuels my theory that our beloved chimney sweep is prone to benders, something I think that contributes to him not being an actual real romantic relationship with Mary.
The Sherman Brothers were clearly unreasonably talented. I mean, they might be more Disney than Disney in terms of things that I hear and think, “Oh, that’s Disney.” It’s particularly interesting knowing what a creative force they were in terms of Disney’s own struggles in that department. The studio was in very dire straights before the war, and then made all kinds of propaganda films during the war, but I don’t know that I can immediately think of anything from the ’50s, or perhaps more aptly, the post-war, pre-Sherman era. That speaks volumes about what two people not named Disney did to shape the House of Mouse as we know it.
Based on the very Sherman-sounding songs in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I made the same error you did in assuming that it was Disney. Now we know that it’s not a Disney picture, and that certainly makes much more sense in terms of the psychedelic nature of that story. But, having seen both pictures now, I definitely understand why you would have preferred I see them in the opposite order. Caractacus Potts is a fascinating character, but seeing Dick Van Dyke in that extremely expressive and quirky role makes Bert seem an almost effortless turn for him — even if there is a lot more singing and dancing. Still, of the two, I must give preference to Mary Poppins. The story is creative, but it found stakes without having to resort to a false narrative and nightmarish child-catcher. I rather think the squeaky clean Disney standards forced the brothers Sherman to be more innovative in their attempts to weave more adult themes into children’s pictures. Indeed, Ian Fleming’s almost Bond-esque naming of a woman with an adjective about flavor made Truly a much less dynamic character than Mary.
Here’s a question I should know the answer to, but I don’t. What is Dick Van Dyke known for other than these two movies and his TV show? I’m now realizing I referred to him in the past tense, but I actually think he’s still alive? Help me, I’m poor in Dick Van Dyke knowledge. And we already know I am very poor in Julie Andrews knowledge, other than The Princess Diaries, and I think a Hitchcock movie? (That I think I own and have watched …) Is there even more than I realize that I’m missing here? It seems like we covered it, but I don’t know anything anymore!
AM: You are absolutely correct that the Sherman brothers distinctly shaped the Disney company. You’re right that the company struggled post-war, but the big thing that you’re forgetting that happened in the 1950s was the opening of Disneyland in 1955. Also, Cinderella, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty also came out in that decade, and they’re largely considered amongst the classics of animated film. But the Sherman brothers, as well as the advent of television, had a clear mark in the 1960s, not unlike the Nine Old Men did in the 1930s. For all of Walt’s faults (and there are some doozies) he knew talent and he allowed (for the most part) that talent to make the company stronger through creativity.
I do agree that the laughing on the ceiling is probably meant to be a metaphor for addiction, but I don’t know if Bert really suffers from it. The relationship between Bert and Mary is left up to the audience’s interpretation. Clearly, they have a history, and I always read the banter as old friends from way back who play off of each others’ strengths to accomplish whatever goal Mary’s aiming for. You’re correct that she’s an ageless being, but I don’t think she’s a fairy. Here’s a theory. Maybe she’s a figment of the Banks’ family’s imagination, and Bert is a mortal being who can communicate and connect with her. He grounds the magic in reality so that the children can enjoy the fantasy. Was that an answer? I’m sure some on the internets at large have come up with a better answer, but I like that angle.
Dick Van Dyke is best known for Mary Poppins as well as his eponymous 1960s TV show and yes, he’s still alive! Google tells me he also had a “new” Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1970s as well as a long run on Diagnosis Murder. I’ve only ever known him for Poppins and Chitty, but clearly he was an Alan Alda-type actor who did movies and TV for several decades. Julie Andrews is actually British (unlike Dick) and was a child star on the West End before making her film debut, and she was indeed in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. She’s also a children’s book author, voice talent in the Shrek films (among others) and you’re correct, the elegant queen mother in The Princess Diaries series. So all of that research is to say that it’s likely that you and I still know both of these talented actors from their 1960s work, but they’re still at it as of this writing.
Speaking of the laughing vignette, I want to pivot to the special effects. I can’t say with any certainty that Mary Poppins was ahead of its time, but I feel like that’s true so I’ll say it without true evidence. We watched the HD version of the film, which was probably not the smartest as you can start to see the seams, but the effects still hold up rather well. The flying, the toys flying around under their own power, the magic carpet bag and the use of matte paintings all creates a specific world that you want to spend time in. What are your thoughts on the effects? Do they hold up? Any favorite trick up the sleeves of the filmmakers? Also, I want to point out that had you not seen Mary Poppins when you did, you would not have known the answer to a recent Geeks Who Drink trivia question in a category that gave us the year of the film and the last words of a character:
1964: “A wooden leg named Smith… A wooden leg named Smith.”‘
Which also brings us to the bank, Mr. Banks’ employers and the trick of Dick Van Dyke also playing the ancient bank patriarch. What are your thoughts on that whole scenario?
B: For me, the special effects in this movie hold up quite well. Why? Because they are practical. This is why the tornado in The Wizard of Oz still looks like tornado (it’s actually some clever trickery with women’s hosiery) and why when Mary pulls the hatrack out of her bag, it actually looks like that thing is coming out of thin air. I’m a big advocate for keeping it practical whenever possible, sure, you can spiff it up with CGI, but practical really feels like magic. And while we’re on the topic, Mary’s carpetbag was my favorite bit of trickery. I’ve been thinking about it for days and I’m still not positive how they pulled that one off.
I am very glad you showed me this movie just days before that question came up, now we just need to brush up on our Edith Wharton to be ready to dominate even more next time we play.
Getting back to the movie, I think the bank is the perfect locale for Mr. Banks’ place of employment. In a movie about the loss of innocence and the quiet desperation of adults, the bank is the perfect atmosphere, as money is what fuels the need for most adulting. That said, the bank also afforded one of the most non-sensical elements in the movie. I really don’t understand why everyone who works there other than Banks was cool with just hanging out around a big table until it came time to summon Banks, lecture him and fire him at exactly 9:00 p.m. In a movie that sells a lot of nonsensical adventures and words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as perfectly reasonable things to be happening, this stands out as something that just doesn’t make sense, except as a means of adding some kind of dramatic tension. I think it was a misstep, one of the few in this picture. I’m also quite unsure why it was necessary for Dick to be the old man, but I’m not mad about it. It was rather fun to see him wax quite zany as he stepped into the part, even if there was no evident reason for the choice.
Now, getting back to your theory of Mary as a figment, I quite enjoy the idea, but, as it would require a group hallucination, I don’t think it’s quite the answer. So, what about this: Mary is a magical figure, rather like Glinda the Good. And Bert is like Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this supposition, he doesn’t have any special powers of his own, but as an arbiter of mischief and whimsy, he magnifies the fun that Mary brings to the table. You dig?
I’ve made the executive decision that someone, somewhere should definitely fund us to do a lot more unfounded theorization about things we love, because we’re quite exceptional at this game.
Now that you’ve given me an abridged history of Disney, Julie, Dick and the Sherman brothers, I think I have finally run out of questions for you. Well, save for one. I did consider asking our most beloved ‘which dress is your favorite’ but Mary Poppins keeps her wardrobe quite similar, so instead, I’m going to ask instead what your favorite Mary Poppins expression is. For the record, I adore “I never explain anything.”
AM: I do like the idea of Mary as a magical figure in her own right, and I definitely agree that Bert’s presence enables her to “come to life,” so I believe we’re both surrounding a good idea and since we’re not actual magic ourselves, that’s probably as far as we’ll be able to get. Puck is one of my favorite literary characters, so I’m always fine with him being part of the fun.
Aside from her super-whimsical invention of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (which really does act as a filler for anything you need to say!), I’m especially fond of “Close your mouth, please, Michael. We are not a codfish.” Mary is indeed quite rosy cheeked and never cross, but she does not mess around. One probably does need to be firm, fair and always chipper to keep a stiff upper lip in a proper English household, after all!
Stay tuned, because next time Annemarie will watch Brooke’s favorite movie — an underseen David Fincher masterwork that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.